On a cool evening a few months ago, I sat with friends on the patio at Nel Centro. Three fire pits allowed heat to drift across our table. The flames, reflected in window after window of the hotel, were sometimes three layers deep. Sheltered from the transit mall, it was a little oasis. Vines climbed nearby walls, the background music was perfect, and the chairs were comfortable. The modern lines of the Hotel Moderna carried over wonderfully, but the space was still warm and inviting. It’s a great place to spend time, possibly the nicest courtyard of any Portland restaurant.
The interior is in such contrast to the patio, it feels like they were put together by two different designers. It transports you to exactly where you are – a hotel restaurant. It’s corporate in feel, with, as another reviewer said, “no soul”. Light comes from a plethora of variously shaped and colored blown glass lamps hanging about the room, in contrast to the rest of the primarily brown decor. Brown colors are everywhere, booths, carpet, chairs, ceiling, pillars and even some of the art elements. They are nice shades of brown, but, for me, in contrast with other parts of the space, it just doesn’t work. Modern lighting notwithstanding, the overall effect is a far cry from the sleek look of the attached Hotel.
The kitchen is open; a huge rotisserie entices with burnished golden chicken, and the requisite wood oven sits in the corner. A comfortable, spacious bar takes up a third of the space.
Service is mixed, ranging from just fine, prompt and personable, to one weekend night, when, though there weren’t many people in the restaurant, it seemed like they were understaffed. As we were taken to the patio, I couldn’t help but notice that many used dishes were sitting on empty tables. This was an omen, as plates remained on our table long after we finished, pacing between courses was way too long, and the waiter didn’t come around as often as he should have.
Twelve house cocktails are available. I’ve had a few that I liked; the Nel Centro old fashioned Maker’s and Mandarin was interesting and balanced, as was a Lillet Midi – Lillet Blanc, Aperol, tangerine & bitters. Others are too sweet for me, or in the case of a mint julep, downright awful, arriving in a warm tumbler glass. Overall though, they will appeal to a younger crowd, as they tend to have a strong kick, which is masked by other ingredients. Four draft beers are available, from an Anderson Valley Summer Solstice to Double Mountain IRA. Five more choices are offered by the bottle. A slightly smaller choice of food from the restaurant is available in the bar.
Good bread and olive oil are served after you order, the oil is better than usual for this type of freebie. Although the salt cod fritters were large and had a great texture, they were way too fishy and had an off-putting taste. An accompanying red pepper rouille was interesting, but overall, I didn’t care for the dish.
Salads are quite large – easily big enough for two. I loved the zucchini salad, with wonderful thin slices of raw zucchini that were almost translucent, pecorino Romano cheese, a hint of fresh mint and a scattering of almonds to add crunch. Combined with a perfect dressing, the overall ingredients added up to a wonderful salad. Another interesting option, a mélange of lovely, sweet red and yellow beets with green beans, and a piquant dressing of goat cheese and sunflower seeds, was also successful. The beans provided a nice texture; the goat cheese and beets were great counterparts. All the flavors came together perfectly.
Mesclun salad with croutons and herbs was exactly as billed. The greens were fresh, it was properly dressed. Large, maybe two-inch, croutons added a decorative touch, but unfortunately, they were spongy and didn’t have much flavor. Another classic salad, the butter lettuce with sunflower seeds and French blue cheese was also what you might expect. Well made with good ingredients, but just a normal salad – not that there is anything wrong with that.
In my experience, the mains have all had some sort of issue. Take the grilled wild salmon with French lentils and Pommery (champagne) mustard sauce. The salmon was plump and irresistible, everything was direct and unfussy, but the lentils were over-salted to the point where they burned our mouths. This ruined the dish, and I don’t know how it left the kitchen like that. On another evening, I had the same experience with the beef daube, which is a braise of red wine, olives, and nice little cigars of fried panisse (chickpeas). The sauce was dark, nice and thick, and loaded with flavor, the meat fork-tender. The portion was large, and the dish could have been a really nice, comfort food, but again, it tasted like a box of salt had fallen into it. It also had a greasy mouthfeel that wasn’t enjoyable. No one at the table could eat it, and we will normally eat anything.
Provenςal roasted pork with tomato gratin and mostarda di frutta was interesting. Mostarda is an Italian condiment made with candied fruit and a mustard sauce. The combination of the sweet fruit and the subtle mustard worked well with the excellent, juicy pork. However, I didn’t like the tomato gratin on the side. It consisted of flavorful bright red tomatoes, breaded and fried. They didn’t go with anything else on the plate. Still, it was a good dish, minus the tomatoes.
In general, Nel Centro does a good job of rotisserie food. The chicken was excellent. Moist, crisp skin, properly seasoned, with a hint of thyme. An accompanying Panzanella salad was not as successful. As in the aforementioned salad, the bread cubes were huge. They seemed brushed with oil, then baked, so they were hard, then put into the salad, i.e., they were croutons. The problem is the bread didn’t absorb any of the other flavors, so the vinaigrette taste was missing. Normally, with Panzanella, the bread is moistened and then wrung out. As it expands, it absorbs the flavors of the rest of the salad. However, the quality of the chicken made up for the weakness of the salad.
Desserts are as good as pastry chef Lee Posey’s well-deserved reputation. The changing menu of gratins burst with flavor, and for those into chocolate, the satisfying Scharffen Berger soufflé is one of the best examples of the dish I’ve seen. The same could be said about the lavender-scented crème brulee which comes with pistachio macaroons which pay a perfect complement to the lavender.
It’s difficult to know what to say about this restaurant. I loved the patio, and as I sat there for the first time waiting for my food, we were so comfortable, I really hoped for a great dining experience. If you pick carefully and the chef is watching the salt, you can have a good meal, but it is just as easy to have one that is unremarkable. The patio is so nice I will still go back, but if this restaurant wants to be taken more seriously than average hotel food, the chef and staff are going to have to step up their game. For the money you are likely to spend for a full meal here, there are better places in town.
You can read an interview with owner Dave Machado here.
- Service: C
- Atmosphere: patio A, interior C
- Food: C
- Phone: 503-484-1099
- Address: 1408 SW Sixth Ave, Portland, OR
- Website: NelCentro.com
Dude, I hope you mean that you had a mesclun salad, not a mescaline salad ;) I haven’t been to Nel Centro yet, but have heard similar reports…patio rocks, food and service just OK or inconsistent.
Food Dude says
Oops! I even read it correctly off the menu. My bad
Haven’t been and I’ve been curious about Nel Centro, but other than a having drinks on the patio, I’m not too enticed. Why is it that a hotel resto has to feel that way? At least here in Portland?
But then again FD, a “mescaline” salad?? Isn’t that illegal? Mesclun, maybe….but after what you said about the patio vibe and the flames in the windows, maybe mescaline would be more appropriate!
Thanks as always for telling it straight!
Was there last week. Very good meal; I had the Beef Daube with none of the over-salting issue that you encountered, and my wife’s Herb Gnocchi with Wild Boar Ragu was just outstanding. Winter Squash, Radicchio, Chanterelles & Goat Cheese salad was also quite nice.
Service however was definitely on the poor side – almost exactly as you describe on that “one weekend night”. It took well over ten minutes for our sever to get to our table, and the pacing between courses was also oddly long, given that the kitchen just could not have been that busy.
Food Dude says
It may be that they are just inconsistent, but on a weekend night, you’d think they would have their game on in both food and service.
I also had the beef daube there — no salt issue for me. It was great. A little expensive, but overall a great meal.
tony reser (gourmand) says
Couldn’t agree more about the oversalting. As to the decor, it reminds me of the original Denny’s of the early 1970’s. Overall it is a disapponting effort from David Machado.
more like howard johnson
I’ve been several times and never had any trouble. The food is wonderful and I’ve even brought clients in for a wonderful meal. As for the deserts I actually disagree. Not one desert I’ve had has been outstanding or even really that great. When you say “Scharffen Berger soufflé is one of the best examples of the dish I’ve seen”, I’m guessing you haven’t left Portland? I will agree with you that service could be better from the waitstaff. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes not. But the food has always been fantastic each time I’ve gone.
I think I said “wonderful” too many times. Maybe going overboard. ;) but all in all everything was good. :)
I’ve eaten at Nel Centro a couple of times and haven’t had any of the problems you described. But I know what you mean about service being fine sometimes and bad others, or food being great one time and over-salted the next — because I’ve experienced those very problems one time or another at virtually every restaurant I like in Portland. It’s been discussed here many times in the past, but inconsistency seems to be THE problem at restaurants in this town.
Ditto on the oversalting. I’ve been to Nel Centro twice and both meals were very disappointing, primarily because they tasted only of salt. They were almost inedible. I do love the patio in the summer. A place to just go for drinks and enjoy the patio.
I have had two lunch experiences there and both were just OK. The first was with a large group. We sat inside and got good service and mediocre food. The dish I ordered (one of the pizzas) had almost no topping, no garnish and was barely enough food even for a lunch portion. The second time was with one other person. We sat on the patio and had terrible service — we had to ask the waiter to bring us more iced tea and remind her that she had not taken our lunch order — and the food was marginal. My salad had wilted, brown greens mixed in with the fresher ones, and was overdressed. I want to like this place, but so far I can’t.
Ouch! That’s unfortunate. I have had much better experiences than yours.
from the Vindalho newsletter posted here on the website:
That familiar looking guy you might have seen on weekend nights? It’s true, after six months of nurturing his new downtown venture, Nel Centro, Chef Machado is back directing the kitchen on Friday and Saturday nights. Don’t be shy, say hello!
As can happen when the owner or executive chef is away, perhaps with Machado gone from the kitchen the staff is missing their marks. This happened at Lauro when he was gone for an extended period opening Vindalho. Once he returned the food went back to being consistent. I’d be curious to know when the posters above last ate at Nel Centro.
This is still no excuse, however, for poor service and mediocre food; one shouldn’t have to call ahead to see who’s on staff that night.
That’s really interesting. We haven’t been back in a while for no particular reason, but the 3 times we have gone in the past felt a whole lot different from the Dude’s visits. The food was very good and not at all overly seasoned. We also had a better experience with the service, not stellar, but no issues at all. However, we did hear from close friends who recently went there and nearly missed a theater start time because they had very slow service. That, in spite of having informed their server at the start that they were tight for time. There were very few people in the restaurant at the time, so this was not the issue.
I do hope things get back on track. We really enjoyed Nel Centro and liked the concept. I also have a lot of respect for what Chef Machado has done with his other restaurants — Vindahlo also remains one of our favorites.
Food Dude says
I went three times in the last month. My first visit was the best.
Pearl Distict says
Good review. I work very close by. I like the space, but agree with Food Dude that it’s just not as atmospheric as the rest of the hotel and the courtyard.
I had the chicken sandwich twice and was surpised that I had to spit out hard pieces of gristle both times. It surprised me that could happen at a place that nice. I agree with the Dude here, and also agree with the Oregonian review. Many of the dishes are fine, but “fine” is no longer good enough in Portland. The cooking lacks perspective, nuance, and soul. I really want to love it. I think everyone wants to love it the way Portlanders have embraced Vindalho and Lauro as staples. I just don’t love it, and I’ve talked with no one who raves about it.
Oh, and the service is lackluster. We once waited 20 minutes for our server to come by and drop our check at lunch time.
My husband Ed and I went there at least 1/2 a dozen times now. We never had dessert, and had many meals and drinks there, and they were all dinner time. The food was good, but not outstanding. Our favorite dish was the lamb burger, which is only available at the Bar menu. The cocktail range from okay to excellent, depends on your bartender. Service can be spotty at times – ranging from no bread/long wait for service, to bread and water comes right away, order taken within 5 mins., drinks delievered within another 5 mins.. Again, it depends on who is your bartender or your server. So far, Adasol(please don’t kill me if I misspell your name) is the best bartender/server ever, and I think she is in the picture of this article. The patio is awesome, especially on a cold fall night. Ed and I will go back.
Dave J. says
The weird thing about this for me is that nearly all of the comments so far agree with FD that the service is either bad or wildly inconsistent. I think Machado is pretty on top of things, and so I’m baffled that this would happen under his watch. What’s the deal–don’t these restauranteurs have friends visit the restaurant and give them honest feedback about their experience? Bad service can be one of those things that really keeps people from becoming repeat customers, so you’d think the owner would want to know about (and then fix) such a problem.
Been to NC more than five times mainly because of the outdoor fireplaces and garden. As far as food quality and service (or lack thereof), expect a McMenamins experience paying three to four times more! I totally agree with Food Dude’s and Oregonian’s reviews! With Machado winning the Restaurateur award, he should be ashamed of Nel Centro!
“What’s the deal–don’t these restauranteurs have friends visit the restaurant and give them honest feedback about their experience?”
A friend of an owner is likely to be known as such and thus be unlikely to have an objective experience to base constructive criticism on.
Good Food For Me says
It seems to me that the person at the pass is not tasting the food – service that is another story, but anyone should be able to tell if it is oversalted. That should be easy to fix – service on the other hand?? That has to come from the floor manager. There are a lot of restaurants in this town with poor or lacking service – that would be a great rating to do a piece on. Service only…..
Thank you “good food for me” for bringing up the idea to Food Dude about a piece on “SERVICE ONLY” in Portland! That would be a “trip!” While there are amazing restaurants (in terms of FOOD) in this great town of ours (as acknowledged by NYT’s great source of orgasm? – really?), let’s get off our high horse Portland foodies and really discuss what “service” or “hospitality” means in this town! Have you all been out of town lately and noticed that people in the food/hospitality industry SMILE, are more competent and knowledgeable about their product, not to mention set themselves aside in the name of – listen up – “customer service?!?”
No, haven’t noticed that at all. What you claim is a gross generalization, suggesting that you have to go out of town to get good service. That’s bunk IMHO. Service certainly varies restaurant to restaurant and I’ve had comparable experiences to some of my best meals elsewhere, here in Portland. In fairness, a recent incredible meal at a Michelin 3-star restaurant in NYC (Daniel) was in a class by itself in all ways, but I’m not sure if that’s a legitimate comparison. For other outstanding places I’ve been to (most recently in NYC and Washington DC), I’ve had as good or better service at many restaurants in Portland — and plenty of smiles here as well.
Sounds to me like you’re either not going to the right places or are holding Portland restaurants to a different standard.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
I prefer to call my service experiences in Portland “strong patterns” rather than “gross generalizations.” While I have experienced some stellar service in Portland, and service has been getting better over the years, it is my experience that service quality has not kept pace with the increase in dining options, the increase in the number of restaurants, and the increase in quality of food and restaurant design. I base this on my experience dining in other cities and working in restaurants, as well as dining out frequently and often in Portland as a food professional.
Sadly, service and front of the house in Portland often seems to be thought of by restaurant owners, especially chef owned restaurants, as more of a secondary equation and they hire, train and manage, and often pay accordingly. This, coupled with a pool of servers and restaurant managers who are not “career professionals” but rather artists/musicians/grad school students/friends of the owner/underemployed creative class workers, etc who wait to pay their rent then move in and out of serving over the years has created a restaurant culture in Portland that is not what I would consider to be very consistent overall, even in what are considered top-notch establishments.
Consider other cities – New Orleans for example – where the service profession is taken very seriously with professional groups, certifications and the like. Servers stay at places for years, and make enough to buy houses, support families, get health benefits, and are honored by the overall culture for what they do. We just rarely see that sort of thing here.
I do think professional service is getting better in Portland. However, based on recent experiences in some top-notch places I’d say Portland still has a very long way to go.
The biggest gaffs I see in Portland are
A) Lack of training provided by the restaurant and lack of servers’ knowledge about food, wine and that particular restaurant’s cuisine. This is especially glaring in restaurants focusing on specific ethnic or regional cuisines. I have had more ill-informed and incorrect information thrown at me about pronunciations, ingredients and techniques.
B) Lack of overall training and enforcement to staff on what is and is not acceptable service, especially around issues of being a proactive server (such as offering a beverage list or stating the wines BEFORE asking someone if they would like something to drink). Sometimes this means FOH house management and/or owners must change their own bad habits. For example, there is a certain well regarded artisan cafe in town where one of the owners sure loves to loudly chew his gum constantly – while making drinks in plain sight of customers, while serving customers, while taking orders, etc. That’s not something I find acceptable as a customer and certainly would not allow it in any staff I supervise. Or if a manager is sitting around paying more attention to texting on her Iphone while tables are ignored, how do we expect staff to do any better?
C) Lack of overall respect in Portland for service as an honorable profession. Portland, as a culture, above any other city I’ve experienced in the U.S. seems to have issues with understanding how to gracefully deal with service expectations and roles of server/who is being served. Perhaps it is our “People’s Republic of Portland” egalitarianism vibe here or something, but there seems to be a very real tension and awkwardness on how one is supposed to act and what is expected of each party’s role in dining. This often leads to weird encounters that are not necessarily, rude but are awkward. This can also lead to misunderstandings. Someone very wise once told me that good manners are making sure everyone knows what to expect and are made to feel comfortable. We are at a strange juncture in our society as a whole and especially in a young culture and rapidly evolving city like Portland where all bets are off with known cultural norms, manners and especially in situations like dining out. This is sometimes a good thing, but can also be uncomfortable and unexpected. Think of the, “Hi, I’m Ted and I’ll be your server” craze. Too Familiar! No, just friendly! Confusing!
Still, I generally experience good service wherever I go. I’ve just noticed that in Portland there is a very lackadaisical standard to service overall. I hope this changes and can catch up with the quality of food here…
(sorry for the long comment, I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately because I’ve just recently experienced a rash of very mediocre service in town.)
I agree with these sentiments. I have many friends who have life-long careers in the restaurant industry, but they generally cannot afford to buy their own houses or raise kids on what they make. Even with our state’s high minimum wage it’s hard to make enough money waiting tables to support oneself well. There are many reasons for this, but mostly not being scheduled for enough hours and not making enough in tips. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing at this point, but Portlanders in general (in general, people!) do not tip that well. That, combined with generally affordable restaurants (which is a good thing for diners), and the egalitarian splitting of tips equally with the kitchen in many restaurants means that waiters aren’t making enough in tips to support that as a permanent profession.
Would people tip more for better service? Sometimes, in some restaurants. Overall, though, I think that people tip what they’re going to tip no matter what service they receive. I know that I am generally a 20%+ tipper and am going to tip that even if I have bad service. My father is going to tip 12% whether he gets steller service or not. In my waitressing days, the friendlier the table the worse tip I knew I was going to get. You don’t tip your “friends”, now, do you?
I don’t have any answers here, but thought it’s something that makes for an interesting discussion. Albeit probably in a separate thread – sorry, Food Dude.
The biggest problem with service in Portland is the extraordinarily high degree of whininess among the extraordinarily high proportion of food mavens in this town. Pick pick pick. Give it a rest.
PS: Yeah, I eat out a lot too, blah blah blah. So what.
Ms Mcgee says
Food dude – I recently started reading your reviews and haven’t disagreed with a single one, until now. I’ve been to Nel Centro three times and (to my amazement for any restaurant) had a positive experience every time. One of my visits was for a Portland Business Journal event, where the bar was perfect for networking and the food was delicious (ironically, the cod fritters were a crowd favorite and not fishy at all). Also, on two separate occasions, I went there for dinner and remember the beef daube specifically because of how rich it was – the meat literally melted in my mouth – I still get hungry thinking about that dish. I’ve recommended Nel Centro to friends and they came away raving about the food.
Scratching my head at how you could have come to such a different conclusion…
Food Dude says
It’s called inconsistent.
Well, all I can say is that a friend and I had an excellent meal there last night. The service was prompt and friendly, the drinks and food were top-notch, and altogether the experience was as pleasant as any we’ve had at Lauro or Vindalho. No oversalting or off-notes in the food whatsoever. Maybe Mr. Machado has taken the criticisms to heart and made an effort to get back on track.
I snacked at the bar last week. The salt cod tasted overly “fishy” and was not even close to the quality of Toro Bravo. The mussels were good but the sauce needed more kick. The arancini were like golf balls and served lukewarm. Isn’t there supposed to be cheese in the middle?
CBF… spectacular overview of the service issues I have faced. Written with tact & accuracy. I dine out often when I am not being held hostage by my restaurant and have the same sentiment about service. I don’t need a friend to chat with as much as I need a competent server to anticipate a clients dining needs. Coming from a life long career in the NYC F&B industry, I have lowered my standards since residing in OR. Soon…I hope the service staff of PDX and the Willamette Valley will realize a job in the front of the house has the potential to be a successful and lucrative career option. Rather than just another stepping stone to pay the rent till the next career door opens.
not a legend says
When I moved here from Seattle 6 years ago, I had recently ended a 15 year career waiting tables. I was startled the first time I was served a burnt pizza, 15 minutes after my boyfriend received his sandwich. But then I began to appreciate that in Portland restaurants, unlike Seattle, not everything has to be perfect. I let out a huge breath, and began to just enjoy myself, rather than having expectations that would stress me out. It’s just pizza, after all… Even when it’s not.
not a legend says
Having said that, I don’t think the food at any of David Machado’s restaurants lives up to its hype/potential, and I don’t eat at them anymore.
@mczlaw I love you. Best. Comment. Ever. and sooo true. Bostonians and New Yorkers don’t even bitch this much and that says a lot. And most of the bitching here is uneducated bitching which is even more annoying. I don’t miss the east coast but I do miss the east coast food scene.
I loive in perhaps the only restaurant-berift neighborhood in Portland so NC is actually sort of “close” to me. Have been several times, mostly because it is the best outside dining venue in the city. I’ve always thought of Machado’s places as sort of straight-forward, dispassionate, simple and sort of bland. Nel Centro fits that to a tee. My expectations were for an average to good dining experience (which it generally is if you KISS) and the service would be up and down which it is. There is tons more that could be done with this space but it ain’t gonna happen. It’s going to be average on the whole, it will appeal to some more than others, service will never be great and might be awful and the food will only come up to a certain level. Eh, I’m ok with it. It sort of fills a niche and it’s close enough to me that, given a lack of much around me, I’ll be there every so often and more when it’s nice out.
Food Dude says
Let’s get back on track here and talk about Nel Centro, not general service issues.
I was at Nel Centro last night with a small group for dinner after an earlier event in the area. The restaurant was hopping, all tables inside were in use. Since we were visiting with old friends, I didn’t think much about the interior design of the place. My focus was on the conversation and the food.
We shared an appetizer of Duck Confit with Braised Red Cabbage & Apples which included an entire leg of duck, although it was not as “ducky” as I am used to, perhaps it’s made in-house using a different process. The sweet/tangy cabbage complimented the meat nicely. I enjoyed the frisee salad with bacon and poached egg and chickpea crêpe. My wife’s Mesclun Greens with Croutons & Herbs had croutons that were not quite dried and crunchy, more like stale semi-soft bread that could have stayed in the oven a bit longer to dry out.
The beef daube was very rich and not overly salted. My wife’s Grilled Delmonico Steak with Porcini Butter & Potato Gratin was a huge portion ($24) which triggered comments at the table about massive “Old County Kitchen” steaks from the past. Couldn’t the protein component of the dish be more realistic/smaller?
Our server was fine, he recommended a nice Nebbiolo to go with our entrees. When our bottle was getting low and food was still being enjoyed, he brought me a sample of another Nebbiolo by the glass in case we didn’t want to order another bottle. We ended up ordering another bottle, but I liked the fact that the server was thinking ahead.
Sir tastealot says
Some friends and I went into Nel Centro tonight and the food was great. Not a single one of us had a complaint there. I wish I could say the same about the service. We sat at our table for about 5+ minutes before anyone came to take our drink order. The waiter didn’t seem all that knowledgable about the menu and when our food came they gave us all the wrong dishes. After that it went slowly downhill, waiting forever between courses, waiting for our check to come and so on…. I wanted to talk to the manager but I was told he was in a meeting. They pointed him out to me if I wanted to get him but he looked too busy at the bar talking so figured the customer didn’t matter to him. I would come back for the food but sure hope the service gets better.
Interesting how the service in a given restaurant on two adjacent nights can be so different! We had a young male server who said he was from Tuscany, strong Italian accent and all that. Plates were brought out by runners, placed in front of the right people, no confusion.
Maybe this example can be fed into a separate PFD thread on how much server/FOH skills vary from employee to employee!!
Went the other night, wine and cocktails were nice, martini well balaced. One of my pet peeves on a menu is when they state they use “wild mushrooms” (On a wild mushroom and gorgonzola pizza) they were nothing more than oyster and crimini mushrooms, also the cheese on the pizza was that of a cheap rubbery mozzarella with a few dots of gorgonzola. Lamb burger was cooked nicely, fries were mediocre. Service was nice and genuine.
Food Dude says
Thanks for the update. It sounds like they have made some improvements.