Note: This restaurant has moved. You can see a new review here.
How can you not love a restaurant that has the nerve to name itself after a fungus? The noble, Noble Rot
When I was a kid, my parents had the entire Good Cook series from Time-Life books. Even though my cooking skills hadn’t progressed beyond eggs Parmesan and cherries jubilee, I used to spend hours pouring through those glossy books filled with seductive photographs. Hopefully, I’ll inherit them some day; err… a long time from now.
Though I’d been to Noble Rot about the time they first opened way back in 2002, I wasn’t all that impressed, and hadn’t been back. Then early this year, The Oregonian did an article on “Coveted Cookbooks”, prominently mentioning Noble Rot chef Leather Storrs, and his love for the Time-Life series. My interest was piqued, but I still didn’t make it back. It took an email from a certain prominent barista saying “Noble Rot is one of my favorite places to eat. Why haven’t you reviewed it?”, before I finally tried it again. Frankly, I didn’t expect all that much, but halfway through my first meal I couldn’t wait to get home and write about it.
From Wikipedia: “Noble Rot; Botrytis cinerea; the benevolent form of a grey fungus affecting wine grapes. Grapes infected with Botrytis when they are ripe, but then exposed to drier conditions, become partially raisined, and this form of infection is known as noble rot. Picking at a certain point during infestation can produce particularly fine and concentrated sweet wine. Some of the finest botrytized wines are literally picked berry by berry in successive tris (French for “sortings”). Normally found in vineyards in Sauternes France, and Germany, though it occurs elsewhere. Winemakers in California and Australia have actually inoculated grapes by spraying spores over vineyards.”
I find it entertaining to sit quietly with a glass of wine, listening to people discussing what Noble Rot means. When the server tells them, and they wrinkle their nose, I lean over and say, “You’re drinking it now!” On a good day you can grab an untouched glass from their flight after they leave.
Noble Rot, the restaurant, is a relaxed comfortable place made up of two rooms. The first features small booths flanked by a 20′ bar made from one piece of old-growth fir salvaged from a ship that sank in Willapa Bay in 1921. The kitchen takes up the remainder of the space. A large roll-up door opens on warm nights; small tables dot the sidewalk. Bottles of wine for resale are spotted around the room. I like to sit at the bar, watching the chefs and reliving my younger days when I could stand all day in a hot kitchen. The back half is a small square room that is almost like a cave; dark and clubby, with brown walls and lots of candles, yet enough light to read the menu from overhead spots. It’s not hard to find a table in the restaurant to fit your mood.
Service is excellent, though a bit confused at times. On a few nights it has been too slow, and I’ve had them bring wrong dishes, extra dishes, and forget things I did order. However, the staff is so great and the space so comfortable, it never really mattered. One thing that does matter is the ventilation. During the summer with the doors open, it’s not a problem. Unfortunately, on a few cold nights with the door shut, there was trouble with an exhaust fan, and it was really smoky. I went back again this week, and it was still smokier than it should be. When you are doing laundry the next day, and can relive the meal through the odor on your clothes, that’s not a good thing.
Noble Rot used to be first and foremost a wine bar, and though these days that moniker seems to be shared equally with food, wine still plays a huge part of the experience. A large selection of bottles is available for resale, and you can drink them there for a $7.00 corkage. It seems most people go for the wine flights, ranging in cost from eight to thirteen dollars for three two-ounce pours. Recent selections include Portuguese reds, South African reds, Rhone reds, Austrian Gr üner, Loire Valley whites, as well as more local Willamette Valley pinot noirs, Washington reds, and Panther Creek single vineyard pinot noirs. The list changes frequently, and is a great way to get your feet wet with wines you may not have tried before. Overall, about 30 glass pours are available. Beer is a second thought here, with Bitburger Pilsner, Terminal Gravity IPA, and Deschutes Black Butte Porter available for $3.50 a pint.
The staff seems very familiar with the wine, and doesn’t hesitate to point you to flights they think will go well with your food. Speaking of food, here’s some items from recent menus:
Marinated olives 3
Roasted Spanish almonds 3
Bread & butter 3
Cheese plate 9
Meat plate 9
Noble salad: butter lettuce, red onion, sunflower seeds; vinaigrette or blue cheese 7
Endive, beets, hazelnuts & blue cheese 9
Head, shoulders, knees & toes 11
Green bean, roasted pepper, almond and manchego; sherry vinaigrette 9
Grilled hanger steak, cherry tomatoes, fris èe, blue cheese and fried onions 12
Arugula, apples, almonds & manchego; orange vinaigrette 8
Andouille, potatoes & collards 7
Pumpkin with coconut and ginger 7
Ham & cheddar 7
Grilled butternut squash, caramelized onions & goat cheese; fig jam 7
Onion tart 5
Macaroni & cheese 7
Chanterelle & corn ragout over soft polenta; truffle oil 12
Black cod in sofrito with roasted cauliflower 14
Roast sturgeon, spinach, porcini mushrooms 15
Warm salad of chicken confit, escarole & croutons; preserved lemon vinaigrette 12
Braised pork with pear mustard glaze, mixed roots & black lentil froth 14
Saut éed lamb with potatoes & sturdy greens; romesco sauce 15
Chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream & caramel 6
Crème brûl ée 6
Warm pear cake with cinnamon anglaise 6
Apples Carl Sagan 6
Linzer torte with our berry preserves & whipped cream 6
In many restaurants soups are an afterthought, but I think they tell a lot about the abilities of a chef. At Noble Rot, they tend to be outstanding. For example, the kale, andouille and potato and collards soup is earthy, warm, comforting, spicy; a wonderful m élange of flavors coming together in a perfect salute to fall; outstanding ($7.00). The pumpkin, while a bit one dimensional, is still a good soup, well balanced and flavorful, without being too sweet as so many of that genre tend to be; the perfect antidote to a hard day ($7.00).
The salads are generally quite good, my personal favorite being the endive, beets, hazelnut and blue cheese. The endive has just the right amount of pungency, the beets are sweet yet toothsome, the hazelnuts provide crunchy texture and an earthy note, and the liberally applied blue cheese folds it all together. It is a delicious way to begin a meal ($9.00). The Noble salad composed of butter lettuce, red onion, sunflower seeds and blue cheese is huge; pair this with a bowl of soup and you have a meal. However, I have one complaint. On most salads, I rarely ask for pepper, as I think good greens can stand by themselves and provide their own peppery notes. I’ve had the noble salad three times, on one occasion it was drowned in pepper ($7.00). A recent salad special consisted of fri ése with poached egg, pepper bacon, croutons and mustard vinaigrette. Not terribly adventurous, but good none the less ($7.00).
Late this summer, they had a small plate with grilled hanger steak. The meat was tender and perfectly cooked with a nice char, accompanied by lovely caramelized onions, perfect soft tomatoes bursting with flavor, fris ée, and blue cheese. Terrific ($12.00).
Most of the panini around town aren’t very good, frequently suffering from greasy bread and boring ingredients. Not so at Noble Rot. The one I had came perfectly grilled without any extra oil. It was filled with grilled butternut squash, caramelized onions, and goat cheese. An amazing fig jam on the side was brilliant when paired with the pungent cheese; a wonderful combination. It is the quintessential fall sandwich, a master class of combining flavors. Another night it was a chicken version, with a side of green tomato jam, equally great. My one complaint is they both come with store-bought potato chips, which make the whole thing feel cheap. I’d go with a smaller plate and leave them off, or come up with something better ($7.00).
Moving on, we come to their much vaunted onion tart. The crust is light and flaky, onions nicely caramelized, and a tiny pinch of red pepper and bay leaf points up the flavors, balsamic gives it acid. Have a bite and you’ll be pleased, it’s got so much flavor it’s like an onion soup on a crust. Make sure you swirl through it a bit of the balsamic reduction on the side. Paired together the classic flavor combination is marvelous ($5.00). Another Noble Rot standard is the decadent macaroni and cheese. At first it seems simple, not much different than your typical mornay sauce, yet when you pay attention you’ll find it is dotted with unexpected flavors that give it depth and earthiness, like bay, allspice, mustard, and a bit of red pepper flakes ($8.00).
The menu has a selection of larger plates. Especially recommended is the braised pork shoulder with a pear mustard glaze, black lentils and cabbage. Another perfect fall dish, the meat is absolutely fall apart tender; all the fat has melted away leaving the flavor behind. The mustard glaze gives a slight sweetness, and the lentils and cabbage are perfectly cooked. This is a masterpiece of its kind. I could have it over and over ($14.00). A few weeks later the composition had changed slightly; the accompaniments were now mixed roots and black lentil froth, a week after that, an apple glaze. It was still excellent, though one night a bit dry. Another regular this fall is sautéed lamb. It is remarkably direct and unfussy, perfectly cooked slices of lamb perched on a bed of greens, surrounded by fat potato wedges with a nice crunchy skin. Unfortunately, the romesco sauce on the side is not the best attempt, bland and boring, but the rest of the dish is so good it doesn’t really matter. Overall, it will make any lamb lover happy, but fix the romesco and it would be stellar ($15.00).
Finally, I tried the roasted chicken thighs with chanterelles and mashed potatoes ($13.00). The skin is perfect, the chanterelles and mashed potatoes were just what you’d expect. It is higher quality than other versions of this dish around Portland.
Desserts are fine, but clearly not their forte ($6.00). The chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and caramel is good, piping hot so the ice cream starts to soften over the top, the caramel a good reminder of fall. The same with the warm pear cake; it is just, fine. A better choice is the Linzer tart with filled with bright homemade summer berry preserves. A good conversation starter is the whimsical “apples Carl Sagan”, a Saturn of ice cream, rolled in toffee crumbs surrounded with a crisp cookie ring. On another part of the plate is a planet of phyllo apple tart, all surrounded by swirls of caramel. You’ll understand when you see it.
If there’s a continuing theme here, it is that the menu seems perfectly planned to showcase what is in season. In the late summer it was full of vegetables. Now that we are firmly into fall, there is lots of squash and embracing comfort food. I’m excited to have rediscovered Noble Rot, and will add it to my list of places to eat when I’m not working on a review. To be honest, I really had to dig to find any issues with the food, and I’ll go back in a few weeks to see if they still have ventilation issues. Whether you just want a quick bite with a glass of wine, or a full meal, Noble Rot is a spot worthy of your consideration.
2.5 Stars, 3 if they fix the ventilation problem
Phone: (503) 233-1999
Address: 2724 SE Ankeny, Portland, OR 97214 Google Map
Hours: 5:00pm – 12:00am, Mon-Sat
Tags: $$ • 2-to-2.5-Stars • Comfort-Food • Destination • Northwest-Cusine • Open-Late • Open-Monday • Review • SE-Portland • Wheelchair-Accessible • WineFiled under: Reviews | Subscribe | Comments »
5 responses about Noble Rot Restaurant
Nov 1, 06 | 7:06 pmDude, you without doubt write the best reviews in Portland; I mean, no one is even close. Thank you for this. The two times I have been to Noble Rot I loved it, as I found the space and the little dishes of almonds and olives and flights of wine so transportive; really, one just goes to Spain in one’s mind.
Nov 1, 06 | 11:16 pmI too agree with FD on soups being a GREAT judge as to the ability of a chef. One of the top restaurateurs here in Portland told me something that has always stayed with me….”to judge a good chef, try their soup..and to judge a well run front of house, check out their bathrooms”……(which makes me think there are great minds running the front of house at el grillo)
Nov 2, 06 | 7:41 amThanks for a great review of Noble Rot. I went recently for the first time in years and was really impressed as well.Am I just getting older, or it is really dark in there? Maybe it was the table we were seated at, but I could barely read the menu.
Nov 2, 06 | 7:58 amWent to Noble Rot Tuesday night for a little something more after dinner at Ken’s Pizza. I have mixed feelings about Noble Rot based on my history with the place, but I did have the best cheese plate of my life there a couple months ago, so I was willing to wind down my evening there. We got a bottle of Daedalus Syrah on the server’s recommendation after humbly asking for her help based on our budget and preferences. The wine was DELICIOUS! We ordered a cheese plate (not as much of a hit as last time for me, although my companions raved about it) and the Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes, which, when eaten properly with a little bit of the caramel and greens on the fork with the meat, was quite lovely, although my boyfriend commented that the insides tasted a bit like they’d been cooked in cardboard.Noble Rot just isn’t a destination for me most of the time; I think their wine prices are a bit inflated, and their menu never looks substantial enough when I’m really hungry. But being able to stop in for a nibble and a flight is nice every once in a while. And the service we had Tuesday was excellent – attentive, helpful, and unpretentious. Good service goes a long way for me.
Nov 2, 06 | 1:36 pmI had a really nice meal there in early October – started with the green bean & manchego salad, finished with the chanterelle and corn ragout. I hadn’t been back in a few years ’cause it was always too crowded whenever we tried to get a table – this time, they were busy, but not overly so; our service was excellent.Plus, I thought I’d left my wallet behind so left a semi-frantic message the next morning; Kimberly called me back a couple of hours later to check in (the wallet had been located by that time, thank goodness!)