Rocket is probably the most hyped restaurant to come to Portland in ages. Well before it opened, breathless descriptions of the view, the dining room, “green” building features, and even molecular gastronomy floated through the blogosphere. Additionally, Leather Storrs, previously of the respected Noble Rot restaurant, was one of the owners. A few were calling it a sure hit before they ever opened the doors: certainly great expectations to live up to.
I also looked forward to the opening, but more because I have respect for Leather Storrs as a chef. Great views and a nice building will only get you so far; in the end, it’s the food that matters. Unfortunately, at this point, the food at Rocket leaves much to be desired.
Let’s start at the beginning. How the heck do you get into the place? Rocket is in the new bright red building next to the rock climbing gym, where Sandy Blvd and Burnside intersect. A trendy bar occupies the bottom floor; Rocket is on the top floor. I’ve watched lots of people look for the entrance, so I’ll make it as clear as I can. Look on the east side of the red building. Right where it turns gray, you see an opening to a stairwell and elevator. Head on up to the fourth floor. The entry stairway is just asking for trouble. So far I’ve seen people hanging out, smoking something that reminded me more of college than cigarettes, and another time, a couple locked in a more than amorous “embrace”. Still, the exterior and hallway belies the sophistication, once you reach the fourth floor.
The elevator opens to a pleasant bar/waiting area. You’ll either love or hate the interior. The room is long and narrow, with a large bar running down one side. Tan booths with dark wood trim and windows run the length of the other, giving a nice view of the city. The ceiling is decorated with Jetson-like large round orbits turned into pale colored sculptural elements, hung alongside equally sized disc-shaped artsy glass circles. Sixtyish light fixtures hang here and there. The whole effect is coherent and adult, without being over the top or kitschy. The music is kept at minimum volume, which is refreshing and rare in the more au courant dining rooms in town. Overall, the restaurant seats about 60, mostly in booths, plus the bar area (about 15). A nice area is provided if you need to wait. On the west side, doors open onto a nice patio area, complete with heaters for chilly nights, and little spots for the tables, which seat about 30. The effect is open and airy, a hip place to see and be seen; the only thing missing is the revolving room, like those fancy spinning restaurants in some cities, that during their heyday, were the apex of cool. The building is “leed platinum”, which means that it uses 50% less energy than code requires. It has its own well for water, and raised garden beds on the roof.
While it’s easy to be seduced by the whole Rocket concept – the good looking young servers, the light, the view, the sophisticated yet not overly decorated interior, many things still need some work to turn Rocket from new curious novelty to a spectacular classic.
Chef de Cuisine Henry Kibit and Leather Storrs have designed an eclectic menu, seemingly trying hard to be fun, but at the same time, lacking focus. It offers everything from fairly standard salads to a cottage cheese tart with tomato jam, chicken gizzards on a stick, potato pierogies with catfish, and smoked brisket on toast – and this is just the appetizers. The entrees are made up of more standard items, such as pork cutlet, beef ribs, poached salmon, and grilled duck breast. All come with your choice of two sides, allowing you to custom tailor your own dish. Finally, there is an incongruous section called “RX”, with everything from a lamb corndog, or tongue hotdog, to scrapple, to “pocket rockets”. You can see the latest menu we have by clicking here.
At this point, I’ve tried a good many of the items. Unfortunately, I’ve been decidedly underwhelmed, finding items under/overcooked, over/under seasoned, and for the most part, a bit bland. There will be many here that say I should give them more time before even discussing the food, but they’ve had over a year to develop the menu. A fair amount of time has passed since the opening, and more importantly, I haven’t talked to a single person who has been entirely happy with any meal, and I’ve talked to a lot of customers. I’m not sure why this is happening. If anything, the menu is on the low side of ambitious, and plays it pretty safe. It feels like no one is really tasting the food, certainly not expediting. Things are happening here that, at this point, are rather inexcusable.
Take for example, a recent meal of a breaded pork cutlet with caper brown butter, mashed potatoes, and steamed asparagus ($18). The cutlet was like shoe leather; not much sign of moisture. A good amount of breading gave it an even dryer mouth feel. I tried and tried, but couldn’t discern any hint of brown butter sauce. I suppose it had been soaked up by the breading, but shouldn’t it leave the nutty taste behind, or at very least a trace of capers? To make matters worse, the mashed potatoes were so over-salted no one at the table could finish them. The only good part was my second side of steamed asparagus. This plate should never have made it out of the kitchen, especially three weeks after opening. An even worse entree was the grilled duck breast in fig sauce. Sounded good, but it was terribly overcooked, which even though it was paired with a decent sauce, ruined the experience. I had the same dish again a few days later, and it was also overcooked. Accompanying chili carrots were overcooked to the point of mushy, and the spices were unbalanced, overpowering the carrots ($22). I also had a side of onion rings, which were decent, but didn’t compare to a much better version a week before at Country Cat.
Still, there are some decent options. For starters, avocado in a shrimp shell was just that; a playful homage to a classic “ladies who lunch” – large cocktail shrimp pressed to form an indented rectangle, stuffed with diced avocado and finished in a creamy avocado sauce ($13). The resulting dish was fresh and fun, but could have used more zing. It was lacking in both seasoning and salt. Potato pierogies with catfish, caraway & fried beets were excellent, not too doughy, the ingredients true to its roots ($16).
The lemon pepper chicken entrée was prepared sous vide, although curiously the server merely told me it was this “cooking method where they seal the chicken and cook it for a really long time in a low temperature.” This may be because many people are unfamiliar with the term, but it’s a foodie term that is sure to impress. With bright green sautéed pea tips and baby potatoes for sides, this should have been the perfect meal on a plate. The chicken was moist, and tender with a crisp skin and little strips of lemon, though a bit over indulgent in peppercorns. A side dish of pea tips was a bit on the stingy side, but properly cooked. Not so the potatoes which were bountiful, with the added care of being half peeled. Too bad they were way undercooked ($18).
The Spencer steak, also known as a boneless rib-eye, arrived cooked exactly as ordered, with a nice bit of marbling. Unfortunately, the “shallot sauce” didn’t really bring any flavor to the party. I chose a side of fries that were just ok. Part of the problem seemed to be the size of the crystals of salt used: they were huge, and fell off the fries instead of flavoring them. Once I added regular salt, they were your normal crisp, but just average, fries ($27).
The lamb corndog – well, maybe the corndog chef was having an off night the first time, because it was soggy. While the meat was nice with a slight gamey flavor, the layer of corn batter crust was so thin it simply fell off the otherwise decent lamb hotdog. A week later, it was much better. However, for eight dollars a dog, Rocket should be more consistent.
I’m not sure if they have a dedicated pastry chef, but if they don’t, they need to get one. When it first opened, they had a few tarts, and an ice cream bar, as well as a playful take on Gorp, complete with toasted marshmallows. Unfortunately, all the choices had huge problems, and I never managed to finish one dessert. Ten days later, the entire dessert menu had changed, though no one in our group bothered to finish them either. More work needed here.
The wine list is adequate, with about 17 whites, 21 reds, with slightly below average markup. Three beers are available on draft for $4: Bitburger Pilsner, Sierra Pale, and Walking Man, Homo Erectus IPA. Six bottles range from $3.50 for an Amstel light, to $4 for a Dogfish Head, to $9 for a Delirium Tremens (a favorite of mine). The house cocktails are somewhat on the high end at $7.00-$10.00. Unfortunately, they just aren’t very good. A lot of bars are trying new takes on the classics just to be different, and not always succeeding. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but there is a reason they are classics. Start changing things just to be cool, and more often than not, they fall flat.
I have nothing but good things to say about the service. In four visits, they have been knowledgeable, affable, and efficient. Not a single misstep – one of the more professional staffs I’ve experienced in a while.
I really want to like Rocket. It certainly is a pleasant place to while away time, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take out of town guests here. I keep going back, hoping for better food, and though it does seem to be moving very slowly in the right direction, many of the missteps are inexcusable. Leather stopped by my table a few times, and I wanted to ask if he shouldn’t be expediting in the kitchen, rather than playing celebrity host. Someone needs to be in the back of the house, tasting, tasting, tasting, and keeping the cooks on their toes. Portland has another new restaurant that has only been open a week, yet is one of the best in the city. It can be done. I’ll go back to Rocket in a few months to see if liftoff is complete.
- Phone: (503) 236-1110
- Address: 1111 E Burnside St,Portland, OR 97214
- Hours: Open for dinner 6 days from 5:00pm. Closed Sunday.
- Website: RocketPDX.com
Tags: $ Moderate, Bars/Taverns, Burger, Comfort-Food, Northwest-Cusine, Open-Monday, Outdoor-Tables, Review, Romantic, SE-Portland, Wheelchair-Accessible
This entry was posted on Saturday, May 26th, 2007 at 4:50 pm and is filed under Reviews. You can follow comments to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. | Email This Post
80 Responses to “Rocket”
- -s says:May 27, 2007 at 8:24 am
Look at the upside: before today I didn’t know there were catfish in Poland.Reply
- Kevin says:May 27, 2007 at 1:29 pm
I’ve only been once, and left with mixed impressions…
The room is lovely and grown-up. Servers were, as you said, well-trained, friendly, and non-attitudinal. The bar staff knows how to make decent drinks. The terrace is probably going to be a great place to eat on a nice summer evening. (Everyone was bitching about the ugly billboard blocking the view of the West Hills, but that’s hardly the restaurant’s fault.) Once it gets cold and wet, though, it seems like Rocket is going to lose about 40% of its seating space; I can’t imagine too many people are going to want to sit on a fourth-floor terrace, even a covered one, when it’s 45 degrees outside.
Not so good: everything was underseasoned, and the appetizers all seemed about half again as expensive as they should be. You’ll either be charmed by things like hot dogs and corn dogs on the menu, or you won’t…but once you get past those, it’s actually fairly conventional (pork shoulder, lemon-pepper chicken, etc.). Likewise, you’ll either enjoy asking questions like “Okay, what is ‘chicken arcana’ and ‘pocket rockets’?,” or you’ll find it just a bit twee.
On the way out, we came across a woman standing on E. Burnside, looking confused. “Did you come from Rocket?” she said. “Where is it, and how do I get there?” We pointed her to the unmarked stairway (which looks like the entrance to a SmartPark) and wondered why there wasn’t a bit of signage.Reply
- bb says:May 27, 2007 at 8:57 pm
FD- couldn’t agree more about Rocket. We loved the space, service was very good, but the food didn’t quite take off (pun intended). But like you, I’ll go back, because it has to get better, right? Besides, the view truly rules, and it is a great spot for out of towners. But like the previous commenter said, at least put up a freaking sign. that anonymity isn’t cool, it’s annoying!
And I can only assume the new restaurant that is rocking it hard is Clyde Common. We went, and loved it! here’s my early takes on CC: http://wineguyworld.blogspot.com/search?q=clyde+common
- Food Dude says:May 27, 2007 at 11:00 pm
bb: I noticed last night, they do have a sandwich board type sign out front now. Also, their prices have gone up. I’ve updated the online menu.Reply
- porkCop2 says:May 27, 2007 at 11:11 pm
Ahhhh…The old bad reviews raise the prices trick! Always the best course of action.Reply
- biabub says:May 28, 2007 at 3:56 am
fd, i second the note that clyde common is what you’re referring to as one of the best portland restaurants and only open a week. we went and had a fantastic meal, really blown away by the quality, the thoughtfulness of the menu and the execution on all levels. and the popcorn – just proves simplicity can really work. maybe the popcorn chef at cc can give some pointers to the corndog chef at rocket on getting your staff excited about your food by letting them taste everything before you open to the public. i don’t think any decent kitchen should test out their recipes and line execution on customers for the first time – isn’t that what staff is for? get some practice, get some feedback, make it better before people pay for it. i just keep hearing from friends who work at rocket that they’ve been there for almost a month now and haven’t gotten to taste more than a couple items on the menu because the kitchen is too stingy to share their food with the staff. to me that sounds like someone who doesn’t respect how important it is for the waitstaff to embrace what’s coming out of the kitchen so they can passionately sell the meal and the whole experience to the customer. too bad really, because i’m excited to go to rocket but with all the negative buzz, i’m going to try some of the other 6 restaurants that just opened first and give rocket awhile to figure it out.Reply
- sidemeat says:May 28, 2007 at 9:22 am
Rocket is launching, they’re just ramping up
They don’t want to hit the ground running without taking baby steps first
You only have one chance to make a 1st impression, but try, try again
I want to dive right in, but maybe I ought to test the waters before I plumb the depths.
Is that a Rocket up there in the sky?
Or just a stick on fire?Reply
- Cuisine Bonne Femme says:May 28, 2007 at 9:36 am
Rocket. My impressions have been: Stoner Food for Foodies.
i’m excited to go to rocket but with all the negative buzz, i’m going to try some of the other 6 restaurants that just opened first and give rocket awhile to figure it out.
I’m thinking, the stakes have risen. It’s getting competitive out there for the number of diners vs. the number of seats that need to be filled each night in Portland restaurants in order for them to make a profit and survive. There is going to be some fallout in the next 6-12 months unless 50,000 new people move to town this summer. May the best restaurants win…Reply
- sidemeat says:May 28, 2007 at 9:45 am
Good fortune and bad luck.
50,000 will move to this town this summer.Reply
- Diner says:May 28, 2007 at 10:45 am
Restaurants, and Broadway Plays have a lot in common. They plan for months. Recruit the best players for the job.
Where Broadway Show reviews have a “decency” one-up over restaurant reviews, at least in Portland is this:
Broadway shows assume it will take awhile, maybe a few months, to perfect the art. They offer to previews and respond to feed back. The Critics are not allowed to pontificate before the opening. It would be nice if Portland were that gracious to the growing number of good restaurants in this city.
For instance, Food Dude might wait a spell before he/she dooms a new restaurant to failure by virtue of this blog.Reply
- pastry gladiator says:May 28, 2007 at 11:08 am
True, Humble Gastronomes Beware!
The Fake Foodie Invasion has come to a neighborhood near you!
Stark, cool, and hip, the culinary aliens have money to spend and reputations to uphold! They intend to flaunt their fashionable atmospheres and clever menus in front of your innocent palates turning the simplicity of seasonal, Northwest cuisine into a bountiful playpen for culinary wannabes. Babes in white Chefwear coats. I suspect ultimately these ‘cool places’ fail because they simply forget to just make great food and great drinks and great desserts with utmost respect for the ones who wash the dishes, do the prep or serve tables into the night. It’s a shame that these ‘cool places’ can’t get their act together from the get-go and you wonder, “why, not?” The eager and supportive public wastes a lot of energy ‘waiting’ for a restaurant’s moment of triumph, which may never come. If you aliens are so fabulous, then figure it out before you open. Of course there are growing pains, but the public doesn’t need to ache along with you while we’re paying our bill. Whaaah. Whaaah.
Ego Chefs get in the way of good food. Money driven investors get in the way of a great restaurant.Reply
- nancy says:May 28, 2007 at 11:11 am
Actually, Broadway plays are reviewed — at least, in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Observer — the first week they open. Often, this means the play closes the following week.Reply
- polloelastico says:May 28, 2007 at 11:11 am
Wow, Food Dude must truly be the Drudge Report of the Portland food blog world.
I never realized he harnessed so much power and influence to actively determine the fate and economic viability of a business plan. That’s one powerful mySQL database.Reply
- sidemeat says:May 28, 2007 at 12:18 pm
Dude singlehandedly crashed Balvo.
On the seventh day he rested.Reply
- Cuisine Bonne Femme says:May 28, 2007 at 12:21 pm
Diner, I liked your comparison with B-Way plays and restaurant openings.
Except one small point that that negates your comparison: Rocket has already been open for several weeks for regular, normal public dining at full prices.
Thus they have already had their preview dinners and dress rehearsals.Reply
- Kevin says:May 28, 2007 at 12:30 pm
I agree with Cuisine Bonne Femme (both comments).
It would be silly to form an alpha-omega opinion of a new restaurant when the paint isn’t dry…but it’s also true that if you’re open to the public and charging money, you can’t expect the public to withhold opinion until you feel you’re ready.
And Nancy is right, too; Broadway investors stand to lose millions based on a very few writeups the first week a play is open to the public. At least a forum like this one gives the rabble a chance to say “You’re wrong; I had a great meal there.”
Come to think of it…there’s been something close to unanimity in the comments. If someone’s had a knockout meal at Rocket, I’d like to hear the story.Reply
- Food Dude says:May 28, 2007 at 12:37 pm
If it was a small restaurant that had opened quietly, had rehearsal dinners, and seemed to be actively working on improving, that would be one thing; I would have probably passed them by for now. But when it is a high-budget restaurant with a full publicity machine, and three weeks after they open, nothing much has changed, that is a problem. When at the same time, they are raising prices for the same food, that is a problem. When I can’t find anyone who like the food, that is a problem. But what irks me the most, is I know the kind of food that Leather is capable of turning out, yes can find no hint of his talents, it is even worse.
I waited longer than some critics in town, I never “doomed a restaurant to failure” nor do I have the power to do that if I wanted to. I, as much as anyone, want the food scene in Portland to improve. But I don’t see why people should be paying guinea pigs. Why should we be sitting in deck chairs while the ship sinks?
Also, Broadway plays are frequently closed a week after they open.Reply
- extramsg says:May 28, 2007 at 2:18 pm
And I can only assume the new restaurant that is rocking it hard is Clyde Common.
He hasn’t posted a menu for Clyde Common yet, but has for Toro Bravo.Reply
- Food Dude says:May 28, 2007 at 3:29 pm
“rocking it hard”? I am so out of touch with the hip language you kids use. The other day Leather was calling stuff Frankenstein – I think to mean it was good. Sigh.. I feel so old.
By the way, just posted the menu for Clyde Common. I’d forgotten ;>)Reply
- Diner says:May 28, 2007 at 3:40 pm
Good disucssion with varied opinions. One point to clarify, Broadway shows invite the public for paid previews weeks, sometimes months before they “open” to the critics. See New Yorker, New York Times, etc., if this issue still confuses you.