Friday, April 26, 2013

Feast At Beast (Or, How I Spent My Entire Tax Return In Under 3 Hours)

This past Monday we returned from Portland, a trip necessitated by Amelia presenting her latest photographic work at Photo Lucida. Being the gentleman I am, I asked, "Hey, can I go?" and "Hey, can we go out early so it's like a vacation?"

I must've been very persuasive, because she agreed immediately. We arrived the weekend before the conference started so we could explore. Exploring, for us, basically means walking around, riding transit, people & place watching, and ... eating and drinking. Since Portland is a magical land of eating and drinking, I was pretty psyched for at least the last 3 months before the trip.

A couple weeks ago, I was looking at menus online to kill some time, when my brain ratcheted back to a New Yorker article about underground restaurants. Though it mainly focused on some metal-listening, long-haired, absurd-family-history L.A.-based chef–it also mentioned a Portland couple who served out of their home until they became famous enough to open their own joint. Some Googling gave me her name (Naomi Pomeroy). Well, apparently the former joint (or two) from the article, along with their relationship, ended; but, she had recently opened a new place.

That place is Beast.

Intrigued by the weekly rotating prix fixe menu (and steep price), I hemmed and hawed and left it alone. Plenty of places to eat, right? But it stuck in my craw (and after all, I'd been sitting on a Christmas bonus, my first ever, for awhile)–and a couple days later, minutes after my sink exploded at the tail end of prepping Chicken Milanese, the hot oil popping while I struggled against a rusted-open water main beneath the sink, I plopped in my credit card numbers and made a reservation for Friday at 6:00p.m. After all, I think someone once told me that, "You only live once."

(For your vicarious experience; the full menu with wine pairings. To replicate our experience, please lick the entirety of your screen at this blog juncture, and continue reading.)


After a morning spent feasting on breakfast and wandering Portland's oldest graveyard, we bussed it up to the Alberta St. and walked a few miles up-and-down the shop-and-gallery littered area. After happening on a nice exhibit and curated book selection at Ampersand, we proceeded to walk...and walk, until the gray sky produced rain drops as big as a saucer.

At 4pm, we caved and went in to a coffeeshop to drink coffee and read. Then, we hoofed it back towards the neighborhood to the north, (stopping in real quick at the well-curated Little Axe record shop, where I failed to pounce on a near mint Palais Schaumburg translucent red original pressing LP...damn!) where Beast is located next to an understated sushi joint, in the middle of a possibly-mid-century brick strip that looked well-kept, but didn't stand out with it's darkly-painted brick and modest exerior, minus the bright purple "THIS RESTAURANT SERVES FOIE GRAS" sign in the door. It was three minutes to 6:00, and I was nervous about being early, but the rain started again and we entered.


(You should watch this video and revel in the dancing and sheer 80's production.)

About as big as a bungalow, but without walls, the high-ceilinged, matte-black-walled space was comprised of one long communal table (seating around 18), one shorter communal table (an 8-top), a minimalist black wardrobe without doors, and an enormous, wood-topped, industrial table used for prepping and plating, as well as a brief kitchen area and warming oven, with a doorway to perhaps an extended galley kitchen, and a curtain covering the restroom entrance at the rear of the room. A skylight lit the space nicely, even on the grayest of Portland days (otherwise, the weather was pretty beautiful).

Everything seemed a bit intimidating, but only because I've never experienced a dinner or atmosphere that was exactly like Beast. Our tablemates were an older couple who occasionally shared a joke or observation, but were otherwise wrapped up in rehashing old tales, and a younger couple who seemed to be on a date, and faced each other instead of the table to such an angle that the male's elbow was jabbed in Amelia's arm the entire meal. They also had cell phones out for a ridiculous part of the meal...and didn't know what St. Bernardus Abt 12 was. Sheesh!


(Yes, I'm a beer snob. Well, not snob...but you should know what you're doing in a place like this...right?)

Some crusty bread and salted butter was brought around, and the service began with a description of the first wine. We smiled like we understood what the hell anything meant, but I'm no wine expert. That said, I feel like I can judge when something is decent-to-good, and everything served was well-beyond "good." Some key terms I remember floating around were "late harvest" and "plum notes" and "this is the 2010"...after which I nodded and said, "Sounds great." And they were.

First course was a curried spring carrot veloute, smooth to a decadent extent. I imagined the world's perfect sieve; they must have had it in the kitchen. The curry was barely present, enough to make the soup a beautiful pale yellow, and the fried leeks & tarragon chive oil provided texture, color, and added richness to the soup. After practically wiping my bowl clean, I finished my wine and said to Amelia, "If  the rest is like this soup...that's a great sign."

The charcuterie course was next, with a chicken liver mousse that was incredibly airy, a pork rillette that was creamy and bright. The espelette cured duck breast was intense, smoky, and fatty; like the world's best bacon had been shrunk down, it's flavor codified and hue darkened. There was steak tartare, which I had for the second time, creamy and pure with a quail egg nestled on top. The highlight, and what we were supposed to eat last, was the foie gras bon bon. It sat on a peanut shortbread, and was topped with a gelatin sheet; and was nothing short of amazing–the sweet, buttery shortbread playing off the rich, creamy, cool foie gras and citrus gelatin like the world's best, tiniest ice cream sandwich. Except with fattened liver–an overload of ridiculously delicious meats. Luckily, there were some light greens and pickled radishes before...

(I may be morally opposed to foie gras ... but I'm a weak human, and consumed & loved it.)

Not quite the main course. An amuse bouche–I'd read the term, and knew it, but hadn't had one unless stealing cheese cubes off a student salad bar counts. (Or was there one at Vij's in Vancouver...alas.) It was a spoonful of sour cherry sorbet with sweet vermouth. Intensely sour, yet creamy and sweet–it could've been the best thing we had, but it was gone in 15 seconds. This was so good I mentally conceived kidnapping the person who'd thought up the flavor combination, and convincing them to manufacture it in my kitchen for my personal consumption.

The main was next–a medium-rare Carman Ranch sirloin, on a bed of risotto, with a few greens nestled next door. The meat was perfect, the risotto rich and tender, but with textural contrasts of some tempura-fried lovage, crispy maitakes (my vocabulary must've expanded 30% by this point of the meal), and al-dente young asparagus. I nominated myself for an award after remembering the crusty bread, tearing a hunk off, and sopping up as much red wine jus as the crust would hold, merely a jus-vehicle for my mouth. During this course, the mastery of texture really became apparent, with the bitter, barely crunchy greens alongside the melt-worthy sirloin, atop the creamy ramp-specked risotto with just-crunchy asparagus, and crispy lovage and maitakes. Just chewing any combination was a feeling of pleasure.

The wine was flowing–we'd made it halfway through. Course four may have been the best–a cooled-down salad of kale rabe (kale stalks harvested post-flowering) with a lemon-anchovy vinaigrette applied judiciously and tossed expertly, some garlic-heavy crouton bits, and a seven-minute soft-boiled egg that had the mouthfeel of silk. After the richness of the main, this was the perfect course to cut-through my now-buzzed taste-buds, and practically announce itself with flavor.

(Photo via Beast's site. A wonderful, intimate space.)

A cheese plate came next: a mozz-y, slightly sour cow's; a pale yellow funky English soft with bitter rind; and a candy-smooth semi-hard goat's that melted in your mouth. Rich honey, a booze-poached prune, and some olive oil crackers salvaged me from floating off towards the skylight in dairy-induced ecstasy.

Though we could barely look at dessert, one bite of the rhubarb clafoutis, a warm, almost bread-pudding or brulee-consistency dish, drizzled with cardamom-laced carmel that I'd lick off of my cat's dirty paw and vanilla bean ice cream–well, one bite was all you needed to know that you'd be eating all of the bites, and then looking in your neighbor's dish to see if they scraped all of that carmel sauce out of the bottom.

Service was ridiculously excellent (one waitress was from Indiana–I think her and Amelia got a kick out of shared heritage); pacing absolutely perfect (from bread-crust to putting on my jacket, two hours and forty-five minutes elapsed); and the wine pairing was more than worth the add-on. The bill came on a heavy, shorn sheet of paper, along with two dark-chocolate dipped, salted butter cookies in the shape of tiny pigs. I wrote down a tip and said, "I'm gonna make reservations for myself next Friday."

I didn't; but as soon as I know I'm going back, I'll be making reservations immediately. We waltzed out the door after thanking the kitchen, and knew that that was the best meal we'd ever eaten. Definitely filling, with not an off-note anywhere, from service to plate–and the textures and courses played off of each other like a perfectly sequenced novel or album. It was an experience I won't soon forget, and despite the cost, one that was worth every penny; and we couldn't help but to rehash the meal immediately while waiting for & taking the bus back to where we were staying in the Southeast.

(And yes; we were proud of very-likely being the only bus-riders to-and-fro the restaurant that night. Public transit rules!)


3 comments:

  1. (I'm Meghan from Decapolis).

    I wish I had known you guys were coming to Portland! My husband is a food reviewer and although I know you probably did plenty of research, he would've loved to share a list of places worth checking out. He has a pizza blog at thisispizza.blogspot.com that you might enjoy.

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  2. Hey Meghan! Rats! Will definitely check out his blog...am I remembering correctly that he contributes to Serious Eats, too? We loved Portland and hope to make it back ASAP...will definitely let you know for a list of places the second time around :)

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  3. Yep, Serious Eats. He did pizza reviews for them when he lived in Seattle, but they have a pizza guy for Portland. He does Hamburgers, Hangover Helpers, and other odds and ends.

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