Friday, May 15, 2009
Nel Centro: Hitting Portland's Sweet Spot?
Red is the number six, green is five, blue is four and yellow is seven, at least for Dave. For our son, the sweetness of kugel, a Yiddish pudding, is yellow, though other tastes and sensations can be shapes. Me? Strong smells often manifest themselves in my mind as colors.
It's called synesthesia, defined as "a concomitant sensation, especially a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated."
The mural in the bar area.
Something of the sort happened when I approached the entrance to David Machado's new baby, Nel Centro. Attached to the just-opened Hotel Modera, you walk by and look into the hotel's cool, modern interior courtyard with its Brancusi-like granite sculptures and think, "Wait, am I still in Portland?"
Walking up the steps to the glass-enclosed dining room, I turned a corner and got a side view through the bar of what will undoubtedly become the city's hottest patio scene (move over, Fenouil). The bar itself is an open, three-sided horizontal expanse with the bartenders in full view, separated by a long open "hallway" from the diners in the restaurant. It could be a Tom Cruise in the movie "Cocktail"-like experience, with shakers flying and hips wiggling, but this place is a much cooler customer, with simple flat planes and low ceilings accentuated by warm colors bringing the mood down from disco frenetic.
Chef de cuisine Paul Hyman.
Dave and I were there for a trial run the day before the official opening and before they got their license to serve hard alcohol from the OLCC, so there was no sampling of the cocktail menu. I did get a tour of the kitchen from Lauro chef Jennifer Buehler, starting with the huge rotisserie and the wood ovens that face the dining room, then into the main kitchen and back to the pastry kitchen (this is a hotel, remember).
I also got to meet chef de cuisine Paul Hyman and pastry chef Lee Posey, both in full-on focus mode, so there was no chitchat as we shook hands and I wished them a good opening. And the food? From what we had and the buzz around the room it looks very promising, indeed.
Salt cod croquettes.
Each table was given a different fixed menu, and our starter of salt cod croquettes with sauce rouille was very good, though I'd have to say the fritters at Toro Bravo with their oozing, melty centers might be a tad better. The hazelnut chevre with piperade and tapenade was also well-done, the puck of chevre coated with toasted hazelnuts playing nicely off of each other, the spears of crostini crispy and light and the roasted yellow and red pepper strips a colorful touch. The tapenade could have used some punching up in the anchovy department, and came off as more of an olivada spread.
My entrée of rotisserie pork with fennel gratin and a mostarda of figs was sumptuous, and if we hadn't been dining in public I would have picked up the chop by the bone and gnawed away at the plump, juicy, medium rare hunk of meat. As it was, I was forced to slow down, slice a bite off and combine it with a bit of the gratin, a creamy and delicious mouthful, the whole fork-full set off by a quick dip in the mostarda.
Dave's roasted chicken and panzanella salad was not just a breast laid on top of greens, but fully half of a small chicken roasted with lemon and tarragon, the bread for the panzanella toasted like croutons. It'll be interesting to see if this dish changes when tomatoes finally come into season (are you as anxious as I am?) and the bread can sop up the juices and salt from the salad as it's meant to.
And the ricotta fritters brought for dessert, as my friend James would say, definitely did not suck. Fluffy, perfectly fried donut holes dusted with just the right amount of sugar were set afloat on a dab of ricotta cream and the plate this night was drizzled with a splash of rhubarb coulis. These I could and, indeed, would eat any time of day or night. (Try me, I dare you.)
If you get out on the patio before I do, definitely let me know what you think, and report back on the cocktail menu. Oh, and the color that came to me? Gold.
Details: Nel Centro, 1408 SW Sixth Ave. Phone 503-484-1099.