Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Refreshing Reincarnation

re·in·car·na·tion 1 a) the action of reincarnating; the state of being reincarnated. b) rebirth in new bodies or forms of life; especially: a rebirth of a soul in a new human body. 
2) a fresh embodiment.

When I heard that last year that Genoa was closing, it frankly didn't surprise me. It seemed like every few months there'd been an announcement of a new chef or, worse, a team of chefs, at what was once considered Portland's premier high-end Italian restaurant. Its seven-course meal was so expensive that no one I knew had been there in many years. Plus with the competition from the exploding eastside dining scene, it seemed as though Genoa had become a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit.

Crab bruschetta.
When the news broke that it had been bought by a local couple who'd loved the old place and wanted to revive it, my first thought was a sarcastic, "Good luck." A few weeks later they made the startling choice to hire the very talented but very young David Anderson, chef and David Machado protégé from Vindalho, one of the early and successful upstarts on lower Division. (Full disclosure: I interviewed David and his twin brother, Ray, for an article a couple of years earlier, and it was David who'd given me the scoop that he'd been hired for the position at Genoa.)

So when an invitation came from the restaurant's PR firm to try out the new menu on their dime, I was all in. As I've said before, these freebies bother me on one level, but I always make it clear to them that buying me dinner doesn't buy a good write-up. That said, it's also obvious that they know I plan to write about the experience, so they may go the extra mile (or fill the extra glass), so that my treatment might differ from that of the average diner.

Wild mushroom fettucine.

But if the experience we (Dave, my brother and myself) had is any indicator of what's in store for Mr. or Ms. A.D., this place is going to be a serious competitor for Portland's dining dollars. Especially with its new price point of $55 for five courses, and with the support of its sister restaurant next door, the wine-and-small-plates Accanto.

The new facade.

The face of the place has not been lifted so much as completely reborn. The structure of the old building was rumored to be so rickety as to be unsafe and major infrastructure changes had to be made, which allowed the entire space to be reconfigured. While the kitchen still wraps around the restaurant, the side door is now open to the street so passersby can watch the chefs preparing meals. Chef Anderson also said he likes being able to see diners exiting the restaurant and gauge their reactions to the meal. The former private dining room accessed through that side door is now part of the main dining room but can be closed off by a couple of heavy refectory doors salvaged from a historic building. The room also has a big screen TV for meetings, but Anderson is more excited about the potential Super Bowl parties that could be held there (talk about a change of tone…).

The interior will be completely unrecognizable to past diners, with the spacious front windows making the dining area visible from the street (rather than blacked out as it had been before), slightly screened from passersby and arriving customers by sheer, floor-to-ceiling draperies that create a narrow waiting area. Once inside, the dining room itself is dominated by a fireplace that spills warmth from its gas flames, and an atmosphere unlike any other restaurant in town, a cozy yet elegant sitting room of golds and greens, banquettes and linen-covered tables. From a distance the several hanging light fixtures made of cascades of gold-colored glass rectangles seemed like they belonged in a 50s-era hotel, but once seated they give an overall warmth and glow to the room.

The salad.

The meal began with an amuse-bouche of shredded endive and white truffle oil served on large spoons, one for each of us. We had chosen to have wine flights paired with each course so my brother, the wine guy, could check out their cellar. The first course, a crab bruschetta, came with a French sauvignon blanc that was one of my favorite wines of the whole meal, with its brightness and slightly spicy nose bringing out the super fresh and lightly dressed crab.

Black cod with mussels.

For the second course I chose the wild mushroom fettucine while the guys had the tortelli filled with duck confit, mushrooms and prosciutto in a Marsala sauce. Both were good, the tortelli having a nice richness but slightly bland flavor. The fettucine, however, was outstanding, with a mix of wild and cultivated mushrooms providing an earthy, chewy base to the dish and a rich coating of madeira, herbs and cream smoothing it all out. An '07 Felsina Chianti was served with this course, and since all of us pretty much love all of Felsina's wines, there was no nitpicking of this pairing.

Panna cotta.

The salad course was…well…a salad, with sectioned blood oranges and shaved fennel for heft and pomegranate seeds adding crunch. The wine, an '05 Arneis, though, wasn't a good match. This wine is usually served at a much younger age, and this was the equivalent of having a cranky old aunt at the table, making the salad course (which is supposed to be a break in the parade of richer dishes) a spiky and rather unpleasant interlude.

The main course, though, put that behind us. My Cattail Creek lamb riblets were outstanding, served with a dollop of whipped sweet potato that our very funny waiter said "was like eating a cloud." And unlike the previous incarnation of the restaurant, I felt completely comfortable picking them up by their "handles" and chomping away. Dave's black cod fillet with mussels in a saffron broth was perfectly moist and deeply flavorful, and the smear of aioli with crusty toasted bread slices were a nice nod to the human impulse to dunk. The wine, a Mastroberardino Aglianico, couldn't have been more appropriate…or more appreciated!

Chocolate and hazelnut Cimabue.

The desserts, which at all too many Portland restaurants are an obligatory afterthought rather than being an element as important as the other courses, were wonderful. The panna cotta was a pyramid of creamy silkiness showered with crushed pistachios next to a crispy wafer holding tiny grapefruit sections. The chocolate and hazelnut Cimabue was, to paraphrase our waiter's comment about the sweet potato, like eating a chocolate cloud with chocolate flakes and little chunks of hazelnut swirling in the layers of meringue and Chantilly cream.

Overall it was a truly incredible meal, one of the best I've had recently, though I'd love it if they'd have a three-course option or allow à la carte ordering so we could go there more often, but I suppose that's what Accanto is about. It's a great deal for the (admittedly) special-occasion price, and the wine list has many terrific deals on it. One hint: make sure to have your favorite wine guy on standby to help you choose one. Thank goodness mine usually picks up even when the caller ID says it's me!

Details: Genoa, 2832 SE Belmont St. Phone 503-238-1464.

Check out my brother's impressions of our meal in this blog post.

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