1852 SE Hawthorne, Portland, OR 97214
Thursday afternoon I found out that we were getting Friday off at work, and that seemed like a good excuse for going out to dinner, so I made a reservation at Sel Gris and told Sweetie that we were going on a “surprise date”. The restaurant called back a little later and said they had a cancellation at the “chef’s counter” and would I like it? I wasn’t sure; they talked me into it.
The chef’s counter is a small bar overlooking the large open kitchen. It’s a pretty small restaurant, and the kitchen takes up a lot of the floor-plan. It seemed a bit form-over-function. It was entertaining watching them cook, it was interesting watching them plate the various dishes (and guessing what they were). It was impressive how quick the dishes made it out onto tables once they were ready. It was a little unnerving watching the chef stare out at the diners during the slow moments. The counter seating also made for much more difficulty people watching. And the counter was illuminated from beneath, shining though an open-weave tablecloth, all to somewhat annoying effect.
The bread and butter was a brioche and some slices of some bread or another. The brioche looked beautiful and was a nice touch, but it was on the dry side and (deliberately, I’m sure) heavily surface salted. The bread was nothing interesting at all. On the plus side, once we finished it all (yes, we’re pigs), another plate of the same was immediately set down.
We started with the “bacon and eggs” or ris de veau appetizer (sweetbreads served with ball of batter surrounding an egg yolk), since I’d heard good things about it. Neither of us had ever had sweetbreads (calf thymus or pancreas) before. It didn’t blow me away. The tiny little sweetbreads themselves were unremarkable (“tastes like chicken,” sweetie said, and she wasn’t wrong — it was actually McNuggetty) and the egg yolk thing was interesting, but kind of disjoint — it didn’t meld with the rest in a meaningful way to me, it just tasted like yolk.
Next we shared the crab salad: “Oregon Dungeness crab, avocado, grapefruit supremes, radish, cranberry vinaigrette, grapefruit granita”. The granita was on the side, served over thin slices of a large and unusually colored radish, while the rest of the ingredients were formed up into a big spiky-looking round tower, all served on a interestingly shaped plate, with dots of sauces off to one side, along with one stray ball of avocado. Ball? Oh, yeah, all the avocado in the salad was in ball form. So… ring mold, tall food, careful dots and drizzles of sauce, avant-garde plates, and carefully melon-scooped vegetables. Yep, it’s haute cuisine. Isn’t that, like, so ’90s? Well, it’s OK by me so long as the flavors live up to the presentation. Did they here? That night, for me, not usually. Again, form over function. I thought the crab salad tasted fine, and I enjoyed the granita, but there was nothing compelling about it. Watching the various stacked and ring-molded dishes get plated up for other tables, I got a little disgruntled that I couldn’t tell what any of them were. The haute artistry has a way of reducing it all to the same abstract entity.
For the main course, I got the escolar (“grilled, with a lemongrass-coconut broth, Mediterranean mussels, clams, cabbage wrapped rice cake, aioli & Meyer lemon”) and sweetie the lamb shank (“braised Cattail Creek Farm shank, chestnut honey glazed baby carrots, curried cauliflower, lentils du puy, lavender sel gris”). Things picked up here. My fish was served atop the cabbage roll, swimming in a broth and sauce swirled with colors; the clams and mussels were out of their shells and in the broth. It was really good. Sweetie’s lamb was also fine. It had these little round red-purple berry-shaped things, that were too firm to be a berry. She asked the waitress. Those were the carrots. They were purple carrots, scooped out with a tiny melon baller into half-rounds. Well of course. Still, it was good.
Dessert: a chocolate raspberry marquis (two mousses layered on one another), served with a cocoa nib praline, and an apricot bread pudding, with a few sauces and a little ice cream. The marquis was a little gelatinous, the bread pudding had some sauces fighting each other (the basil oil, in particular, wasn’t being a good neighbor), but they were OK.
Toward the end of our meal two women took newly-vacated seats next to us at the counter. I didn’t think much of it until Sweetie looked over and erupted “Oh My God!” easily loud enough for them to hear. I looked over and found myself exchanging a smile with local-plus celebrity Storm Large, two seats over. We’d seen her in Cabaret not that long ago. She ordered the oysters and the lamb, and seemed to have a great time at the chef’s counter… watching the food was like porn, I believe were her words to her friend.
Celebrity encounters aside, Sel Gris didn’t live up to my expectations. That’s a shame, I really wanted to love it.