I have a Bittman success story to share with you, and I will. Soon. But first, in a continuation of last week’s celebratory post, I have a birthday restaurant review.
Yesterday, N. took me to Portland to celebrate my birthday. Because I’m so sophisticated and urban, of course what I wanted to do most was go to the zoo. Only after we’d seen every animal (and returned to a few exhibits on the way out to see if anyone had decided to come outside yet) did we embark on the more culinary aspects of our voyage. We spent close to an hour in Sur le Table, a store that makes me swell simultaneously with desire, longing, and anxiety. It is bright and beautiful and artistically merchandised, and I can’t help but want everything in it (do I need a handheld KitchenAid electric mixer in every color of the rainbow? Of course not. But do I want them, after seeing them lined up and shining prismatically on the shelf? Yes I do). I imagine the fantastic food projects I could embark on, the dinner parties I could have, the appetizers I could construct (the tiny tart tins only big enough to hold a tomato tart made from a single slice of tomato, the edible silver pearls for cupcakes, the souffle dishes… oh the souffle dishes…), and there’s where the anxiety sets in. Yesterday, I had a gift card to spend. I needed to be careful and thrifty and try to not to exceed the card’s value by too much, because beauty doesn’t come cheap. That meant excruciatingly rigorous examination of everything. in. the. store. I ended up with equipment that fills several notable gaps in my kitchen repertoire, and that was good. I was practical. But it still didn’t quell my girlish longing for cookie cutters in the shape of a crab, a cupcake, or a golden retriever, or a spring-loaded icing syringe, or a huge octagonal serving platter.
And yet we pressed on. On several trusted friends’ recommendations, we went to Montage for dinner. Located under a bridge on the east side of the river, it was hard to find (thanks, road construction), but clearly well loved, as at least a dozen people were waiting outside for the restaurant to open when we arrived at 5:55pm.
When we went inside and the hostess showed us to a table set with pristine white linens and folded, creased paper menus, my impression was of a Brechtian dreamscape. If Bertolt Brecht had designed a restaurant, it might be something like this. In French, “montage” means “assembly” (roughly, forgive my linguistic impreciseness, amis). Here, “assembly” took the form of a collage of high and low. From my seat at our table, when I looked to the left I could see long, long shelves against the far wall stocked with bottle after bottle of wine. As their extensive wine list proved, some were good vintages and all were pretty reasonably priced. When my eyes slid upward, however, I got a view of the wall-sized, quasi-cartoon Last Supper painted above a row of two-tops.
Looking to my right, on the deep windowsill near the entrance I could see a classical-style statue, complete with broken limbs and barely disguised indecency, standing next to the cast of an alligator’s skeletal jaws and a fully blown pufferfish, both suspended from the ceiling by fishing line.
This, then, was a conscious pastiche of high and low. The paper menus revealed not only the lengthy wine list, but a full range of Cajun and Southern American classics. N. ordered the jambalaya, but I couldn’t resist the call of the fryer. I ordered “Buttermilk fried chicken hindquarters,” which were advertized to arrive with garlic mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, AND a salad.
Before any of that, however, we got our beverages and shared a plate of hush puppies. My dry Riesling was crisp and tart and just barely fruity, and our server really topped off my glass because there wasn’t enough left in the bottle for two. I told him it was my birthday, so he could use that as an excuse and he chuckled. Wine managed, we plowed into the hush puppies. These were moist and chewy and had kernels of corn in the batter for that pop of sweetness and texture. They were accompanied by two aiolis: one garlic and one red pepper (I think. It was extremely mild and our server wasn’t sure). The garlic aioli was delicious: slightly vinegary and herby, much more complex than a regular mayonnaise. The fritters were not very crunchy on the outside, but their flavor more than made up for any textural shortcoming.
While we waited for our dinner to arrive, another aspect of the Brechtian theater of the place became clear. Behind the white, linen-clothed bar, the kitchen was partially visible, and every time a plate came out the expediter bellowed the name of the server responsible for it. After an initial surprise, no one in the restaurant seemed put off by this practice, and it started to blend into the clatter of dishes, happy conversation, and David Bowie’s vocals soaring effortlessly up into the background.
Dinner arrived on white dishes, but it didn’t smell highbrow. It smelled homey and warm and wonderful. N.’s jambalaya was well spiced and nicely flavored. It was just spicy enough to merit a gulp of beer and a crumble of cornbread in between bites, and he has added this to the list of dishes he’d like me to try at home. My plate came with its promised hindquarters still connected, dredged and crispy and beautifully caramel-brown. A little heap of mixed sauteed vegetables nestled in the space between leg and thigh, and a mound of mashed potatoes rounded out the plate.
I started with the mash. I think they were red potatoes because some shreds of dark mauve-y skin added an appealing squish between my teeth. The meat of the potatoes was velvety smooth and creamy and just brushed with garlic flavor. N. was permitted one taste and then somehow the whole mound disappeared into my stomach.
I moved on to the chicken. I have to admit, I am pretty picky about my fried chicken. It must be crispy, it must be just greasy enough to slick my fingers and moisten my lips, and I prefer dark meat (though that’s the case with any poultry, fried or not). This chicken scored a two out of three. The breading was crisp and the meat was moist and flavorful. This breading, however, was fairy thin. It did not have the nodules of thick crunchy fattiness I didn’t know I wanted, and as a consequence the grease factor was minimal. It was delicious (oh was it delicious!), but it wasn’t my fantasy fried chicken.
The play of culture and carnivale continued as we finished our meal. Our server asked if we wanted our leftovers wrapped up, and when we acquiesced he disappeared with our plates and returned with a stylized cat and squirrel made of aluminum foil, holding our remaining dinners in their tin bellies. As they faced off against one another at the table, our server walked over holding a plate leaping with orange and blue flames: dessert on fire for my birthday. Unless N. ordered this while I was in the ladies’ room (I suspect not), this was our server’s doing alone. I’d mentioned it was my day at the outset of the meal, but I hadn’t been expecting anything from it. Instead, what I got was essentially ice cream pie set alight.
How do I begin to dissect this gorgeousness in words? Writing about food is funny because so often language fails to capture taste. I’ll go in the order my spoon went. First, there was the ice cream. This was either vanilla or very mild coffee, because we were getting hints of coffee flavor the whole way through. I suspect, however, that it was vanilla ice cream, and that the spirit used to flame the dessert was Sambuca, and that’s where the coffee flavor came from. Or else the ice cream was also drizzled with Kahlua. Beside the slice of ice cream, there was an airy pile of whipped cream, also drizzled with chocolate/coffee sensations, and the whole dessert was topped with crushed chocolate Oreo wafers, and built upon a slab of compressed bittersweet chocolate crust. Frozen but on fire, soft and creamy with crunchy accents, sweet but with an espresso bitterness, this captured the juxtaposition of the whole place on a single white plate. N. is not often one for rich desserts, but this one he ate as continuously and determinedly as I did. He laid his spoon down only two bites before I did, leaving the last swirls of melting ice cream and heavy liqueur traces to me alone. It was, after all, my birthday.
We left satiated and impressed. This was neither the fanciest nor the most amazing food I’ve ever had, but it was damn tasty, and the ambiance, as strange a collage as it may have first seemed, only added to the experience. If this had been in a rundown, casually decorated diner, it would have seemed cheap and cheesy. If it had been the same food in a “fine dining” restaurant with elegantly uniformed servers and long aprons, it would have seemed uncomfortably out of place. But this Brechtian dance between high and low, with its conscious acceptance – nay, its intentional embrace – of both, made it a near-perfect show. There are a lot of restaurants in Portland we want to try out, but we will almost certainly return to Montage.*
* or perhaps to its adjoining lounge which, in keeping with the play between cultured and vulgar, is delightfully titled la Merde.