27 August 2014

Pok Pok


Pok Pok is one of the most interesting Thai restaurants in the United States. With locations in Portland and New York City, James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker scours the Thai countryside for explosively flavorful dishes that are deeply authentic.

Ricker has a high profile. Recent media appearances include being a judge on Beat Bobby Flay and a full length documentary from Vice. His passion for the cuisine of Thailand is evident in every plate he serves.

A place with this much publicity obviously can generate a little bit of a wait for diners. Reservations are not accepted for parties smaller than 6. Luckily, the Whiskey Soda Lounge, Ricker's Thai bar food spot, is located across the street. It is a great place to grab a cocktail during the inevitable wait. The reservation systems were connected, and the bartenders are able to tell you when your reservation has been called from across the street. The text message system can also alert you via phone. Try not to fill up on the delicious looking menu at Whiskey Soda Lounge before venturing back for the main attraction.

The atmosphere of the restaurant changes depending on your location. Some areas are vibrant, while others seemed more restrained. Service was excellent. The menu is marked for vegetarians, but staff can make additional recommendations when needed.

If the menu lists an item as spicy, believe it. The heat on the papaya salad (papaya pok pok, the house dish) creeps, going from a subtle wisp of chili to a full blown inferno in a matter of three to five bites. The texture of unripe papaya gives the dish a meaty chew, and the flavors alternate with layers of lime, tamarind and peanuts. 

The het paa nom tok is a forest mushroom salad dressed with soy sauce, lime and chili. The mushrooms were thinly sliced, and the dish showcased the essence of black pepper, cilantro and sweet smoke.

Cocktails were outstanding. The apple gin Rickey was made with the Pok Pok Som apple drinking vinegar, which gave the drink a bright acidity to contrast the herbaceous gin. 



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22 August 2014

Tasty N Sons


Tasty N Sons is the cousin of the popular Toro Bravo restaurant. There are two locations, the second being Tasty N Alder. Tasty N Sons is located in the Boise neighborhood.

Almost every restaurant in Portland offers some form of brunch. Brunch is almost its own regional culinary tradition with religious significance. But Tasty N Sons really could be the best brunch in the city.

There are classic breakfast options with local spins. The menu also has Spanish options in the style of Toro Bravo with small plates to match. 

The potatoes bravas were saucier than the most rigid interpretation of the classic dish. Despite the modern spin, it was a different take on a breakfast potato dish that is good enough to fight over if it's being shared.

The sweet biscuits were dusted in powdered sugar and served with Oregon blueberries and marionberries. The buttery biscuit pairs fantastically with fruit and cream.

The fried green tomatoes were thinly sliced and dusted with a flawless panko crust. It was served with a bright remoulade.

The staff easily handled all vegetarian and vegan dining concerns, even offering modified versions of dishes to conform to dietary requirements. Service was friendly, fun and well paced.

Tasty N Sons has a full bar, and there were classic brunch drinks like the bloody Mary and mimosas, as well as other riffs on other classic cocktails. The wine list has some great selections, and it offers a nice range of options.



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20 August 2014

Rogue Distillery and Public House


Oregon is a brewing wonderland, and Portland may well be at the heart of it all. The city, called Beervana by brew-loving visitors, is home to a number of high-profile breweries. The brewery that put the Beaver State on the map, though, is Rogue. The Newport brewer has a brew pub in Portland, and it is a great spot to sample the off-the-radar offerings that fit the slogan, "Dedicated to the rogue in each of us."

Sure, you can get Rogue ales in almost a reputable liquor store in any state in America. However, there are plenty of barrel-aged and otherwise unavailable brews at the Public House that make it worth seeking out. Rogue was one of the United States' first breweries to make spirits, which can also be sampled here.

The food, for the most part, was run-of-the-mill brew pub fare. Dishes had a nice focus on Pacific Northwest ingredients. An apt description would be forgettable pub grub. 

But why go for the food? Delicious food can be found all over Portland. Go here for the brews.

Four sample size brews cost $6.50. It is a good way to sample the catalog. Interesting choices on my visit included the marionberry braggot, six different pale ales (Juniper pale, 200 Meter IPA, XSIPA, and the cask aged Imperial IPA being most interesting), cask aged Imperial stout and Beard Beer, a wild ale. 

Designated drivers and the little ones in the back seat can enjoy Rogue root beer and sodas, which come in flavors like cucumber citrus.



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14 August 2014

Expatriate


Tucked in an unmarked space across the street from Beast, Expatriate is a speakeasy small plates spot in Northeast Portland. Cocktails that riff on the classics are mixed skillfully by Kyle Linden Webster, and they pair with small plates by Mrs. Linden Webster, a.k.a. Naomi Pomeroy of Top Chef Masters/James Beard Award fame. 

The space is dark with a stylish minimalist vibe. The mood can vary based upon the flavor of vinyl that the proprietor spins from his vault.

Every drink has a story. The old school drinks explain their origin, noting the inspiration. The Infante, named after Mexican idol Pedro Infante, mixes Pueblo Viejo tequila blanca, fresh lime juice, fresh orgeat and local honey. It is dusted with fresh grated nutmeg, and the spectacular ice cools the drink beautifully.

The Royal Hawaiian contrasts a spicy gin base accented with bitters and citrus juices. It is named for a hotel opened in the 1920s influenced by the work of Rudolph Valentino.

The food is every bit as interesting as the drinks. While there are only a few vegetarian options on the menu, everything was perfect paired with the cocktails. 

I will crave the James Beard tea sandwich until my dying day. Crustless white egg bread is layered with cold butter, parsley, thinly sliced white onions and crunchy grey sea salt. Imagine the most delicious cucumber sandwich and elevate it. 

The hot and sour Indian curry fries are liberally dusted in a makeshift garam masala, and served with cilantro raita, curry ketchup and sumac ranch. The hints of sweetness temper the spiciness, and the creamy condiments add another layer of richness to the gourmet bar snack.

Epatriate has popped up on the radar in many important places, including being nominated as one of Bon Appetit's 50 Best New Restaurants of 2014. It is a fun experience, less serious than Beast across the street. Neither Beast nor Expatriate should be missed, though Expatriate's menu seems more vegetarian friendly. 



Expatriate on Urbanspoon

30 July 2014

The Sycamore


The Sycamore in German Village is the first new concept from the folks behind the popular Harvest Pizzeria. They turned the former Sycamore Cafe, a grungy dive bar in the heart of the neighborhood, into a stylish hang-out with a killer kitchen.

Rather than pizzas, The Sycamore offers pub fare that pairs nicely with the classic cocktails and reasonably interesting wine and beer lists. There is a small selection of vegetarian items on the menu, but most of the options are delicious.

The veggie burger, in particular, was a standout. The patty was quinoa, chickpeas, carrots and greens, topped with grilled mushrooms and onions with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, mustard and house-cured spicy pickles with a subtle bite. The patty crumbles easily, but it delivers layers of flavor. The garlic and herb-tossed fries are great, and the malt vinegar aioli adds a rich, sweet accent to them.

The guacamole, on the other hand, added little to the Mexican staple. The chips were greasy, and the dip needed more avocado and cilantro and less radish and tomato.

Other vegetarian menu items include papas rajas and wild mushroom tacos and a mixed grilled vegetable plate.

The wine list skews heavily toward the New World. There are excellent beers by the bottle and on draft with a number of local choices.



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23 July 2014

Challah


Challah is a regular participant in the Food Truck Food Court at the Columbus Commons, and it pops up regularly at other spots around town. The ladies behind Challah prepare fresh comfort food rooted in Jewish cuisine, particularly the kind from Eastern Europe.

There isn't a ton of options available for vegetarians from Challah, but there is a meatless sandwich and side dish on the menu. The bread is good enough to make sandwiches a must-have from the truck.

There were differences in the bread for the tomato sandwich on separate visits. The interior with heirloom tomatoes, Emmental cheese, endive and mayonnaise is a perfect marriage of ingredients for a summer sandwich. The sweetness of the tomatoes amplifies the richness of the cheese and the spice in the greens in perfect synergy.

The latkes, served with sour cream or apple sauce, are made with thin ribbons of potato. It is a superior side to the somewhat ordinary cole slaw.

The cart handled a high volume of business well with minor timing flaws. Staff capably handled vegetarian questions and fixed all service issues. 



Challah on Urbanspoon

16 July 2014

Rishi Sushi


Rishi Sushi is the latest concept from David and Song Kim, who also own Moshi Sushi in Bexley. Rather than a straight down the middle sushi bar, Rishi is more of a small plates concept with interesting fusion dishes with one foot in Japan.

The restaurant has a focus on fresh, local ingredients. There are vegetarian and gluten free items identified on the menus. 

The sushi menu has pretty standard vegetarian offerings. In addition to meatless starters and salads, there is a veggie burger and a couple of generous vegetarian ramen bowls.

The edamame hummus is plated with cucumber, carrots and rice crackers. The dish creates a subtle harmony between the essence of Asia and the spirit of the Mediterranean.

While sushi is featured in the restaurant's name, the ramen is a real star. Bowls are piled with a vegetable broth, fresh ramen noodles, edamame, corn, scallions, shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, spinach, bok choy and seaweed. While the Lazy Summer Day is deeply satisfying, masochists can also inflict the Good Luck Ramen challenge, made with scorpion peppers, upon themselves.

The bar has excellent cocktails and a decent beer and wine selection to accompany the food coming out of the kitchen. There is a happy hour menu with sushi, small plates and drink specials. 



Rishi Sushi Kitchen and Bar on Urbanspoon

09 July 2014

AJ's Cafe


AJ's Cafe is a fast-casual spot Downtown that offers soup, salads and sandwiches. It is located in the spot that formerly held C-Town Market and Deli.

The owner, Ajay Kumar, owned the Taj Mahal on campus. It was sold to relatives and reopened as Mughal Darbar. While Kumar didn't bring the menu with him from his old restaurant, he definitely brought the Indian flavor profile to a number of the dishes at AJ's.

There are many vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu. The restaurant is open Monday through Friday for breakfast and lunch, and Saturday for lunch.

Soups include an outstanding vegan lentil and spinach, as well as broccoli cheese. There is a vegetarian green salad and a vegan lentil salad. There are a variety of baked goods in the morning as well as a vegan breakfast wrap.

The spiced chickpea wrap hints at dal makhani, and the tamarind chutney adds another layer of sweet Indian flavor. It makes a filling lunch with a side dish.

Prices at AJ's are reasonable, and service is quick. It is another strong option for the Downtown dining landscape.


Aj's Cafe on Urbanspoon

25 June 2014

La Tavola


La Tavola resurrects an old name run by area favorite Rick Lopez. Lopez had a hand in Columbus' original haute Mexican outpost Tapatio, the old Polynesian-themed Kahiki and the fast-casual and (temporarily) closed Knead. La Tavola was open from 1999 to the late 2000s in Powell and Dublin. The new restaurant is on 1st Avenue in Grandview.

House made and seasonal items make up the backbone of the menu. There are not a tremendous number of vegetarian items on the menu. There is a vegan pizza. The server checked with the kitchen on specific vegetarian concerns. 

The space is open, and the decor is warm and inviting. The ironic wall paper also doubles as the background on the restaurant website. 

The pasta was magnificent. The strozzapretti, a loose, eggless pasta twirled into a tight, lengthy s-shape, was bathed in kale pesto, mushroom, green beans, yellow pepper and shallots.

The bar had a small but well chosen selection of draft beer. There are also sodas from Boylan's and Grown Up, as well as Brioso coffee.

Desserts are prepared by Krista Lopez. There is bound to be something to like on the list of Italian sweets which go from tiramisu to gelato and semifreddo.



La Tavola on Urbanspoon

18 June 2014

Hudson 29

Hudson 29 is the latest Cameron Mitchell concept, and the first one opened this year in Upper Arlington on Lane Avenue. The kitchen produces classic steakhouse fare and sandwiches paired with sushi and flatbread pizza.

The menu has a couple of vegetarian options, and the staff dealt well with questions about dietary restrictions. Service at the restaurant, however, was uneven beyond that. 

While one lunch visit in a nearly empty restaurant saw attentive service and great attention to detail, a second night visit was severely overbooked on reservations. My reservation seating was 90 minutes late, and while the front of house offered free cocktails because of the delay, it did not make up for the continued service issues in the dining room. The server never brought water to the table despite numerous requests. Other orders were delivered incorrectly. It would be kind to say the experience was a disappointment.

The food was from chef Jonathan Basch was very good despite the hemorrhaging service flaws. The veggie burger, in particular, was a standout. The house made black bean patty was topped with pepper jack, avocado, lettuce, tomato, red onion and sweet pickle mayo. It was served on a toasted bun.

The cheesy bread rolls are a worthwhile expense. The arugula salad was forgettable.

The vegetable flatbread was piled with arugula pesto, shiitake mushrooms, kalamata olives, pickled red onions and fresh arugula. The flavor is a nice blend of savory, salty and fresh vegetable notes that play together nicely with  subtle garlic.

The wine list is heavy on New World labels with some fun choices. There are limited brews with Rockmill carrying the local banner. Cocktails were a nice mix of classics with a few more modern spins.

The dining room and sushi bar are sleek and modern with a nice organic warmth. The couches in the waiting area by the fireplace create an inviting place to relax while waiting for a table.

An inviting space and a few tasty morsels from the kitchen, however, will not be enough to save the place if the front of house is unable to control its reservations book. Improvements in execution will be needed if the restaurant concept is to be duplicated successfully.



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