Alphabet District Pasta Houses: A Study in Contrasts
lavendersoda and I read the pdx food boards and blogs. A lot. It's no secret what the food consignetti around town think of these two establishments. One happens to be lavendersoda's favorite neighborhood eatery. The other we agree to try with more than a little trepidation. So, um, yeah, we go in a little biased and prejudicial (but hey, who doesn't, right?).Meal 1 - Caffe Mingo
(Did you know that Mingo is Latin slang for piss?)
Tonight, we are 3.
We order a bottle of white wine to begin the meal. The exact wine escapes me, but I believe it was a Soave (The list showed 2004, the actual wine was 2005. Slight difference, but I think the wine was a little weighty and full, showing the heat of the 2005 vintage when all I wanted was the crispness of the cooler 2004).
A few salads to start? Sure, sounds great. A Caesar for lavendersoda, and an insalata mista for me. We also grab a plate of prosciutto and melon for the table to split. If memory serves, the Caesar was great, the insalata greens were slightly tired, but not enough to make it unpalatable. The melon was lovely and prosciutto was spot on.
lavendersoda and I, both having had late and large lunches, split the penne al sugo de carne
, a sinful melange of painted hills beef, braised with Chianti and espresso over perfectly cooked penne. Really, this dish was quite a treat. Flavors were bold and savory but well integrated and never out of control. Top notch. (lavendersoda wants me to throw in a special shout-out to the penne, she says "It's the only dish in town I crave, that I feel passionately must be on the table whenever someone goes to Mingo".)
The third guest in our party got the special (the name escapes me now), a baked penne with dungeness crab. As you might be able to tell from my 'handle,' I'm not a fish guy, but the bite I had (sans crab) was pretty darned tasty.
We had a bottle of red with the main course, and again, the exact wine escaped me (Renato Ratti Nebbiolo, I believe). We got an ice bucket for the white, which was served a little too warm, and kept it for the red, which was also served a little too warm. No matter, with a quick dip in the ice bath, both tasted just fine.
"Do we get dessert? " A few items look appealing, but everyone is feeling a little full. "Maybe one dessert?" "Sure. If you're getting one, I'll get one too. " Etc etc. We each end up getting an after dinner sugar fix. lavendersoda = chocolate mousse with blackberries (not very mousse like, but tasty, nonetheless). me = summer berry crumble (huge, warm, satisfying). 3rd party = panna cotta with blackberries (looks great, not sure why I didn't try it).
All in all:
Meal 2 - Balvo
- Food: simply fantastic.
- Drink: wine list VERY heavy on Italian (to be expected) but wasn't served at a proper temperature
- Atmosphere: comfy. We sat outside on a lovely summer evening, a light breeze blowing by.
- Strikes: slightly tired greens in the salad
- Tally: another win for lavendersoda
(The orange ball decendeth... or 'The Lime is Still on the Table.')
Tonight, we are 4.
As I mentioned above, after reading review after review, post after post, and comment after comment, lavendersoda and I went into Balvo, slightly biased, yet optimistically hopeful. (A side note: honestly, we had hoped to hit Mingo again tonight, showing our out of town friends some of the best food Portland has to offer, but there were closed for a winemaker's dinner. We agreed to stay in NW, and pasta did sound good. That's how we ended up with Balvo.)
Round One, Apps and Salads:
Before I get ahead of myself, we are offered still or fizzy water. We order up some fizzy. Pre-bottle, 4 lime wedges appeared, presented on a paper napkin!
WTF?!? (Strike one, my friend...) The bottle is brought and poured a minute or two later.
We agree to get an antipasti plate for the table to split. This is actually one of the best parts of our meal: good pickled fennel, grilled zucchini, and olive. The cheeses, however, left much to be desired.
Our two dining guests each get Caesar salads (the salad seems to lack the hint of anchovy and crisp lemon nuance that, for me, makes a Caesar a Caesar. Instead, it seems to have an odd mustard taste. Mustard in a typical vinaigrette, no problem, but I don't think it has a place in a Caesar). lavendersoda, instead of a salad, gets the veal carpaccio. It shows up topped with leafy greens and an olive tapenade where the lemon juice should be. Odd, but not entirely unpleasant. I wind up with an arugula and shaved fennel salad. A little wilty and overly dressed, but passable. As we finish the first course, it's not hard to notice that the napkin, with one lonely lime wedge is still in the middle of the table, even as everything else has been cleared.
Round two, main courses:(A brief pause for another side note: we had to ask our server if there were any specials. His answer? "Everything is special," enunciated with way too much sparkle and panache.)
Two of us get lemon tagliolini. Tagliolini is a little like fettuccine, but a little thinner. Lemon is a citrus fruit that did not (at least to my palette) make an appearance in this dish. I haven't had a blander plate of pasta in quite some time. I tried salt, a little oil, whatever I could find on the table to spice it up, but to no avail. It reminded me of the people in college who would make spaghetti and add butter and a little salt to it. Boring. Our only thought was that they may have been out of lemons (what with the lack of lemon juice in the Caesar and carpaccio too), but at that point, 86 the dish, you know? Strike 2.Dish three was pan-roasted salmon with a sweet corn, red pepper, and olive "sauce." Sounded OK, but nothing jived. To me, the olives just didn't belong there. The entire melange was very southwestern. And not southwestern Italy, if you get my drift. The fish itself, I can't report on.
Finally, the only decent main course ordered was
Nonna Giambalvo's meat pasta. Although a little salty, it actually had flavor and presence. It's really too bad that Kenny's nonna didn't create all of our dishes.
And, the lime remains. I figure after two table clearing sessions, this would have been picked up. Try to relax, try to ignore it.
We got 2 desserts to split.
The first was peach sorbet with some sort of red fruit compote on top. Actually tasty, although lavendersoda didn't care for it too much.
The second was a chocolate hazelnut torte. Very dry and all chocolate, no hazelnut flavor (or actual nuts either, for that matter).
The coffee was simply terrible. Stumptown should be ashamed to have their fine name associated with this. Terrible. It was, at once, watery and overextracted. How is that even possible? Strike 3.
So, they must grab the lime this time, right? No, still there. Come on!
We had 3 different wines, 2 reds and a white. They were either a)too young and tannic, b)boring, c)served at the wrong temperate, or d)all of the above. a) can't be helped, but b)could be solved by buying better wine and c) could be solved by better storage. Also, at some point, we get shiftily talked into a larger carafe than we had actually wanted. I guess that's their job, but...
Another observation, there were huge
hiccups with the service (lavendersoda is nice when she says that his timing was off, a complete understatement, in my mind):
- We asked our server for a bit more time with the menu, and he decided to return at the exact moment when a member of our party was away from the table (and them seemed exasperated that we were having a tough time ordering for our friend). Who does this?!?
- After ordering and not writing anything down, our server had to return to confirm several items. Either write it down, or work on your memory...
- We were asked if we wanted boxes to take food away while our friend was still actively taking a bit of his food. I mean, he was literally pulling the for out of his/her mouth as the server asked this question. WTF?!?
- VERY off timing: inconsistent clearing of some plates while others sat and sat, serving 2 of 3 coffees immediately and the third (an espresso drink when the others were plain coffee, which is no excuse) nearly 5 minutes later, etc.
- Repeatedly ignored (or simply forgotten) requests for a tea bag.
- Some off comment about a female picking up the bill (I personally didn't hear this, but several in our party did).
- Saying 'Thanks, kids!" as we left the restaurant.
Strikes 4, 5, etc, etc. I'm beginning to lose count.
Mercifully, the meal is over. The check arrives, and honestly, I'm a little surprised how much of a tally we've racked up. Wow. You'd think for that kind of money, they could clear a napkin and squished lime off a table!
As we left the restaurant, the napkin and lime were still there.
All in all:
- Food: Passable to mediocre.
- Drink: wine list VERY heavy on Italian (to be expected) but poorly chosen and stored, cocktail list was better.
- Atmosphere: modern, slightly cold. Orange B's everywhere, on the carafe, on the windows, on the olive oil... come on, is all this really necessary? Although if you like squished lime on a paper napkin on your table during the whole damn meal, this might be a place for you.
- Strikes: too many to count. See any part of the above review for one or more.
- Tally: lavendersoda picked this place, even thought I tried to dissuade her. A big negative for lavendersoda.