In the city where food carts populate parking lots everywhere, no reservations-hour plus long waits are the norm at the hottest restaurants, and hangover brunch is the official meal, sometimes it’s easy to forget about the tried and true classic restaurants for relaxed, comfortable meals.
It’s also very easy to yearn for an established, refined dining experience when the rough edges of newer destinations start jading the adventuresome diner in you. Sometimes, you just want to make a reservation, arrive on time, sit down on a plush banquette with a crisp glass of J. Christopher’s Willamette Valley Sauvignon Blanc, peruse the perfectly sized ambitious yet still humble menu, and know that the professional service will pace your meal appropriately.
Dinner might not be an eye-opening tour de force of cutting-edge culinary creativity at the now 18 year old Northwest Portland legend Paley’s Place.
It will, however, soothe you into knowing that there is still a chance to breathe and savor a smooth, very enjoyable meal in this all too chaotic world. This is how neighborhood bistros once were before sous-vide machines and wood-fired pizza ovens became the de rigueur symbols of a neighborhood “bistro.” This is how neighborhood bistros still should be. Remember, “bistros” in France are bustling and mature destinations for weeknight dinners and special occasion dinners alike. They are not gastropubs.
Step off the Portland Streetcar rumbling along Northrup Street at Northwest 21st Avenue and into one of Portland’s icons, almost there with the International Rose Test Garden, the Steel Bridge, and Bill Walton’s 1970’s Trail Blazers teams.Portland’s most well-known contribution to the food world would be its beloved native son James Beard, born here back in 1903. However, it was the ambitious trio of the mid 1990’s who pioneered the regional Pacific Northwest cuisine that truly put Portland’s cuisine on the essential national map. That initial wave hasn’t subsided, continuing a complete transformation that is even stronger to this day, transforming the Rose City into one of the country’s (and maybe even the world’s) most important hubs for dining and drinking.
Both Greg Higgins opened his eponymous Downtown dining room and Corey Schreiber unveiled his Northwest Portland restaurant Wildwood, one block from Paley’s Place, in 1994. That same year, Vitaly and Kimberly Paley left the urban jungle of New York, for the fresh air and serenity of Portland. Paley’s Place opened in 1995 inside a beautiful restored Victorian home above a hair salon just on the outskirts of the main affluent Northwest Portland shopping stretches on 21st Avenue and 23rd Avenue, also known as the Alphabet District.
That these three restaurants opened at roughly the same time may or may not be a coincidence. What is certain is that the same philosophy of emphasizing local and organic ingredients, sustainability, and a keen focus on technique and ingredients’ innate flavors, rather than saucy flourishes that swept across California from Chez Panisse to Michael’s to Zuni Café to Spago in the 1980’s, landed in Portland by 1994.
That being said, none of these three chefs are just about using local salmon and hazelnuts. Higgins might be the most traditional, yet is a master with giving an urban accent to these rural ingredients and developing how own charcuterie. Schreiber (who unlike Higgins and Paley is now retired) spanned the world more with an eclectic bent to Pacific Northwest ingredients. And Paley? Well, you can just tell that the cooking veers in the French direction by the unofficial street address that the Parisian street-sign above the restaurant’s front door states: “Place Paley.”
We could very well be near the Odéon in the 6th or a hidden corner of the residential 15h in Paris for all I know. There are 20 arrondissements in Paris, so perhaps we can call Northwest 21st Avenue the new “21st?”
Vitaly Paley may deservedly be best known for his takes on classic French cuisine- a sterling beef tartare, a chocolate soufflé that competes with any the great Bocuse would craft, and a deft touch with foie gras torchons.
Commonly mistaken for being a French native, Paley was actually born near Kiev in the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine, before moving to the U.S.. Despite studying to be a concert pianist at New York’s Juilliard School, Paley chose to leave the tranquility of the classical music world (at least the music is tranquil) for the banging pots and pans and yelling chefs world of restaurant kitchens, studying at New York’s French Culinary Institute.
Paley’s formative restaurant years in New York took him to the famed TriBeCa kitchen of Chanterelle and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café, back when Meyer was more focused on his handful of formal dining establishments instead of an international burger shack empire.
Meanwhile, Kimberly Paley, a dancer at the time in New York, also worked in the front of the house of numerous important restaurants in town, taking part in the balletic service for Bouley and Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar & Grill. Kimberly and Vitaly met while the two worked on a World Yacht Cruise, quite the grand story.
The couple’s French experience came via a stage for Vitaly with the Michelin two-starred Moulin de la Gorce in the Dordogne région, between Poitiers and Toulouse. After returning to New York for some time, it was off to the Pacific Northwest.
You can feel that artistic streak at Paley’s Place from having a dancer run the service and a concert pianist behind the stoves. Everything is a little smoother and cleaner than at the typical equivalent restaurant. The waiters know the pacing a bit more and the kitchen hits the sweet spot when searing scallops a la plancha. Like a musical number or a play after numerous revisions and out of town tryouts, the menu is right at that size of being not too large and not too small. Restaurants so often want to be something for everyone or too narrow that you worry for picky diners. Paley presents eight “starters,” various homemade charcuterie options, eight “mains,” a handful of sides, such as roasted beets with horseradish cream, and to complete the exact trio, eight desserts. Little did the chef know that 8 is my lucky number.
Best of all, the eight “mains” are available in half and full sizes. So, do keep in mind that ordering the “scallops” half version for a party of four means, well, you won’t be eating much more than half a scallop if you share. Which you should without hesitation do to explore more of Paley’s creations.
Those Maine diver scallops a la plancha are indeed pristine beauties: caramelized on the outside, buttery inside, just like how the magazines make them look. Roasted spaghetti squash, cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, and sage beurre blanc complete the superb seafood dish. I’m not surprised by the high caliber scallops presentation this evening, since for years I’ve been enjoying re-creating Paley’s scallops with blood orange gastrique recipe at home.
Sticking to seafood, Quinault River Steelhead trout comes skin-on and rare to medium rare, despite a fellow diner asking for medium. Despite the hiccup, the fish was actually excellent and benefited from the light cooking ( I vehemently disagree with ever cooking fish medium), spiked with a spicy aïoli, bitter treviso, sunchokes, peppers, and Steelhead caviar. It’s a classic Paley’s Place dish–grounded by technique and ingredients, expressing the local terroir, with definite French accents, and a few global elements to add flair.
Starters veer swiftly towards the classic bistro cooking you might find back across the Atlantic. Paley’s American Wagyu beef tartare is exactly how it should be done, proper, with the right spicing and accoutrements lining the raw beef of shallots and capers when tossed together and slathered in toasted bread. His celebrated escargot dish is vastly different than the usual snails in their shells with gallons of butter and acres of garlic and herbs bathing them. Instead, he takes the escargots out of their shells and into a pool of classic Bordelaise sauce, swimming with bulbs of caramelized garlic. The garlic and escargot share the space with twin marrow bones, a nice touch that would benefit if the bones actually had more than a thin scraping marrow in them.
Of course you can start lighter with chilled oysters on the half shell or moules frites with Paley’s exceptional hand-cut fries and mustard aïoli. Salads deserve attention. They can be a traditional mix of frisée and spicy greens, tossed with chèvre, spiced walnuts, dried cranberries, and a Dijon vinaigrette. Or, a little bit more seasonal in direction with a roasted squash, cabbage, and kale salad. It didn’t hit me like other dishes, one notch too safe. The merely comforting warm brown butter, apple, and sage vinaigrette didn’t make anyone ask for seconds. The highlight was the lonzo charcuterie slices tossed anchoring one end, courtesy of Portland’s Chop Butchery.
Back to the larger plates, with usually two pastas on offer. The heavily advertised by the waiter dish was a pappardelle that proved to be the kitchen’s only clunke. Its perfectly fine, but unspectacular addition of braised duck legg, butternut squash, and Brussels sprout leaves lacked the vision of Paley’s other dishes. The promised shaved foie gras torchon either was missing or had so little effect it was irrelevant, not a commonly seen trait of foie gras.
More imagination was on display with a ravioli stuffed with Chanterelles and King Oyster mushrooms, sitting on a mushroom-ginger broth, or pairing crispy sweetbreads and cider-glazed pork belly with herb spätzle, chestnuts, and more mushrooms. Mushrooms are a big deal in this region after all.
It’s hard to award the gold amongst the three “mains” where there is no “half” option. Fortunately, all three were the unanimous stand-outs on the medal podium for the evening. Veal osso buco never had it so good, brightened by a blood orange accented gremolata, bok choy, and Emmer Farro braised in a red wine sauce not unlike the Bordelaise in the escargots starter.
A New Year’s Eve special of seared Hudson Valley foie gras beckoned, especially for deprived Californians (that’s me raising my hand). As delicate as the sound of a sonata inside Carnegie Hall, the liver thrills, kissed by the eloquence of 30-year aged balsamic. Consider the lobe a smooth filet mignon. Too often we don’t respect aged, fine balsamic, like how we respect fine wine with such reverence. With a little grilled brioche for the foie gras, I may never leave Oregon for the foie gras- less Golden State again.
The restaurant is divided into twin, quaint- sized rooms. The main 50 seat dining room dining room is a cozy, intimate affair full of handsome velvet covered chairs and white tablecloths. On the opposite side is the bar and bistro, complete with brighter lighters, classic French brasserie posters, and a much more “second date” vibe than an anniversary dinner feel to the dining room. The patio outside has to be some of the most coveted seating in the summer time.
Of course, the main reason to dine in the bar and bistro is the Paley’s Place burger, a work of art right up there with Grüner’s for the most formidable in the city. The ruby red rare to medium rare meat is a blend of American Wagyu beef (essentially Kobe, see the aforementioned tartare) and short rib meat, screaming with juice after your first bite. You have your choice of cheese as a topping with the grilled onion. Fourme d’Ambert bleu cheese adds a nifty layer of elegant funk to the proceedings. Bacon can be added on too, so why not? A small greens salad, pickled vegetables, and some homemade ketchup and a sharp whole grain mustard aïoli are all invitingly present as well. The poppy seed brioche bun, baked in-house, accomplishes that rare feat of not commanding too much attention per bite, yet still boasting the sturdy structure to stand up to the substantial drippings.
Frankly, the meat itself could be a dish on its own. The complete masterpiece reminded me why so many people spend every dining moment seeking out the finest burgers.
In theory, the bar and bistro is the only place you can get the burger. Nudge, nudge. Hint, hint. Be nice and you never know what you’ll get.
Before the sweets, don’t avoid the cheese cart temptation. It’s there for a reason. You deserve some Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue.
Right now, Michelle Vernier is just lights out with desserts. A meal of the burger then the restaurant’s classic warm chocolate soufflé cake may be considered the best 1-2 punch in Portland since Lewis and Clark arrived. With a generous scattering of toasted hazelnuts and equally generous scoop of honey-vanilla ice cream the size of the cake, this is why haute French cuisine should never be forgotten.
Right now the French classic, crêpes, are sent to Hawaii, filled with coconut milk jam, alongside caramelized pineapple, and macadamia nuts, then finished in New York with a cheesecake ice cream. We all love apple pie with Cheddar cheese. Here it’s an apple galette with Beecher’s Flagship Reserve Cheddar from Washington state.
Silky white chocolate panna cotta could use an extra boost of chocolate flavoring, playing supporting cast to a tangerine and date confit, pistachios, and a very commanding Meyer lemon cream. And since this was New Years Eve, why not toast with a Valrhona chocolate terrine, blood orange macarons, sugar plum compote, and, that’s right, Champagne coulis.
Try to visit for one of the Wine Wednesday events– recently an evening of sake (it’s rice wine!) or coming up in February a Northwest Syrah showdown between Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. Speaking of wine, don’t pass up the chance to sample the exceptional house Paley’s Place Cuvée from Bergström in the Willamette, everything you ask for in bright, exciting Pinot Noir. The whole wine list is top tier. And also consider the cocktails, either the classic “Chef’s Favorite” of a martini with Tanqueray 10 Gin served up with a twist, or a Bourbon Sour with sarsaparilla infused Temperance Bourbon.
Chef Paley may now have the television exposure of being an “Iron Chef” winner, but had remained always at his original restaurant until branching out for the first time in 2012. More often than not these days, the chef can be seen shuttling between Paley’s Place and his new Downtown Portland projects The Penny Diner and Imperial. Both are drastically different than the Alphabet District flagship with their Americana diner and cosmopolitan vibes respectively. I cannot comment on meals at either yet and have only been to Imperial for drinks, which seemed to still be a work in progress if the unbalanced, too sweet “Darjeeling Limited ” is any indication. There is no doubt though with Paley in charge that both will almost certainly be Portland mainstays, even if not quite at the lofty level of Paley’s Place.
It was a most celebratory New Years Eve celebration at the grand old Victorian, just like dinner is every night at this pinnacle of a neighborhood bistro. Lucky Portland the past two decades. Food, drink, and service of this warmth and heart deserves a toast. Surviving 18 years and continuing to thrive in the impossible restaurant business deserves another toast.
1204 NW 21st Ave., Portland, OR
(503) 243- 2403