El Gaucho - Portland, Oregon

El Gaucho
319 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205


Date of Visit: Friday, October 3, 2008
Time: Dinner - 5:00 PM
Server: Chris
Number of Diners: 4

Food Quality: 7.5
Service: 6.5
Ambiance: 8

Our Saturday schedule of leisurely shopping, late breakfast, and no lunch put us squarely into early-bird time for dinner. We were the first diners of the evening at the Portland location of the famous steakhouse, which started in Seattle and also has a Tacoma branch. We were told to expect a new opening in Bellingham in November as well. The rainy season had started in Portland, and after our 10 block walk to the restaurant all of us had soaking wet raincoats to deal with. The hostesses greeted us cheerfully and produced a single coat hanger upon which every coat was draped. I took the single claim ticket and cocked an eyebrow at my companions who shrugged. We shook ourselves off and proceeded to a very nice table in the quiet, elegant dining room.

El Gaucho is a veritable time machine, transporting us instantly back to the 50s and 60s of chic supper clubs, thankfully sans the smoking! Our server and his team were all dressed in El Gaucho uniforms - formal black and white with gold embroidery. Chris introduced himself and encouraged us to take our time with the menu and wine lists. Standard wines and wines by the glass were listed on the back of the oversized menu card, while reserve wines were listed in a separate menu. Wine prices were high across the board, overcome by the fact that nearly every choice was a high quality wine - some famous and some less famous. The sideboard next to our table displayed magnums of some of the best wines in the United States: Joseph Phelps Insignia, Far Niente Estate Cabernet, Woodward Canyon Old Vines Cabernet, Caymus Special Selection Cabernet, Trefethen, Grgich, and others. It was an honor to dine in such company.

I had to call my wine consultant, Scott in Yakima, to help find the best quality/value pairing on the list. Most good wine lists have the famous wines at famous prices, and they hide a few gems somewhere that provide equivalent or superior quality for a comparative bargain. Scott quickly honed in on one and directed me to have it decanted and wait for a minimum of 30 minutes before consumption. I called Chris over and asked for the Andrew Will, Sorella, Horse Heaven Hills ‘05, our hidden wine gem for $145. The wine steward quickly appeared with the correct bottle, opening it and decanting it through a silver filter with a flourish. We could see from the deep burgundy color and the slow viscosity of the pour that this was indeed a special wine. The steward poured me a sample. The nose was prominent, fruity and floral, and the wine was smooth and delicate with enough body to coat my entire tongue. I enjoyed every nuance of flavor as taste buds were stimulated area by area. I nodded to the steward, but had to stop him from pouring out the carafe into our glasses. "We will let it rest for a while." He was taken aback a bit. Clever servers know that they need to get you started drinking immediately to loosen up the group and create time and desire for a second bottle. Clever diners know that the bottle can be saved for the main course, and this was the path we chose! Two minutes later the wine was still dancing around my tongue - a very good sign of things to come.

If you ever wondered, "Where's the beef?" the answer is a resounding "El Gaucho!" The center of the menu boldly states: "We proudly serve custom 28-day dry-aged certified Angus beef® prime steaks as personally recommended by John Tarpoff." Sure, there are good fish and poultry choices, but the order of the evening was beef, and plenty of it! We discussed steaks and sides with Chris as we ordered. I was surprised to learn that none of the produce, vegetables, or fruits were organic - unusual for Portland and slightly disappointing.

What we had with menu descriptions...

Table Side Caesar Salad (minimum of two) $12 per person

French Onion Soup bowl $8

Peppercorn New York 16 oz $64

Baseball Cut Top Sirloin 12 oz $38, Roquefort $40

Filet Mignon 8 oz $42

Flaming Sword Brochette of Tenderloin $34

"Shareable Sides"

Full Gaucho Treatment Gaucho Baked Potato - Russet potato fluffed tableside with butter and Tillamook cheddar cheese beer sauce, cracked pepper and scallions $5

Southwest Scalloped Potatoes $6

Asparagus $12

Chris wheeled a tableside prep cart over and began the serious business of making our Caesar salads. He scooped garlic and anchovies into an oversized walnut salad bowl and started working them vigorously with a big spoon. Adding Dijon, egg yolk (pasteurized), Pecorino cheese, and fresh lemon, he capped it off with a generous pour of extra virgin olive oil. Working the dressing for several minutes, he showed us the result before adding cheesy croutons and romaine lettuce. I took the opportunity to pour a generous taste of wine for each of my companions. While the salad and show were wonderful, the French onion soup was even better. Carmelized sweet Walla Walla onions brought out nuances of our wine made from Walla Walla grapes. Subtelties of shared terroir are difficult to describe, so you should be encouraged play around with such pairings on your own!

We were alerted to the imminence of our steaks when one of Chris's assistants appeared with a cutlass of meat, mushrooms, and tomato with flaming spirits in the inverted crossguard - good for serving the food if less functional in a sword fight! He started spooning the flames over the brochette in a professional manner as we enjoyed the show. Chris and another assistant came with the other three entrees while the restaurant manager came to finally pour the wine. I told her to check with each person before pouring, as one of our friends wanted to limit herself to a taste. This instruction elicited another funny look as she complied. It seems that the entire staff is there to please you and handle everything, and they were somewhat insulted by my instructions. Whatever.

Chris spooned crimini mushroom gravy onto one of the tenderloins and Bearnaise onto the other, then the two ladies attacked their tenderloins like true carnivores - perhaps it was a tactical error to skip lunch? Both uttered moans of delight, so all was well. My buddy offered praise for his peppercorn NY steak, while I carved a chunk off the baseball of top sirloin. I found my steak to be perfectly cooked, flavorful, and a bit chewy. I glanced at my enraptured companions and tried another bite with the same result. I asked my friend if the evening's steak was better than the flat iron steak at Higgins, and he said that it was. The girls were still gorging themselves, so I tried a few more bites. Still disappointing, I said something to my companions. They were shocked and immediately proffered generous samples of all of their steaks. The tenderloins were both delicious and melty. The peppercorn steak was overspiced and very tough. By contrast my top sirloin was much better, and it clearly improved as I moved to the center of its mass. Apparently I have a talent for choosing the very worst part of any steak for my first bites! The rest of the meal was a delight, and the wine paired perfectly with the aged Angus beef.

After dinner dishes were cleared Chris brought out an enormous tray of fresh fruit and raw nuts in the shell plus a plate of Roquefort cheese, crackers, and dried dates. We eagerly cracked pecans, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds while sipping good coffee. There were red and green apples and a pear as well. I tried each of the items with the wine, and it did not pair very well with the coffee or sweets, but was OK with the various nuts - especially almonds. I finally poured the last of the wine from the carafe and watched as the legs slowly melted down its sides. The wine steward appeared out of nowhere and stood looking at me. "I'm waiting for the legs to fall to get the last drop." He stared silently, picked up the carafe, and backed away very slowly - cautiously assuming that I was kidding while giving me an option to stop him. I wasn't totally kidding, but let him have his way at last. My wife shrewdly deduced that those few drops from the legs of the wine were his to taste, explaining the odd behavior.

Overall the experience was good. Dinner as theater. I deducted half a point from the food score for the lack of organic ingredients and the unimaginative handling of the menu items. This last point is perhaps unfair, as imagination would have detracted from the vintage experience. It's my blog, so my opinion rules, as always! I also deducted half a point for the wet raincoats (mine was thoroughly soaked inside). Only the bottom coat was dry on the inside. And for the the slight undertone of discomfort from the staff as they dealt with my unusual instructions. Chris and his team got a generous tip (22%) while the hostess/coat check girl got a quiet word of advice. I wanted her to learn rather than get a reprimand from management. Not sure it worked - she seemed shocked to learn that placing one wet coat on a hanger on top of another would make the inside of the top coat wet. She's probably still complaining to her friends that nobody every complained to her before. For someone that lives in a city where it rains 6-12 months per year, she should know this by now!

El Gaucho - RECOMMENDED for a nice night of theater dinner

Highs: The show, reasonable prices considering the extras
Lows: Low creativity, damp inside lining of raincoats

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Higgins Restaurant and Bar - Portland, Oregon

Higgins Restaurant and Bar
1239 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205


Date of Visit: Thursday, October 2, 2008
Time: Dinner - 8:30 PM
Server: Andrew
Number of Diners: 4

Food Quality: 9
Service: 9
Ambiance: 7

Started a long weekend in Portland, Oregon with friends by re-visiting Higgins Restaurant and Bar. In any conversation of which restaurant is best in Portland (a topic of endless discussion locally), it is a given that Higgins will be mentioned in the top five. In a culinary mecca like Portland, anything in the top 50 will not disappoint!

Our waiter introduced himself (Andrew) and asked about drinks. We asked for some time to contemplate, and he left me with the wine and beer lists. The beer list is worth noting, two full pages, a dozen on tap, and there are separate wine and beer stewards listed and present at the restaurant. I saw a Volnay for $62, which is a stellar restaurant price for such a wine, which can often retail for $100 or more. I also noted that there was a cask beer selection available. When Andrew returned I quizzed him about the wine (well balanced and bold) and the cask beer (a selection from a local microbrewery). We ordered a bottle of the Volnay and I asked for a draught of the cask beer to pair with my appetizer course. The menu is short - half a dozen appetizers and salads, two soups daily, and half a dozen main courses. There were also verbal specials - 1 appetizer and 3 mains. Between us our group ordered three soups, three salads, and three entrees.

The menu changes every Thursday based on what's locally available week by week. All produce, fruits and meats are organic and natural - something not written on the menu. It may go without saying in this health-conscious city.

What we had with menu descriptions...

Fresh mozzarella burrata with vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and basil $14.50

Salad of gathered summer greens, toasted hazelnuts and herb vinaigrette $7.25

Soup of the Day - white bean and bacon $7.00

Soup of the Day - tomatillo and green chile $7.00

Risotto of sweet corn, tomatillos, and chèvre cheese with a sweet red pepper vinaigrette $23.50

Special - Flat iron steak with cheddar mashed potatoes and a trio of local mushrooms in red wine sauce $35.00

Special - Fresh local sturgeon and garlic green beans on a bed of polenta $28.50

One thing we did not order this time: Higgins charcuterie plate with house-made pickles $13.75 - pictured at right and even better than it looks...

Sourdough bread was excellent, paired with house branded extra virgin olive oil. The soups and salads appeared immediately. The Caprese was stunning with organic green heirloom tomatoes and uber-fresh mozzarella - clearly made on premises earlier that same day. And the basil had clearly been snipped from a nearby plant. The green salad was a work of art and very tasty with organic greens. The white bean soup was hearty and entirely pleasant, while the tomatillo chile soup raised raised the bar of excellence even higher. The mildly hoppy cask ale was a perfect complement to all of the above.

Andrew had opened the Volnay, inspecting the cork with his nose immediately after it popped out of the bottle, quietly showcasing his wine expertise. It had time to breathe in the glasses as we lingered over salads, soups, bread, and beer. The wine had great character, tasting of raspberry, blueberry, leather, and earth. The nose was delicate and fruity with no floral notes at all. Volnay was the perfect choice to pair with beef, fish, and vegetarian main courses.

The entrees appeared together at exactly the right time. The flat iron steak was perfectly cooked, pink in the center, and literally tender enough to cut with a fork. The cheesy potatoes easily absorbed the mushroom sauce, and the fresh local mushrooms added value to the taste of the perfectly aged beef. The sturgeon was light, delicate, flaky, moist and melted in your mouth. The beans were crisp, fresh, and full of phytochemical goodness. The polenta was as good as corn meal mush can be. The most unusual entree was the sweet corn risotto - creamy, crunchy, piquant, and surprisingly sweet. The sweetness melded well with the sweet red pepper vinaigrette, and the whole of the dish was a factor of ten more than the sum of its parts. Everyone at the table had a taste, and the reviews were consistent - home run!

All throughout the night Andrew was at our elbow in anticipation of every need, and the bus staff never allowed a water glass to be less than half full. All servers were polite, unobtrusive, professional, and nearly invisible. Dessert menu was equally impressive, and the four of us shared the hot apple crisp - a delightful medley of fresh apples mixed with house-made granola and topped with vanilla ice cream. Mediocre cappuccino was the only (very minor) flaw in the otherwise perfect dining experience. We all rolled happily and slowly back to the hotel six blocks away.

It should be noted that the entire menu plus a bargain-priced bistro menu is available in the bar at the back of the restaurant. Locals jam in here for Portland's best foodie value play. The hamburgers here are a local legend, and I shall have to return and try one for lunch very soon!


Highs: Fresh Organic and Local ingredients, innovative menu, beautiful presentation, casual atmosphere, flawless service
Lows: Mediocre coffee, not open for breakfast...

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cucina Toscana - Salt Lake City, UT

Cucina Toscana
Historic Firestone Building
307 W Pierpont Avenue

Salt Lake City, UT 84101


Date of Visit: Saturday, August 23, 2008
Time: Dinner - 10:00 PM
Server: Justin & staff
Number of Diners: 4

Food Quality: 8
Service: 8
Ambiance: 7

Valter Nassi took over the deserted Firestone Building space in 2002 and created his version of a Tuscan kitchen for Salt Lake City. As with any new place, reviews raved. Unlike other new places, the reviews escalated year by year, and the quality consistently improved. Picked as a no-contest best Italian restaurant by Salt Lake Magazine several years in a row, Cucina Toscana was also picked in 2008 by that publication as the best restaurant in Salt Lake City, period. Having been there a number of times, I find it easy to agree. It's inconceivable that this city could deserve or maintain such a place.

With that modest setup, we found ourselves downtown with friends late one Saturday evening, having just viewed the movie Bottle Shock - a great story poorly done for Sundance and released to art houses this year. Wait for it on cable. But I digress. Where to go near 10 PM on a Saturday in Salt Lake City for some wine and dessert? Unlike civilized regions, most dining establishments were already closed. We knew that the trendy, downtown places would be open until maybe 10, so we took a chance and went to the best one - Cucina Toscana. The parking lot was half empty, and folks were pouring out of the place. I had some trepidation, but we proceeded boldly inside. The bar area (not a real bar - this is Utah!) was being cleaned after hosting a private party, and the hostess greeted us cheerfully. I replied, "I was hoping to get some drinks and dessert." She said, "No problem!" and quickly seated us in the main dining area, in a prime table on the busy deli aisle. The restaurant is designed to make you feel as if you are eating in a kitchen, and the best tables are in the noisy, active areas. The host, impeccably dressed, introduced himself as Justin, and snapped his fingers, "Get some bruschetta for these folks!" The near-invisible staff made the complimentary appetizer appear, and it was perfect - freshly toasted baguette slices covered with diced tomato and fresh spices doused in olive oil. We asked for San Pellegrino for the table and it appeared immediately in endless quantities.

Just for fun, we perused the dinner menu, and I discussed wine selections with my friend. Justin reappeared and added his recommendations. My friends chose two different chardonnays by the glass, and I stayed with the Pellegrino as designated driver. Even though we were not hungry, the smells were tantalizing. So I ordered a "tuna carpaccio" while my wife got the Caprese salad. Our friends split an enormous pasta entree. The tuna was fresh, uncooked, and delicious. The Caprese was a work of art with fresh, organic, hydroponic, Wyoming tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and basil covered in fine extra virgin olive oil. The pasta was al dente and the sauce delicate. Valter appeared from the banquet room and provided handshakes and hugs for the men and kisses for the ladies. As always, he made us feel welcome - as if we were visiting the home of an uncle. After some time and several glasses of wine and Pellegrino, we were given dessert menus. Four demitasse cups of the house special hot chocolate (also complimentary) appeared to help us in our selections. The drink was warm, rich, and amazing - too rich to finish even the tiny portions. Our friends shared a triamisu. We were abstaining from sugar, so I asked if a dessert of cheeses and berries was available. Nothing like it was on the menu, but it appeared in concert with the tiramisu, and the selections were generous and delicious.

By now it was nearing 11PM and the restaurant was still about half full. Our friends noticed comedian Lewis Black come in with an entourage, and they were quickly and discreetly seated at a large table in a quiet corner. They were happily digging into their bruschetta as we split the $140 check (leaving $85 apiece) and made our way home. Expensive, but well worth it - the perfect finish for a nice evening out with friends.

Cucina Toscana - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED any time for anyone in the Salt Lake area (closed Sundays)

Highs: Valter, service, activity, food, dessert, and hospitality
Lows: Very busy at "rush hour" 7-9 nightly

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego