319 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
Date of Visit: Friday, October 3, 2008
Time: Dinner - 5:00 PM
Number of Diners: 4
Food Quality: 7.5
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
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
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