Thursday, July 26, 2007

Coffeehouse Northwest, Portland

Portland’s coffee culture is serious, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters is its mainstay. Stumptown operates a handful of Dwell­ified cafés and roasts its own beans which have won awards from such wonky outfits as Roast Magazine. By contrast, Starbucks shops are present in the high-rent, high-traffic corridors, but appear to serve only Portland’s small population of automatons.

I visited the newest Stumptown branch, near the famous Powell’s bookshop. For all of Portland’s alleged progressivism, a labor union was striking in the rain against Stumptown’s landlord for what it alleged were poor wages and benefits, but inside, with Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man on the sound system, the customers offered only impolite jokes and indifference while awaiting their latte art. I didn’t expect anyone to march in the rain, but at least feign some interest. (My own excuse is that I am a heinous sell-out reduced to seeking $2 fancy coffee and then blogging about it.)

There must be at least one independent café on every commercial block in Portland, and those with any pretense to quality use the Stumptown beans, which the locals prize as much as they do their Willamette Valley pinot noir. Among this bunch is Coffeehouse Northwest, located on Burnside Street between the 21st/23rd avenue corridors and downtown.

Coffeehouse Northwest is a small café in a charming old brick building and has coffeeshop-brown wood floors and bad local art on the walls with comfortable, but not too cozy chairs and tables conducive to conversation, reading, and writing. The sound system, administered by its highly tattooed employees-cum-aspiring musicians, is vintage rock 'n' roll.

The baristas at Coffeehouse Northwest might strike Al Yeganeh as anal. They will not serve a shot of espresso unless they have tasted one first due to the pernicious threat of minute interior atmospheric change on the grind which they treat as so constant and subtle as to be Heisenbergian in nature. The manager even commented that after serving consistent, great espresso on a recent Tuesday morning, the atmosphere abruptly changed at 10:30, rendering the grind imperfect and him on the verge of tears.

Coffeehouse Northwest serves fresh Stumptown beans. The lead barista explained that the beans are best on the fourth and fifth days after roasting, with contrasting flavors on each day. After that, the espresso tends, with some exceptions, not to be potable.

I fortuitously visited on the fourth day after roasting and the barista served up one of the more unorthodox espressos I have ever seen. A neat, dime-sized circle of espresso shimmered from the center of the cup, surrounded by the coffee's crema, a concentric circle of dark cappuccino-style foam around the perimeter. (Usually, the crema covers the entire contents of the cup.)

This fourth-day espresso was browner than it was black and had a soft delicious taste that, in the Coffeehouse Northwest spectrum (and lexicon), was closer to caramel or a tawny port than chocolate. I returned the next day of course to sample the fifth day espresso, which was blacker in color and had the same peculiar crema but much more of the darker “chocolate” flavor. It was just as delicious, but I have to say, if given the choice between the four or the five, I’d take the four.

Coffeehouse Northwest
1951 West Burnside Street


(503) 248-2133

Monday, July 16, 2007


I had foolishly avoided Providence since it opened in 2005 despite its proximity to our Beverly-La Brea neighborhood and its intense focus on fish, which I always prefer to meat when dining at a fancier establishment. I had looked askance at it because the positive reviews commented on its high ambition and a few acquaintances who went found the food to be precious. Moreover, I distrusted its boxy building as too large to permit exceptional quality or intimacy, feared the prices and then lost interest. In short, I prejudged the place.

So on the occasion of the annual parental visit, my father, having read about Providence in pitiful Los Angeles, asked me to make a reservation. I demurred, offering up such local gems as Soot Bull Jeep, Chung King, and La Casita Mexicana, the likes of which cannot be found in the Midwest. (Needless to say, I lost the argument though on the following day we enjoyed the barbecued quail at Marouch and the southern Thai cuisine at Jitlada.)

At the risk of exaggeration, Michael Cimarusti’s Providence is as good a restaurant as I have been to in a long time. His ideas are as original as his execution is deft. His thoughtfulness goes well beyond the mere use of “new” ingredients or the unorthodox melding of various ingredients, although he does employ these tactics. Cimarusti, with great success, also applies traditional techniques in unorthodox ways to standard ingredients. But not once did I feel his dishes were somehow contrived or precious. It goes without saying that Cimarusti believes in fresh produce and fish. This is California after all.

I was nervous at first. The amuse was a shot of watermelon soup with lemon foam. The soup was fresh and flavorful, but the foam lumbered on top and could not be swallowed concurrently. It was also foam. I will say that Cimarusti’s attempt to pry the maligned substance from the Vigneronian bearhug was admirable if futile.

For an appetizer, I ordered the roasted spot prawn and Japanese sword squid with “provencal flavors,” a dish that immediately reminded me why I love the simplicity of southern French cooking. The kitchen placed two spot prawns at the center of the plate around which it interspersed tiny cuts of the squid. The Provençal flavors consisted of an intensely fresh tomato sauce darkened with capers and a minor chord of spiciness. The spot prawns could have been as succulent and tender as those miraculously good prawns served at L’Astrance, where only a dull spoon was really necessary to cut them. The sword squid was also very tender and delicious.

As a second appetizer, Big City and I split Providence’s foie gras parfait with gewürztraminer gelée, puréed red beet and freeze-dried cherry powder. My father chazered the powder so all I can report is that he really liked it with the foie. Cimarusti whipped the foie gras and served it vertically though not in a superficial west-of-Doheny kind of way. As a result, the texture of the foie gras “parfait,” which was served room temperature, resembled gelato (or the great ice cream at Milk). It was among the best foie gras I have ever eaten. I am sure the gewürztraminer gelée and beet puree were interesting and intelligent, but I was too focused in keeping the five other persons at my table from bogarting the foie.

For a main, I had a great roasted snapper served with roasted sweet peppers, chorizo that was served on a short bed of crushed potato with capers and olive oil. The snapper was thin and delicate though not flimsy, and had a fresh, rich flavor. Its skin was just as crispy and delicious as I would expect in a well-prepared duck dish. The snapper was so good that I paid little heed to the potato and chorizo until the fish was gone.

Marisa had the equally delicious striped bass with pistachios, porcini, carrot mousseline and wedges of mission figs. In an interesting twist, Cimarusti dusted the mission figs with salt, thereby amplifying their natural sweetness with the most basic complement.

For dessert, we liked the saffron rice pudding with Harry’s Berries strawberries and a few interesting gelati such as corn and salt & pepper. The décor was unobtrusive, as I had no clue that the following day's episode of Entourage was set at Providence until my mom called to tell me. The service was formal, even aloof.

5955 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 460-4170

Sunday, July 8, 2007

La Gelateria, Cleveland

After a meekly executed meal at Lola in downtown Cleveland, we wanted to satisfy our collective sweet tooth and honor our longstanding tradition of completing a night on the town by eating fresh, warm doughnuts late at Presti’s eastern bakery in Little Italy. But since Presti’s mysteriously changed its name to Gilly’s of all things and then quickly closed, we stopped by La Gelateria in the adjacent Cedar Hill neighborhood.

La Gelateria is doing its utmost to make me forget about Presti’s, at least during the summer. Operated by Valerio Iorio, who reputedly learned his craft at the renown Il Gelato Vivoli in Firenze, La Gelateria is a small shop that makes splendid gelato. His gelati are very light due to the lack of cream in the recipes. He uses three basic ingredients--whole milk, sugar and water --and he keeps the gelati at a temperature slightly warmer than the typical ice cream parlor. As a result, Iorio achieves a smooth and creamy texture without using cream.

I ordered the tartufo and espresso which were especially good because of the purity of their respective flavors. For this coffee lover, the espresso gelato was notably excellent because it tasted like undiluted espresso though its basic recipe called for what is normally a perversion: the mixture of coffee, milk and sugar. The robust espresso flavor was front and center while the milk and sugar's sweetness was self-effacing, just content to let the espresso shine.

No gelateria in Los Angeles is this good though there are certainly some interesting gelati available at Pizzeria Mozza and Providence. H-Bomb and J could not think of a gelateria in their West Village neighborhood that matched La Gelateria. It just goes to show that there are some venerable treasures remaining in Cleveland, and with La Gelateria even some newer ones.

La Gelateria
12421 Cedar Road
Cleveland Heights
(216) 229-2637

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Harold's Barbecue, Atlanta

After 24 hours in the capital of the syncretic “New South,” namely Atlanta’s Buckhead and Midtown sections, I felt hollow. Save their accents, the locals had excised virtually all traces of their region from the landscape and created a veritable Irvine. South of downtown, I was able to find some traditional southern charm and hospitality in the form of Harold’s Barbecue where the pleated-khaki-&-striped-blue-polo set was nowhere to be found. However, (as AO pointed out) the haggard conditions of the fences and guardrails alongside the roads leading to Harold’s Barbecue were circumstantial evidence that MADD was not particularly effective in south Atlanta.

Harold’s is set in a large shack with two no-frills dining rooms and a traditional lunch counter, which is where we sat. Anxious to try as much as possible and prodded by our affable waitress, I ordered the combination plate which came with chopped beef, chopped pork, a half dozen ribs, slaw, and as an appetizer, Brunswick stew. The stew, a cousin of American-style chili and my favorite item at Harold's, was made of pork and chicken, kernels of corn, and small shreds of tomato. The deliciously spicy and rugged pork was nicely offset by the sweet and sturdy smattering of corn. How the chicken contributed or why it was a participant in the stew are questions not easily answered.

As for the barbecue, the chopped pork was shorn of its fat and, hence on the dry side. The beef was somewhat fattier but still dry. The much more successful pork ribs were meaty and cooked with sauce on top and had just enough fat to bolster the flavor while avoiding the risk of turning into the infamous lardo pizza.

I belatedly observed that the most popular item was the sandwich of either chopped pork or beef. Harold’s Barbecue had a small smoky grill with low heat in front of the lunch counter that was dedicated to grilling the white sandwich bread and warming the chopped meat and over which the restaurant’s paterfamilias presided (though I’m not sure if he was Harold and I was too lazy to ask). The sandwich meat was chopped to order: it was taken from the kitchen, chopped at a station next to the small grill, and then placed on wax paper and onto the grill to prevent the meat from falling in the fire. With optional coleslaw, these sandwiches looked beautiful, and though I am sceptical of how the problem of dryness will be solved, I will certainly order one should I suffer the misfortune of returning to Atlanta. Harold’s homemade hot sauce was similar to a Tabasco sauce, but sweeter and more robust though its utility was to saving the dry chopped pork.

Harold’s Barbecue
171 McDonough Blvd., SE
(404) 627-9268