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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Quartet: Smoke and Mirrors

Posted by Chris Onstad on Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 10:14 AM

quartet.gif

The following is not a review, but a recap of a single experience at a restaurant that does not open until tomorrow. It is generally my policy to review restaurants that have been open at least two months, but due to the circumstances I explain below, I feel like something should be said, if only so that at least one person is honest with the management. What follows won't surprise a lot of you.

Quartet, the new fine dining venture opening tomorrow in the old Lucier space, hosted a media dinner Tuesday night. I'm up to speed on the public's apprehension about the project: in this age where we hunger for our bread and circuses perhaps a bit too keenly, it is roundly hoped that this Titanic will sink dramatically, in plain sight of shore, hopefully with tiny necktie-wearing expediters getting cut to chum by its leviathan brass propellers. I don't want that. Who would? Portland's quaint, self-designated "society" can have a nice place to eat dinner, what do I care. I was curious to see if all the pomp and purported acumen led to a five-star dining experience.

Since I'll probably never be invited to another of the group's restaurants after this, here goes.

Quartet has one of the most elegant dining rooms in Portland. The decor is a bit unchecked nouveau-gauche in places (glass cases of painter's palettes and wine in baskets remind me of a long walk down to Terminal A), but the soaring ceiling, two-story glass view of the placid waterfront nightscape, and cush seating create a more grand and comfortable experience than that of any local dining room in recent memory. The bar is modern-elegant, but extremely loud even when half full.

I'm aware that this was a press dinner, and not nightly service. But it was seated, with a special un-priced menu, so I have reason to believe the food quality is somewhere in the ballpark of what they're ultimately shooting for. Did I mention they invited a room full of food journalists who they knew were going to write about it?

Maybe they were trying to get us not to come back.

The amuse was the core of a snowball that just kept getting bigger and rolling in more unsettling directions. A dense crab hush puppy that had been fried far too early in the day sat on a dollop of something like orange marmalade, but sweeter; paired with this was half a roasted Brussels sprout that tasted faintly "Asian." The garnish of arugula had managed to wilt into a limp pile despite the absence of a dressing. You may commence with the head-scratching.

After this goofball came a lobster and roasted corn (read: unroasted corn) bisque with the texture and flavor of microwaved nacho cheese dip. It set up quickly, the lobster was impossible to taste, and the advertised addition of cognac was wholly absent. For a salad, watery bagged greens in a chewy vol-au-vent were garnished with half a mealy, refrigerated cherry tomato on a slice of cucumber. Who puts a salad in a bread bowl?

Butternut squash and gorgonzola "raviolis" [sic] were half-cooked and splashed with a broken vincotto sauce. They were plated with more of the expired arugula, which this time was stirred together with...something like a tomato confit. Bone-in cajun ribeye was cooked perfectly, but had the marbling of something that just squeaked in to Choice. It was atop under-seasoned mashed potatoes and below cold, flavorless shoestring onions. Someone had hit the steak with a "1993" (squiggle) of white cream sauce. Dessert was a use-your-fork-like-a-maul pecan pie with some blueberries dropped onto the top of it—which then rolled around on the plate, presumably looking for their purpose—and a first draft of a rather outdated bacon ice cream on a decent roasted peach cobbler.

As our dinner grew to a close, a manager went around glad-handing his guests. One by one, my heart sank and my jaw set as, without fail, they blew smoke up his ass about how great everything had been. As we stood at the coat check, he asked my girlfriend and I how we liked the food. She was too polite to tell the truth, and said it was nice. I couldn't speak, and merely shook his hand. It seemed rude to tell the emperor he had no clothes.

This wasn't a first attempt by a terrified and naive young couple trying their hand at opening a neighborhood cafe. This was a big, boastful, well-publicized opening with multi-decade high-end industry veterans at the helm. The forecasted menu prices will make them one of the most expensive dinners in the city. The quality of food at the outset, however, would not even place them in the top five restaurants at Disneyland. I hope to hear that things improve; I no doubt will be watching this game from the sidelines.

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