By New Times
By Robrt L. Pela
By Lauren Saria and Heather Hoch
By Deborah Sussman
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
Done right, beef bourguignon should be a classic dish that cravings are made of, with economical beef chuck made glamorous from a roll in flour, a lusty browning in oil, and a deep pond of Burgundy, the wine deglazed and scraped up with good beef bits from the pan. Cooking beef bourguignon is a long process, demanding hours of simmering until the meat is fork-tender and finished with a tomato-imbued fold of carrots, onions and herbs sautéed in butter. Well worth the work, the result is rhapsody, savored with crusty French bread to capture every last rich drop of stew. It's the kind of luscious feast that encourages us to pull on warm socks and pajamas, cuddle up in an oversized armchair and eat.
Beef bourguignon is a specialty at Portland's Cafe Royale. Sadly, this bourguignon doesn't offer that kind of comfort. Portland's chef Sam Gutierrez comes close with his model, but not close enough to be the real thing. It's not the quality of ingredients: tenderloin is Certified Angus, and the meat has been simmered until it falls apart. A cap of pastry is pretty, burnished golden brown and stacked in lacy, croissant-like layers. The dish is ample with chunks of sweet carrot, pearl onions plus a hint of tomato. But the sauce is a watery brown puddle empty of any discernible herbs, savory beefy tones or dense fragrance. What could be a great meal is only fairly good.
This version of beef bourguignon summarizes Portland's, a restaurant that has promise, but ultimately fails to shine at dinnertime. The kitchen is committed to fresh, premium products and knows how to handle them, but the seasoning that can highlight a meal is absent, creating the kind of low-key, spiritless cuisine we'd expect to find in a business hotel dining room.
105 W. Portland St.
Phoenix, AZ 85003
Region: Central Phoenix
Diver scallops: $10
Butter-braised shrimp: $9
Field green salad: $8
French dip: $9
Charlotte's club: $10
Chicken vesuvio: $13
Guadalajaran NY strip: $26
Lunch is a different matter. Since it opened in early August, Portland's has found favor with midday diners -- at 11:45 most tables are vacant; a minute after noon and guests are crowding the hostess stand. For good reason, too. Portland's strong suit is its sandwiches, pricey at $8 to $10, but easily enough for two meals.
Who Portland's is hoping to appeal to isn't clear. If it's Central Avenue professionals looking for a comfortable, non-distracting corporate lunch nearby, they're there. If it's people wanting to be convinced that there's something exciting to nibble on after dark in downtown, this American fare won't convince anyone to go out of their way to get it.
At least the location is special.
Portland's is the flagship restaurant at Post Roosevelt Square, a sparkling $46 million apartment complex at Central and Roosevelt, a shining centerpiece to the historic restoration of the office buildings, churches and neighborhoods nearby. In an effort to re-create downtown Phoenix as an urban center like other large cities, the property combines some 400 apartments atop street-level retail stores, including the restaurant, a beauty salon, fitness center, police station and Speeder and Earl's coffee shop. So far, the venture is a success, with almost 90 percent of the residences leased. With so many people living directly above its roof, Portland's would seem to have a built-in clientele. That is, if the trendy Gen Xers populating the cutting-edge property really wanted sleepy food like Grandma used to fix for Sunday dinner -- satisfying, but lacking the exciting spices cooks use today.
Good looks alone may lure customers in off Post Roosevelt's wide, tree-lined sidewalks. There's an air of class to the restaurant, split between a lounge boasting a variety of boutique wines and handcrafted beers, and a dining room fronting an exposition kitchen. Royal-blue velvet chairs are refreshingly upbeat against brocade-style patterned booths and warm, burnt-orange walls lit by deep-blue glass sconces. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls feel big city as car headlights glance by, bouncing beams across polished wood tables.
The dinner food feels small town, however, with Chef Gutierrez following a tried-and-true format of predictable seafood, chicken and steak. Twists are minor. Instead of shrimp cocktail, we're presented with appetizers like butter-braised crustaceans with roasted squash and wild mushrooms. It's bland, although the meaty shrimp make up for a timid, low-flavored lobster sauce. Diver scallops are satisfying, if not exciting, pan-roasted and finished with a colorful pear tomato salsa and balsamic. Predictable spinach dip, spiked with red peppers, is another offering, and there's the usual serving of Roma tomato, buffalo mozzarella and baby greens.
So how quiet is Portland's evening cuisine? One of the only things that rises above a whisper is the salads. Not that the recipes are new, but this is the only time the kitchen seems to dole out its carefully guarded cache of flavor. A field salad is excellent, vibrant with brightly bitter greens sparked with salt, and tossed with grape tomatoes, vinegary waffle-cut cucumber, a few crumbles of tangy feta and balsamic port vinaigrette (opt for the creamy peppercorn dressing to enjoy an extra kick). A spinach salad would make Popeye proud, with its fresh baby leaves sprinkled with feta and walnuts in a clean-tasting bacon vinaigrette.
It's silly to see a daily "chef's menu" offered, with the notation that "we believe a revolving menu adds to the creativity of a restaurant and adds adventure for our guests," because Portland's specials would be standard fare on most any menu, and with the spiritless attitude in which they arrive, they aren't deserving of celebration.