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.
Portland's Cafe Royale
105 West Portland
602-795-5354. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m.
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.
For dinner, filet mignon is a chunk of good beef swamped with flavor-challenged truffle sauce (a little truffle goes a long way, but it hasn't survived this trip). And a signature dish, Portland's Guadalajaran New York strip, needs to find a new country to inspire it. Peppery crust is a nice start, but crisscrossed strips of provolone don't belong wrapped around a $26 cut of beef. A pool of "fiery mole" is anything but, just a dousing of bitter, watery sauce. And for this money we get ungainly slabs of zucchini and squash, unseasoned except for a free-for-all with the pepper shaker. A promised side of stuffed poblano chile is missing, replaced with a gotta-be-leftovers mash of potatoes, bacon chunks and scallion.
Salmon causes a disappointed sigh. The hefty hunk is perfectly pan-seared but has no soul, flavored only by its own fatty nature and the intermittent spirit of tart greens plated underneath. A side of caviar lentils adds some oomph, showing up nicely al dente and stocked with greens plus bits of bacon and onion. The bashful pan-seared halibut also needs livening up with its sides of vegetables and field greens. Other choices are even more cautious, including roasted chicken breast with vegetable ragout and mashed potatoes or grilled rib eye with potatoes, vegetables and buttermilk onions.
Another specialty, chicken vesuvio, sounds like it would be spicy, but it's not. The individual components are great, with bow-tie pasta, sun-dried tomato, artichoke heart (fresh slabs of real heart), pulled chicken breast, roasted grape tomato, mild cream sauce and chunks of fresh garlic. But there's no Parmesan in the sauce and the plate is dull after just a few bites.
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Portland's is noteworthy for its sandwiches (lunch only), paired with mountains of shoestring potatoes. Charlotte's club combo towers three inches high, stuffing grilled, caraway-studded bread with fistfuls of deli roast beef, smoked turkey, provolone, crisp bacon, romaine and tomato. A marvelous monster. More of the turkey is tucked in a croissant with avocado, provolone, sprouts and veggies for high-fat comfort food. An old-fashioned, all-American burger, made with Angus-ground sirloin topped with Cheddar, is satisfying if you're in the mood for a classic. The French dip needs two things: a crusty roll (the soft, barely grilled bun is boring), and a reworked jus. This broth harks back to the bourguignon liquid: colored water that's irritating instead of enhancing, crushing another dream because I believe this sandwich should inspire shrines. The mounds of meat within are so good and provolone is applied in a generously thick, melting blanket that a good jus would make it well-nigh perfect.
Phoenix needs more good restaurants downtown, but they should reflect the hip crowd most likely to live there. Portland's needs a more assertive attitude: more creative use of spices and better sauces could make it great.
This place has taken a risk with an innovative location. We wish they'd tap into that same gutsiness and put it into the food.