Striking and sumptuous, outfitted with ceiling-to-floor drapery and a puckered wall inlaid with mirrors, Bluehour has understated razzle-dazzle down to a T.

A cosmopolitan It Girl among more than a few earnest, less-worldly lasses, Bluehour stands out first, for its glittering scene, second, for the fine food of chef Kenny Giambalvo.

The long list of starters, compared with just a half-dozen entrees, is everyone's favorite part of the menu. Gnocchi are velvety, cheesy cushions with a salty kick and hint of black truffle. Made-to-order risotto, recently touting cuttlefish braised in squid ink, takes longer to prepare than most appetizers, but the first bite confirms that it's worth the wait. Seared sea scallops cosseted by strips of bacon are a heady treat. And the elegant Caesar salad, composed of full, slender romaine leaves, always satisfies.

Intriguing ingredients unexpectedly pop up all over the menu. Watercress and a sweet onion salad lend perkiness to grilled hanger steak while grapefruit and leeks accompany excellent seared foie gras. Even desserts, such as chocolate caramel tart spiked with fleur de sel, take a walk on the wildish side.

Ñ Christina Melander

Bottom line: Superbly sleek environs, reliable starters, adventurous desserts

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $18-$29

Address/phone: 250 N.W. 13th Ave., 503-226-3394

The Heathman

Unlike lesser dining establishments, the Heathman doesn't depend on a glam interior to distract from a passable menu. Instead, its pared-down dŽcor has a soothing, almost Asian simplicity.

Flattering lighting, fine art and attentive service perfectly complement the outstanding food.

With chef Philippe Boulot at the helm, the downtown restaurant has established a reputation for providing one of the city's most consistently stellar dining experiences.

Start with one or more of the salads, which wow the palate with their remarkable combinations of ingredients, such as roasted pear and grilled goat cheese in pomegranate vinaigrette.

A selection of more than a dozen entrees on the dinner menu are big on both size and expert preparation. Selections range from the simply delicious (Angus rib-eye steak with whipped Yukon gold potatoes) to the enticingly exotic (Canard ˆ l'Orange).

Adventurers will want to try the James Beard Dinner, a prix fixe menu that always ends on a sweet note. Susan's Bread Pudding with caramel sauce is a favorite dessert.

Ñ Jill Spitznass

Bottom line: Consistently superior French- and Northwest-influenced dishes served in a quietly elegant atmosphere

Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $15-$29

Address/phone: 1001 S.W. Broadway, 503-241-4100


As impeccable as Castagna's entrees are, crafting a meal out of a batch of starters is even more seductive.

This approach allows you to sample more of Castagna's pristine cooking, such as irresistible duck confit agnolotti (stuffed crescent-shaped pasta), white bean soup and the delightful appetizer dubbed Trio, consisting of fried parsnip curls, magenta beets and delicately perfumed chickpeas.

One of the most striking first courses also is the simplest: butter lettuce leaves stacked to resemble a whole head of the stuff and drizzled with an herb-alicious vinaigrette.

Breathtaking presentation is a hallmark of the Castagna dining experience. Everything looks beautiful on the plate, nothing more so than the towering haystack of crispy french fries. The restaurant's monochromatic minimalism, its austerity emphasized by too-bright lighting, nonetheless makes an ideal backdrop for the exquisite plates.

From firm monkfish with prawns to pull-apart rabbit hindquarter to a chocolate-cappuccino semifreddo, there's not a miss on the menu.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Perhaps Portland's most sophisticated, forward-thinking restaurant

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $21-$27

Address/phone: 1752 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-231-7373

Paley's Place

There's a very good chance that all the praise heaped on Paley's Place by Gourmet, Bon AppŽtit and local media has scared away potential patrons.

For at its heart, Paley's is not a posh restaurant. Yes, it's expensive, but it's also incredibly homey. The dining room dŽcor feels slightly hokey, late-'80s, not untouchably slick and polished. Service is self-assured and professional yet friendly.

In other words, Paley's Place Ñ while still a financial splurge Ñ is within reach. And saving some dollars for this caliber of food is well worth the sacrifice.

The terrific starter of garlicky, steamed mussels served with a silver cup of hand-cut fries proves that Paley's is down-to-earth. After this combo, it will be hard to ever again consume mussels without pommes frites.

Other dishes exhibit chef Vitaly Paley's exquisite technique. Matelote Normande, a trout preparation opposite of common citrus-enhanced fish dishes, infuses the whole trout (skin on, head off) with the flavor of cider, the smokiness of bacon and the earthy taste of mushrooms. Grilled Kobe beef top sirloin is about as perfect as a steak can be; its $28 price tag is a drop in the bucket compared to steakhouse ransoms.

Oh, and please don't skip dessert, especially if it's the warm Meyer lemon pudding sprinkled with fresh pomegranate.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Nonpareil French-Northwest cooking in a comfy, country dining room setting

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $22-$28

Address/phone: 1204 N.W. 21st Ave., 503-243-2403


Located in unsung Goose Hollow in a slightly rumpled setting that is more cozy country living room than elegant French dining room, Couvron is a bit of an enigma.

Walking past the low-slung, lace-curtained restaurant, you would never guess that inside, Chef Anthony Demes crafts the most exquisite tasting menu in Portland. You might balk at the $75 fixed-price menu, but for grand occasions, you'll find nothing more special.

Demes instantly wins diners' trust with a trio of amuse-bouches that includes weightless gougre and dense foie gras quenelles.

By the time you've worked your way through house-cured salmon stacked with potato discs and crme fra”che, intensely creamy and fragrant butternut squash soup, and Dungeness crab salad layered with finely diced beets, pears and filberts, you've no doubt that your dinner lies in gifted hands.

It's difficult to choose a favorite among the many courses, but the plump Maine diver scallops served with a square of perfectly seared foie gras, fingerling potato purŽe and celery root sauce may be it.

Then again, there's that beef tenderloin with chopped short rib and the cheese course with its silky-salty dollop of Camembert.

Oh, and the homemade dark chocolates and butter cookies É

Ñ Michaela Bancud

Bottom line: Hands down the most precise, sophisticated food in Portland

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $75 per person

Address/phone: 1126 S.W. 18th Ave., 503-225-1844

El Gaucho

El Gaucho exudes the same expensive serenity as Ruth's Chris and Morton's steakhouses.

Here, $40 steaks are a vivid reality (accompanied by side dishes for single-digit sums), a $200 dinner for two with wine seems a real possibility and a corporate credit card is a practical necessity.

But if you're not traveling courtesy of a corporation, you can cherry-pick your way around the menu, enjoy the atmosphere and negotiate a moderately expensive good time.

Starters include a tasty gravlax of smoked salmon and Swedish mustard crme fra”che, crab cakes, oysters Rockefeller and steamed clams for around $10. If you're feeling flush, contemplate steak tartare for $21 and crab and shrimp Louie for $24.

Steaks range from the 8-ounce Gaucho steak with lobster medallions and bŽarnaise sauce for $34.95 to an 18-ounce, garlic-pepper and rosemary stuffed rib steak for $42, ribs for $24 and rack of lamb for $39.

And if you want to boldly go where few do, try the ostrich filet with mushroom and Madeira sauce for $34.50.

Ñ Paul Duchene

Bottom line: Best enjoyed on a corporate card

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $18.95-$96

Address/phone: 319 S.W. Broadway, 503-227-8794


Though it's one of Portland's most swell restaurants, Genoa seduces with rustic simplicity, not haute cuisine. The defiantly behind-the-times dining room is painted brown and simply adorned with copperware, an antique hutch and a single, ornate flower arrangement.

Similarly, the waiters are not black-clad, lithe young things, rather older, incredibly knowledgeable veterans who can effortlessly steer your wine selection.

The $68 seven-course menu changes every two weeks, but some favorite dishes reappear year after year.

The bagna cauda antipasto, served with homemade breadsticks and crisp raw carrots, fennel, radicchio and celery is one such true-blue dish. Genoa's version of the anchovy-garlic dipping sauce employs cream instead of butter and oil, creating a wonderfully satiny consistency.

Salmon marinated in fennel, Dijon mustard and sugar and broiled to coax a caramelized crust is another popular item that occasionally is offered as one of three entree choices.

Genoa's pasta course also is unerring. Hand-cut pappardelle with rabbit ragout sings with nutmeg. After dessert (pear frangipane tart, chocolate-chestnut cake), the whole extravagant meal comes to a lovely close with wedges of fresh fruit.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: A Portland classic as honest and unfussy as Stumptown itself

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $68 for seven courses, $56 four-course option is available upon request

Address/phone: 2832 S.E. Belmont St., 503-238-1464

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