When in the mood for comfort food
The embracing of American comfort food gained purchase in Portland well before supercilious citizens started waving freedom fries around.
With so many bright new bistros dishing up helpings of Mom's meatloaf or marinara, satisfying a craving for macaroni and cheese has become as easy as tracking down a burger. It's a trend that will continue well after the last MREs are doled out in Iraq.
It's certainly all the rage in Beaumont, where the deservedly popular Fife, An American Place, wears its culinary intentions on its sleeve. Now, the Dining Room Restaurant Ñ equally evocative in name Ñ has opened just down Fremont Street. And pot roast with Granny's potato kugel is on the menu.
That would be Mike Siegel's grandmother's kugel. Siegel, former chef and partner in the Compass World Bistro, embarked on the Dining Room to serve what he considers true American cuisine: the time-honored recipes that immigrants imported from their native countries.
The Dining Room isn't exactly a melting pot, though; the dishes are mostly meat and potatoes, with a couple of hearty pastas and salads thrown in. But these common, foursquare meals that many of us grew up on are distinguished at the Dining Room by their prime ingredients. Siegel relies upon Oregon Country Beef (hormone free) and naturally raised lamb, and uses local, organic produce as much as possible.
The menu is peppered with Siegel's exclamatory comments. Of the duck confit cassoulet he writes, 'One of my favorite dishes!' The description of Dungeness crab macaroni and cheese is punctuated with, 'Maybe we've got a real 'Portland' dish!' But despite his obvious enthusiasm for his craft and the emphasis on quality, the cooking is uneven.
The 'cassoulet' part of duck leg confit cassoulet is as complex as all of France: a remarkably heady broth thick with navy beans, pancetta and duck. Sadly, the duck leg lacks the smooth richness normally associated with confit, somehow managing a bland flavor. Caesar salad, too fishy and clouded by a generous helping of bacon, is a total miss. The standard mixed green salad, jazzed by crispy spiced walnuts, or the warm spinach salad are smarter bets.
But selections such as the tender-sweet pot roast with Grandma Ida's firm kugel exemplify good, honest cooking Ñ American food, you could say. If you haven't had pot roast in a while, this is a fine one to try.
It's unclear what Siegel means by 'a real Portland dish,' but his velvety macaroni and cheese is addictive. Gemelli, slick with melted cheddar and pecorino Romano, is leavened by delicate clumps of fresh crab. Ravioli bulging with chvre, feta and pecorino Romano also is completely satisfying, complemented by a tangy sauce made with red pepper, tomato and cream. These two pastas are available as full or half orders, a nice option that allows you to tailor the size of your meal.
Like the food, the atmosphere of the Dining Room is homey and unfussy. The patina of dark wood surfaces gleam in sleepy candlelight, and soaring ceilings lend grandeur Ñ but also allow conversation to ricochet noisily around the room. A handsome partition divides the dining area from the bar without completely severing the two, and a semiprivate alcove accommodates large groups. Service is friendly and efficient.
Several rungs up from a diner but not so refined that it qualifies as a special-occasion restaurant, the Dining Room is best categorized as a weeknight joint. It's the kind of eatery you gravitate toward when you can't be bothered to cook but don't want to invest in a lengthy, full-tilt dinner, either. Which is funny, because it's exactly the sort of food you'd find in residential kitchens across America. Bear in mind that Ñ just like at home Ñ some dishes are memorable, while others get pushed around the plate.