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Chef Paley's new downtown Imperial is a different kind of place

Bread & Brew


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Steamer clams with Imperial linguica and pepper stew are a favorite at Imperial.Maybe some day we’ll get tired of upscale comfort food.

Until then, there’s Imperial, where the chili cheese fries are topped with house-made chorizo and the Parker House rolls are served with sweet butter and locally harvested sea salt.

Imperial replaces Typhoon!, the fancy Thai spot that was the house restaurant of the Hotel Lucia for many years. The Lucia tapped one of Portland’s best and most well-known chefs, Vitaly Paley, to fill the void. He should be more than up to the task, but hotel restaurants bring certain challenges. One is long hours — guests need a place for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Another is an imperative to be neither too rarified nor too experimental. The result is an experience quite different from the tranquility and precision of Paley’s Place.

Here, things are more jokey and more nostalgic. Does anyone really order the sliced beefsteak tomato with cottage cheese, or is it just on the menu as a mid-century curiosity?

The crab and shrimp Imperial is a play on the restaurant’s name, which happens to be the same as a certain creamy seafood appetizer. But fresh Northwest seafood shouldn’t be masked, and the little casserole dish topped with breadcrumbs doesn’t let the crab or the shrimp stand out.

Another appetizer, mussels and beets, sounds like something new, and it looks very stylish, served on a long white plate that shows off the colors of magenta and golden beets. In taste, the dish is a homage to Eastern European comfort food: the mussels are lightly smoked, a nod to preserved fish, and the beets are topped with creme fraiche and sprigs of fresh dill, pointing back to the sour cream and dill that are the timeless accessories of borscht.

To feel truly coddled, order the lamb, served in two styles. Half the order is slow-cooked to such tenderness that that fork-tender doesn’t do it justice — it’s called spoon lamb. The other half is spit-roasted, for a pinker, more steak-like piece of meat. They’re unified by a wintry plum glaze and bundled up in warm, soft polenta.

And remember French’s French Fried Onions? Something very like them tops a dish of tuna and creamed corn. The tuna here is way above casserole-grade, clean and fresh, lightly seared and barely seasoned (although the menu says it is “spiced”). The corn is bright and fresh, too, and hides some nice big chunks of crab, but it’s flavored with vanilla, which makes it too sweet. The onions are a nice touch, but they aren’t able to tie it all together.

Some entrees require you to order your sides separately, steakhouse style. These include steaks, pork chops, and wild salmon. And organic chickens look very inviting as they spin on a rotisserie in the open kitchen.

Light spills from the kitchen into the dining room, where textures compete. There’s tile and upholstery, scabrous concrete pillars and satin-smooth polished wood table tops. It’s all dimly lit with chandeliers that are not-too-ostentatiously crafted from bicycle chains.

A bar lines one wall, along with a row of cute little cocktail tables. Two of the house cocktails are served “on draught” — a dainty vermouth aperitif perfumed with apricot liqueur and orange bitters, and stiff, spicy, rye-based drink called a Vieux Carré. For an aged drink, I thought it could have been smoother. I preferred the New Money, with bourbon, the bitter digestif Nardini, and smoky hickory vermouth. It made me feel like I should be in an armchair, wearing a smoking jacket.

The $9 happy hour hamburger, showered with shredded lettuce, is good, not great. The Imperial fries are crisp and sturdy enough to support a heap of crumbly chorizo, but the accompanying sauce was strange and acidic. I haven’t tried lunch or brunch, yet, or the brand new sister restaurant, Portland Penny Diner, which occupies a space on the opposite side of the Lucia’s lobby. You can’t miss the giant spinning penny outside, though, or fail to be intrigued by the Penny’s cocktails, many of which are based on old-fashioned fountain drinks.

Desserts in the main dining room stick with the Americana theme: a sundae, key lime pie, gingerbread. One night, bread pudding was thoroughly inundated with dark chocolate. It was like devil’s food, pressed into a disk shape. A rill of salt ran through the chocolate for emphasis. Alongside was a scoop of caramel ice cream. Yes, cake and ice cream — and who ever gets tired of that?

Imperial, 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 410 S.W. Broadway, 503-228-7222, www.imperialpdx.com, entrees $12-$28

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