Considering we live in a country whose historical memory rarely exceeds last week, there are a surprising number of restaurants in Portland that have defied the fashion of disposability. Along with the centenarians (Huber's, Jake's Famous Crawfish), Portland is filled with restaurants considered to be institutions--from Hung Far Low to the Mallory Dining Room. Such is the cachet of being an institution in Portland that restaurants can actually die and then be resurrected (Rose's Deli, the Vat & Tonsure). One almost expects to see Henry Thiele's and Capers rematerialize.
Yet change is inevitable, and some well-known eateries must eventually fall under the weight of wrecking balls or ennui. Two of the city's best known cafes, La Patisserie and Cafe Lena, are the latest examples of this inevitability. La Patisserie, a coffee shop for Friday-night clubbers and Saturday Market potters, has vanished into the new Second Story Bistro. Cafe Lena, the matrix of Portland's spoken-word movement, has recently passed into its third ownership, but outwardly remains Lena in look (if not appeal).
The charm of La Patisserie was in its decor--a marvelous example of hippie Art Nouveau. The ornamental street torches, gothic-accented doors and gnarled wood banisters created the sensation that you'd wandered into a Czech hunting lodge in the Haight. The new owners, Karen Moore and Diana Stapleton, have carefully maintained this hybridity, while removing the '70s ferns that crowded La Patisserie. But the primary change they've brought is in the menu. Gone are the homely plates of eggs and homefries and the sides of near-stale coffee cake. Instead, the two have launched a serious menu that offers Old Town a fine dining option.
Like its predecessor, Second Story makes an excellent breakfast aerie from which to watch the waking city. Among the savory offerings, there's a delicious seasonal vegetable scramble ($6.50) that can be made with either tofu or eggs. Lightly sautéed in olive oil, the scramble comes with a bounty of vegetables including peppers, asparagus, onion and artichoke hearts. Like all the egg/tofu dishes, the plate comes with herb-roasted potatoes. In the restaurant's early days, the potatoes needed more seasoning. But now Stapleton and Moore seem to have struck the right recipe, as the potatoes are wonderfully redolent of rosemary.
On the sweet side, there's the Belgian waffle ($6), which also comes with seasonal toppings. The wintry compote of fig, sultana and apple has given way to fresh berries straight from the farmers market.
Berries play an important role at lunch in the Oregon mixed-greens salad ($5.50). Garnishing a rich mixture of garden greens are just-picked raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, along with pear halves--all lightly tossed with a Champagne vinaigrette. One friend had the grilled halibut sandwich ($8.50), which she declared perfectly firm and flavorful. Another friend wanted to order the day's pan-fried Willapa Bay oyster special, but casually mentioned to the waiter that she wished it came as a sandwich. Our waiter was cheerfully responsive. "We'll make you one," she said, and the result came on a bolo roll from Grand Central with garlic aioli; my companion was overjoyed with her special "special." In all, it'll be difficult to mourn La Patisserie's passing, considering the success of its usurper in turning itself into a sophisticated eatery with serious culinary presentation.
Cafe Lena has long been a fixture of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. This Mecca for Moderns and Beats slung cheap, delectable hash while offering a platform for hopeful wordsmiths to air their wares. The new owner, Karen Harding, has kept the dish names (christened after writers) as well as much of Lena's bric-a-brac. Tables are still inlaid with writers' mug shots and scraps of poems. And the front door is still one of the most eclectic portrait galleries in town.
Harding, who owns the popular Cup and Saucer on Hawthorne and the Dahlia Cafe on Northeast Killingsworth Street, has made some needed changes to the cafe's layout, adding more room for both customers and kitchen staff. She's also brightened the room by slapping a coat of mustard brown over the aubergine purple that used to cover the wainscot. The food continues to be good, but some of the prices seem too high.
The Du Camus scramble ($6.75) is still a great mixture of tofu, veg and Dijon. Also, the dense Georgia's ginger-molasses buckwheat pancakes (two for $4.25) are still recommended for those who may not have another meal for days. The one disappointment is the potatoes, which are bland. The quality of spuds has risen markedly at Cup and Saucer, where the pre-diced potato nuggets have given way to freshly sliced. The Lena spuds are also freshly sliced, but they lack noticeable seasoning.
These are early days for the Harding administration, however, and regulars, such as I, look forward to seeing Lena into the next few decades.
Second Story Bistro
208 NW Couch St., 827-5113. 7 am-3 pm Mondays, 7 am-9 pm Tuesdays- Thursdays, 8 am- 10 pm Saturdays, 8 am-9 pm Sundays. Credit cards accepted. $-$$ Inexpensive- moderate.
Picks: seasonal vegetable scramble, Belgian waffle, grilled halibut sandwich, pan-fried Willapa Bay oysters.
Nice touch: Hippie, woody charm still intact.
2239 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-7087. 8 am-3 pm daily. Credit cards accepted. $ Inexpensive.
Picks: Du Camus scramble, Georgia's ginger- molasses buckwheat pancakes
Nice touch: literary allusions still alluding