Since opening in 2009, Departure, the sleek, painfully modern Pan-Asian eatery perched atop ultra-luxe hotel the Nines, has garnered more enthusiastic commentary regarding its architecture than its food—either the Starship Enterprise (Galaxy-class, of course) as cruise ship motif works for you or it doesn't. What has changed is the appearance of a talented new executive chef, Saucebox alum Gregory Gourdet, who began his stewardship there last summer. The restaurant's website states that it creates "modern, accessible Asian cuisine." Frustratingly, it seems that "modern" and "accessible" have been interpreted by the back of the house in a wildly inconsistent fashion, producing food that can vary in quality from wan and insipid to downright inspired.
Departure's menu is a collection of small-plate items, categorized by the style of cuisine that inspired them, such as sushi or dim sum. It's a noble concept, trying to encompass the many varieties of Asian snack foods that might be encountered in a street stall or served with a stiff shot of shochu at a smoky izakaya. The end result, though, seems more like a collection of theme park approximations of what each cuisine is supposed to taste like, sort of what I always imagined Star Trek replicator food might taste like. Chef Gourdet does much better when he goes off script.
An order of vegetable tempura ($9) here is greasy rather than light and airy, with some of the vegetables broken down into bite-sized chunks instead of left whole. Bizarrely, the crispy pork belly ($10) is a far "cleaner" experience, the crusty, salty exterior beautifully contrasting with the melting fat and lean inside. It's smashing good, with the meat candy artfully balanced by the ginger, pickled cherries (I wanted to order a bowl of these) and crispy pepitas.
It's pretty hard to screw up sushi, provided the individual ingredients are fresh and properly handled. Departure's Kani Avocado Tobiko roll ($10) meets those requirements, but the spicy mayo ladled on top completely overwhelmed whatever sweetness or delicacy the Dungeness crab or avocado could have provided. The only discernible component remaining, the roe, was reduced to mere texture. Gourdet's nontraditional approach to a traditional preparation of hamachi sashimi ($15) is far more successful. There's another sauce involved here, a chutneylike apple concoction that is thankfully dotted on the plate rather than on the fish. It would be sad to gild these thick slabs of buttery, smoky cured yellowtail with anything but the well-dressed micro-greens that are already there, but a hint of the sauce really opens the dish up. This is a winner.
The items grouped in Departure's "Wok Fired" portion of the menu are also inconsistent. On one visit, the shoyu truffle rice ($10) did sport an inviting truffle aroma and a nice selection of nutty, fragrant wild mushrooms nestled among the rice, but the dish tasted flat. And Dungeness crab fried rice was a schizophrenic mishmash of textures: Tiny cubes of pale, overly sweet tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) stood in for the egg you would see in typical fried rice, and the flavor of the lumps of crab meat were lost amidst the tumult. On a subsequent visit, it seemed like the kitchen had discovered it was using the wrong wok all this time, since the simple garlic fried rice ($7) with sunnyside egg was everything fried rice should be, deep, umami blast-furnace-flavored comfort food.
Departure as a scene does work, as the staff is friendly and attentive, the cocktails served by the bar are well balanced and not too strong, and the views are stunning. As a deliberate dining spot, it still needs work, but those dishes it does well totally shine. The ingredients used are top notch as is the pedigree of the head chef, so everything is fundamentally fixable. Now that Chef Gourdet has been selected as a finalist for the Northwest division of Food & Wine magazine's "People's Best New Chef," maybe this ship is slowly being steered into calmer waters. If he can realize the potential shown in the better dishes on his menu, it will be a welcome arrival.
EAT: Departure, 525 SW Morrison St., 15th floor, 802-5370, departureportland.com. Dinner and late night 4 pm-midnight Tuesday-Thursday, 4 pm-2 am Friday-Saturday. $$ Moderate-$$$ Expensive.