August 10th, 2011 AARON MESH | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Tot or Not?

Zeus Cafe tries to bolt past the usual McMenamins fare.

dish-zeuscafe_3740THE GODS MUST BE HUNGRY: Zeus Cafe’s roasted game hen (left) and Piedmontese burger. - IMAGE: Amaren Colosi
With its open kitchen, neatly arranged plates and locally sourced ingredients, Zeus Cafe is the first McMenamins restaurant that aspires to be an actual restaurant. The strength of Brian and Mike McMenamin’s barroom collection has always been the spaces, not the tastes; customers come for the whimsically rehabilitated elementary school, poor farm and funeral home, and stay through the often indifferent pub grub. Zeus Cafe is the anchor of the brothers’ new keystone property, the Crystal Hotel, and it is once again an inspired accomplishment in architectural salvage—named for ’50s nightclub operators Nate and Tilly Zusman, the cafe looks as if Ken Kesey did the set design for L.A. Confidential—and for once, the food aims as high. With Zeus, McMenamins has put away Tater Tot things.

It’s a little puzzling, then, that the acme of executive chef Barry Rumsey’s menu is a cheeseburger. Zeus’ Piedmontese Burger ($13) is a solid addition to the Portland roster of bistro burgers: The beef is tender and nicely complemented by a butter lettuce slaw (delightfully heavy on the mayo) and grilled Walla Walla onions. In a nice touch, it comes with three pickle-spear-sized jojos (at $13, it would be a nicer touch if it came with four jojos). Potatoes are also the highlight of breakfast: Nearly every morning dish, including a pleasant Carlton Farms jambon royale Benedict ($10), comes with expertly salted roasted baby potatoes. If they’re not part of your brunch plate, you can—and should—order them as a $2 side item.

The more ambitious items remain as fundamentally sound as the potatoes, but they aren’t such unmitigated successes. Nearly everything seems designed for an upscale Midwestern church supper. The signature dinner item is a wood-fired roasted game hen ($22), slathered with a honey glaze and served with baby squash and shallots; it’s a succulent bird, but a real bitch to pick apart—do not order it on a date—and so sweetened that it ends up feeling insubstantial, like poultry candy. The pork chop ($21), which is a truly delicious cut of meat, similarly hinges on a slightly disagreeable stone-fruit chutney, and the dish sits on a too-generous portion of gooey grits. My favorite of the more sophisticated offerings, now on the menu with somewhat different ingredients, was a plate of morel mushrooms with bomba rice and fried onion strings ($12); the effect, again, was like a Thanksgiving casserole at a conspicuously fancy grandma’s house.

The complete experience, in fact, resembles nothing so much as the single, obligatory upscale restaurant in a downstate tourist town. By the standards of the plentiful dining options in the West End, however, it is a third or fourth option, at best—it’s not on the same playing field as Clyde Common or Grüner. Even if you’re just looking for a toasted lunch, it’s difficult to justify spending $9 on Zeus’ Standard Sandwich—basically a BLT with avocado—when Kenny & Zuke’s offers dozens of superior options a block away. 

If Zeus Cafe doesn’t try to compete with those establishments, it’s wasting a dining room as gorgeous as any in town. The wall-to-wall windows on Burnside and Stark streets, accented with inlays of stained glass toward the ceiling, bathe the booths in a warm, golden light that no nearby restaurant could hope to rival. Oddly, the designers, who otherwise apportioned the narrow space so well, either didn’t include a proper server’s station or placed it so far from the tables that the excellent waitstaff is forced to conduct its organizational conversations in the aisles right next to diners. This glitch confirms a kind of pattern: McMenamins is still trying to figure out what to do with its space. 

  • Order this: Zeus Piedmontese Burger ($13).
  • Best deal: Roasted baby potatoes ($2).
  • I’ll pass: Baja frittata ($9), probably the dullest thing on the menu and inexplicably available all day.

EAT: Zeus Cafe at Crystal Hotel, 303 SW 12th Ave., 384-2500, mcmenamins.com/Zeus. Breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 am-10 pm Sunday, 7 am-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 7 am-1 am Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$.

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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