Vitaly Paley makes a mean stack of flapjacks. Although he has operated Paley's Place in the Alphabet District since 1995, we're only now learning about his pancake prowess thanks to the breakfast menu at Imperial, the iconic local chef's new downtown restaurant.
Taking over the ground floor in the stylish Hotel Lucia, Imperial stands to profit handsomely from a captive breakfast audience. And, as one bartender put it, "If you nail breakfast, you have a good chance of seeing them again at dinner." So Paley's team—the kitchen is the domain of protégé Ben Bettinger, formerly of Beaker & Flask, but everything down to the paper napkin bands is stamped with Paley's name—crafted a menu of omelettes, granola and French toast.
Those pancakes—a trio of airy, fried buttermilk batter ($9) topped with a sprinkle of sugar and slices of compressed apples—were the highlight of our breakfast. On the other hand, the coddled eggs ($11) needed to be more carefully coddled. The yolks in our order had cooked through, turning into flaky yellow orbs that floated uselessly next to melted globs of goat cheese atop spicy marinara. Chances are the ramekin simply sat unserved too long. The cold, crunchy fry bread round that accompanied them also suggests such a fate. "This," my dining companion pointed out, "never happens at Tasty n Sons."
But, hey, it's just breakfast at a hotel restaurant, right? Except that two dinners at Imperial yielded a similar mix.
The room itself is beautiful, a cocoon of warm French oak with high ceilings and padded chairs. To emphasize Imperial's theme—the menu tracks the evolution of Oregon food, and Paley actually used the local historical society for research—most entrees arrive on a log slab. A wood-fired grill faces out, bathing diners with campfire warmth felt through the eyes, if not on the skin. Tag-team service is gracious if also a little flighty.
Many dishes at Imperial outshined what I had on a recent visit to Paley's Place, one of Portland's best-known restaurants. I could happily eat the superb roasted poblano pepper ($18) stuffed with rice pilaf, cubed acorn squash, chestnuts, shallots and rich walnut cream every day of autumn. Likewise for a side of warm, richly seasoned rainbow chard topped with melted Parmesan and peppered with smoked raisins and bits of sweet pork. Two seasonal salads impressed: one made with lightly oiled greens and bittersweet pickled blueberries that comes with thick crostini slathered with pleasantly salty chicken liver, the other a generous portion of kale with sweet and toasty sunflower seed brittle and creamy goat cheese dressing. And for dessert, there's a robust and mildly sweet huckleberry- and ice cream-topped skillet cake.
But other dishes, like the deep-fried rabbit entree ($25), would be better left back on the Conestoga wagon. Essentially country-fried rabbit, there's about as much meat as you'll get on two full chicken wings. The rabbit itself was flavorful if a little tough, but it's a greasy chore to eat. Even with a delicious fried corn cake and the little pot of local honey and an eyedropper of hot sauce, I couldn't help but feel like Granny Clampett had fixed this up to finish off a little extra batter. I was also disappointed with a pair of cloyingly sweet duck meatballs ($12) and a side of baked beans ($6) that had great texture but was bathed in bottle-quality barbecue sauce.
Simple foods like baked beans—or, for that matter, pancakes—are, of course, the sort of yeoman's work that looks easier than it is. There's no doubt Paley's team has the money and talent to make Imperial consistently great, but it's going to take a little more coddling.
- Order this: Stuffed poblano pepper ($18) and rainbow chard ($6).
- Best deal: Kale salad ($8) and canned Hammâs ($3).
- Iâll pass: Fried rabbit ($25).
EAT: Imperial, 410 SW Broadway, 228-7222, imperialpdx.com. 6:30 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, 5:30-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 8 am-2 pm weekends. $$$.