The name of a restaurant can say a lot about what the owners envision it to be. Christen a wine bar with a vowel-swallowing French noun and you can guess its aspirations to be less accessible than another vino haunt that has a pun on the word "wine" as its calling card. When an eatery names itself Dining Room, you can only assume its intention is to be loose, homey and, on occasion, formal. Like your home dining room, the restaurant offers shaggy consistency, bountiful portions, fluid identity and comfort to spare.
DR took over the spot where Marco's (a breakfast favorite) used to live on Northeast Fremont Street, which has been awakening of late into a restaurant row with the distinct imprint of places such as Fife and Acadia. The room's remodel is a respectable art deco furnishing that brings to mind a gentlemen's club (not the euphemism for a strip bar) where the well-heeled go to dine in the Continental fashion and small plates are used to bumper coffee cups rather than hold food. It's dark inside with chocolate-colored wainscoting and voluptuous pendulum light fixtures that give it a classic appeal rather than a romantic pull.
What's interesting to examine in a new restaurant is how it evolves. When DR opened five months ago, I had serious issues with many of its dishes. The Dungeness crab mac 'n' cheese ($14.75 for dinner) was positioned as a quintessential Portland dish, and with its cheddar from Bandon and our signature crustacean in a starring position, it looked good on paper. Unfortunately, in the first few months DR was in business, the dish was dreadful--a milky cheddar sauce flooded the crab, whose only stab at surviving the cheesy onslaught was to leach a salty ocean brine. I'm please to report that the dish has been finessed so that the ingredients work well together--the sharp cheddar lightly clings to the pasta twists, giving the crab room to shine, and the bread crumbs on top provide a crunchy gateway. I'd vote this one into the Portland Culinary Hall of Fame--Comfort Division.
Two unsuccessful early dishes--a pot roast that came out dry one time I tried it and a cassoulet that tasted of being made the quick way rather than by the arduous but rewarding authentic approach--have been removed, although it may only be a seasonal adjustment.
Recent dinner dishes have been memorable. The Roast Vegetable Purse ($12.75) is sexy and extravagant; buttery puff pastry envelopes a loose stew of eggplant, red onion, mushrooms and fennel that rests on a throne of roast potatoes, scallions, olives and a romescolike red-pepper sauce. Once you open up its pastry petals with your fork, it takes on the appearance of a Georgia O'Keefe dripping blossom.
Chef-owner Mike Siegel (formerly of the Compass World Bistro) has a passion for local, natural ingredients. A recent entree of lamb three ways ($19.75) featured meat from Canby's Su-Dan Farms and showed off the versatility of the kitchen. A spliced bit of zippy lamb sausage, a rare loin perfectly peppered and a ground lamb skewer fragrant with herbs share a plate with fluffy couscous and a minty sauce. This dish feels like an updated supper on God's day.
Most of the entrees tend toward the heavy, so in warmer weather you might want to focus on the salads. DR offers two salads of note: a wilted spinach salad (which didn't come warm one time I ordered it, but is good nonethless) with pliant rounds of goat cheese and a Caesar salad (both salads are $5.25 to $7.75) that adds crunchy chunks of bacon, a nice change.
DR has also cultivated a bit of a bar scene and puts a focus on creative cocktails. On a recent hot summer day a spectacular drink of beer and lemon soda ($2.75) was refreshing beyond belief. A lavender martini ($5.75) was interesting and pretty with a snippet of the flower on top; I could see how some might like it, but it reminded me a little too much of the lotion department at Nature's. Points for trying something different, though.
Desserts here are made with care, and there's a wide range of house-made ice creams available. Unfortunately, the two different times I ordered pastry (a mocha cake once and a chocolate torte another) they came to the table with condensation on top and were straight-from-the-fridge cold. All lusciousness was chilled out; when ordering a $7 dessert, I expect it to arrive at room temperature.
DR succeeds as a neighborhood restaurant that, despite its tendency toward the spendy, is welcoming to a variety of palates, from persnickety gay men to meat-'n'-potatoes grandpas. As it has changed since its opening, I expect its evolution to continue--except with the crab mac 'n' cheese, which now is perfect just as it is.
3449 NE 24th Ave., 288-5500.
9 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday, 11 am-2 pm Tuesday-Friday,
5-9:30 pm daily.
Credit cards accepted, children welcome.
Picks: spinach and Caesar salads, crab mac 'n' cheese, roast vegetable purse, lamb mixed grill, beer and lemon soda.
Nice touch: handsome atmosphere, pleasant servers.