The main thing about the food at Hurley's is this: It's really, really good. Better than good--call it amazing. There's thoughtful attention paid to flavor, texture and appearance. Each dish is gorgeously displayed, with every tiny accompaniment carefully thought out. For a small restaurant to maintain such a vast menu must involve planning of the sort that keeps small countries running.
The trouble is that Hurley's--located in the charming Northwest Portland spot that housed the beloved Cafe des Amis--seems out of step with the ciy's vibe for casual dining. The attentively formal service and the conspicuously fancy food make this a palace for serious diners, while everyone else might be tempted to bring along a food dictionary to interpret the menu.
Perhaps chef-owner-namesake Tom Hurley's restaurant is designed to be a special-occasion place--only a destination restaurant that's more about the food than the occasion. Some of the dishes seem simply too rich for the simple tastes of our times, serving decadence piled onto decadence, like getting a manicure and a pedicure at the same time.
There are nearly twice as many dishes listed on the menu as there are dining-room tables, and the list is divided into categories like vegetables, fish, beef and wild game. The small portions are sized for individuals--unless you're exceptionally generous you won't want to give up one of your pair of scallops--so your stomach should feel perfectly comfortable having four or five courses. Your wallet won't feel as comfortable, however, as this place isn't cheap. Dinner for two with a couple of glasses of wine will run around $120.
All dishes are created equal, with plenty of luscious gourmet ingredients--prosciutto, truffles, fois gras--that serve to remind you why you eat out in the first place.
One challenge of small plates lies in the pacing of courses. With small portions, the ratio of eating time to waiting time can grow uncomfortable; dinner can easily run two or more hours. But you rarely feel abandoned by the waiters, who check in frequently with "Are you enjoying the flavors?" The question feels a tad too affected and uncomfortably like a test: Should you recognize a touch of cumin there? Perhaps some chervil?
Beginning with the "vegetable dishes," there's an arugula-and-beet salad with parmesan and prosciutto, which deliciously combines peppery greens and sugary beets under shavings of the salty cheese and ham ($9). Prosciutto shows up in another appealing vegetable, the haricot vert--or green bean--salad with mustard vinaigrette and walnuts ($8). The gazpacho ($7), charmingly served in a stubby cocktail glass, is less successful. The flavor falls flat and the meager garnish of crab and avocado doesn't help to liven it up.
If you think heaven is a place where truffles grow on trees, you'll love the roasted Columbia River sturgeon topped with a small lobster tail ($16), all dolled up in truffle-cream sauce. This is an indulgent dish, and the richness continues with sautéed diver scallops with black truffles ($12).
Or there are the same meaty scallops broiled with fois gras ($13). Fois gras is the mink coat of the food world, socially incorrect but luxurious (and you can mollify your conscience with the knowledge that ducks are far from endangered). Speaking of luxurious, there's also fois gras-wrapped ahi tuna with truffle dipping sauce ($16), a dish that tastes like the very definition of luxury. The breast of pheasant stuffed with ham ($16) is bathed in truffle butter and served with three small crayfish tails on the side. With a side of green beans and mushrooms, this lavish portion would befit a castle dweller.
After all this indulgence, the slim dessert menu--just four choices--comes as a welcome relief. The signature Chocolate Marquise ($8) offers a praline crust underneath a chocolate mousse so airy it can't possibly be unhealthy, finished with a puddle of Grand Marnier cream. Or for a more simple taste, the ice cream ($7) is terrific. It's housemade--vanilla or vanilla with figs on two recent visits.
Sometimes the best meals are made of simple dishes done well. And sometimes, even in these comfortable times, you may crave indulgent meals with yuzu-truffle dipping sauce, creamy asiago custard, chicory marmalade and cabbage-leek fondant.
1987 NW Kearney St., 295-6487. 5:30-11 pm Wednesday-Sunday. Credit cards Accepted.
Tom Hurley has cooked at Lush and Vivid. He's also a former firefighter.