February 25th, 2004 Heidi Yorkshire | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Western BLEUS

Does the restaurant at Portland's chef school deserve passing marks?

     
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WCI student Shiloh Fice chats with diners at Bleu.
IMAGE: WYNDE DYER
Writing a review of Bleu, the newly refurbished restaurant at the Western Culinary Institute, may seem mean, like reviewing a high-school play. You walk in knowing that the players aren't necessarily ready for prime time. But unlike high-school kids prancing through A Chorus Line, students at WCI are in a professional school, investing $37,000 for a 60-week course. And customers at Bleu are spending about $70 for dinner for two with a modest bottle of wine, plenty for a satisfying meal at many of the city's best restaurants.

Founded in 1983, WCI just moved to downtown's Galleria, spending about $5 million renovating new kitchens and classrooms. On the main floor, Bleu--the name refers to Le Cordon Bleu, the international chain of cooking schools of which WCI is a part--is a showcase where students can practice their newly acquired skills. The space is lovely, Asian-inspired, with dramatic windows overlooking the street and some of the most comfortable restaurant chairs in town. Every three weeks a different group of students takes over cooking and serving dinner, which is offered in a three-course ($18.95) or six-course ($24.95) format.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the American restaurant scene for the past 10 years or so has heard "seasonal and regional" repeated like a mantra. Which makes me wonder where the WCI faculty, who set the agenda at Bleu, have been keeping themselves. Does anybody have a calendar? In the course of two dinners--in February--we were served fresh tomatoes, strawberries, grapes, artichokes, red peppers, basil, yellow peppers and green beans.

The menu itself is in an even bigger time warp. Back in the 1980s, restaurantgoers endured disjointed cross-cultural fusions which, thank heaven, have mostly disappeared as chefs look to ingredients for inspiration rather than to their own fevered imaginations. Not here. What do smoked quail, black bean-mango salsa and a thick sun-dried tomato vinaigrette have in common? A surreal salad combined watercress, frisee and endive with a mound of undercooked cannellini beans, bresaola (cured beef), pickled red grapes and fried capers. Seared scallops were marooned in no man's land with cold potato, celery, tomato, yellow pepper, radish, radicchio and three types of olives in a curry vinaigrette tasting mostly of cumin. That's not a recipe, it's a shopping list.

Sometimes dishes were tasty, like curried carrot soup, a crisp-sautéed chicken breast stuffed with ricotta, and a melt-in-your-mouth bittersweet chocolate marquise. But we also found many unbalanced, light on salt and acidity, heavy on chili-hotness and sweetness. It seemed like there was an awful lot of very sweet raspberry sauce squirted around savory dishes. And does anybody still think sorbet in the middle of a menu is elegant?

What mystifies me is why faculty advisors don't simplify the menu--which includes about 15 complex dishes, not counting desserts--so that student chefs can create an edible meal? On our first visit, the kitchen was so overwhelmed it was forced to rely on mass-feeding techniques more appropriate for cruise ships than a restaurant that does about 100 covers a night. Some of our food had been parked under heat lamps for so long that sauces were literally cooked onto the plates. Almost every piece of meat was desiccated to jerky in hot boxes. On our second visit, pretty much everything was simply cold.

One dish that came hot was a piece of salmon that reeked so strongly of old fish that it stopped conversation at the table. When we asked for a replacement (just as bad, by the way), we were told that it was farm-raised Atlantic salmon. Hello? When WCI's own website is quoting from Gourmet magazine about the bounty of the Pacific Northwest, they're serving farm-raised salmon? What kind of lesson is that for aspiring chefs?

As for the student servers, most are trying hard to keep customers happy. Nobody expects professional polish, though some of their gaffes make me wonder if they have ever actually eaten in the sort of upscale restaurant in which they may one day cook. If they had, they might know that you don't ask diners to keep used silverware from course to course, and that, if you spill water on the table, it's considered good form to find a rag and clean it up.

I'm not blaming the hard-working students for the wildly uneven results at Bleu. They're not in charge. It's the WCI instructors who obviously need a wake-up call about current trends in American cooking--and to re-think what could make a student restaurant successful. Like a drama teacher who asks ninth-graders to perform Hamlet, they're setting the bar at a level their students can't possibly reach.


Bleu921 SW Morrison St., 294-9770.11:30 am-12:45 pm and 6 pm-8 pm Tuesday-Friday. Buffet seatings 6 and 8 pm Thursdays. Reservations required--three weeks in advance. Credit cards and personal checks accepted. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.

Picks: curried carrot soup, sautéed chicken breast stuffed with ricotta, melt-in-your-mouth bittersweet chocolate marquise.

The Western Culinary Institute also operates a coffeeshop, Cafe Bleu, in the Galleria (921 SW Morrison St.) and a cafe, International Bistro & Bar (1701 SW Jefferson St., 223-5219).Bleu921 SW Morrison St., 294-9770.11:30 am-12:45 pm and 6 pm-8 pm Tuesday-Friday. Buffet seatings 6 and 8 pm Thursdays. Reservations required--three weeks in advance. Credit cards and personal checks accepted. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.

Picks: curried carrot soup, sautéed chicken breast stuffed with ricotta, melt-in-your-mouth bittersweet chocolate marquise.

The Western Culinary Institute also operates a coffeeshop, Cafe Bleu, in the Galleria (921 SW Morrison St.) and a cafe, International Bistro & Bar (1701 SW Jefferson St., 223-5219).

 
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