Imagine if Renaissance nobleman Lorenzo de' Medici took a bath in the stock market and had to move out of the Uffizi Palace and into a trailer park next to the autostrada--then decided to take all his furniture with him.
Voilà: Bistro 51, a shotgun wedding of knotty-pine paneling, gas fireplace, faux-Tiffany chandeliers and etched-glass room dividers with ornate glassware, parking-lot-sale oil paintings and thronelike dining chairs.
The whole shebang is housed in a charmless, low-slung building hard by the whizzing traffic of Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Not your most likely venue for $100 dinners for two. But the owners of Bistro 51 already owned the Cheerful Bar (exactly as cheerful as any place touting "all lottery games") in the other half of the building. The lure of a vacant restaurant next door was apparently too strong to resist.
The restaurant's chairs, upholstered in regal blue-and-white-striped damask, are so big they make the low-ceilinged room feel like a furniture store, so heavy that sitting down and getting up is a chore, and so deep that you'll find yourself shuttling forward and back all evening. One member of our party, a woman who is not excessively vertically challenged, found that when she leaned all the way back in her chair her feet dangled above the floor. And with each diner an extra 12 inches or so away from the table, it takes a raised voice to be heard. Only a few tables in the dining room need to be full before the din becomes remarkable.
So why am I talking about the chairs? Decor can reveal so much about the ambitions of a restaurant, and this awkward high-lowbrow mingling is also apparent in Bistro 51's menu. Executive chef Brett Tuft, former sous-chef at the esteemed Clarke's in Lake Oswego, has taken an honest stab at a classy, seasonal menu, with some successes and some disappointments.
Tuft's calf's liver with apples, onions and mashed potatoes ($14.95) is a solid version of a hard-to-find dish, though the presentation, a huge mountain of food, is daunting. He's particularly good with long-cooked dishes, like chicken and dumplings ($15.95, sadly not included on the spring menu), with tender chicken and unfortunately tough dumplings in a flavorful, creamy broth. Falling-apart braised veal shoulder ($17.50) and creamy white beans were marred only by an excess of rosemary. And he got quick-seared scallops ($18) right--crisp outside, just-cooked inside--though wizened, blackish sun-dried tomato fritters made an oddly bitter accompaniment.
A nicely rough, country-style chicken liver pâté ($7.50) arrived with a too-sweet onion-citrus marmalade, a naked handful of pooped-out salad mix and three triangles of a pasty, foccacia-like substance. An iceberg lettuce salad with Rogue Valley blue cheese ($6.25) tasted mostly of mayonnaise. Grilled beef tenderloin from Painted Hills ($24) should have been great--can't knock the source--but too little salt and tasteless sides doomed the dish to dullness.
The menu has its share of bad ideas, like bread (stale on two occasions) that is served with a compound butter made with honey and feta cheese that smells, frankly, fetid. The kitchen is justifiably proud of serving wild salmon rather than farm-raised, but a main course of salmon en croute ($17.75)--an old-fashioned preparation that invariably steams the starring protein to toughness in soggy puff pastry--threw in spaghetti squash, sage, pecans, brown butter and cranberry vinaigrette. Go figure.
My curiosity got the better of me and I stayed quiet when my husband ordered that dish. His comment as he picked at his plate: "All those ingredients, no flavor." The spring menu lists grilled salmon with sautéed escarole and shoestring potatoes ($17.50), a much better bet.
The restaurant's energetic and welcoming servers are mis-costumed in chef's jackets, but do a snazzy job preparing two dishes tableside: Caesar salad ($7, lemony but otherwise bland) and bananas Foster ($7.50), a plate-licking concoction with Myers' rum, butter, brown sugar and vanilla ice cream.
On my first visit to Bistro 51, I drove the rest of the table crazy by insisting that I smelled a scented candle burning somewhere. We sniffed at every likely source of the synthetic odor and couldn't pinpoint it. On another visit, seated a few feet closer to the bathroom, we solved the mystery: every time the door to the loo opened, a waft of Cinnamon Twist air freshener infused the room.
Not what you'd expect in this type of restaurant. And despite the chef's efforts, that pretty much sums up Bistro 51.
5134 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, 246-1179. 11 am-2 pm Monday-Friday; 5-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 pm Friday-Saturday. Brunch 9 am-2 pm Sunday. $$-$$$ Moderate to expensive.