One person's tradition is another's stubbornness. One restaurant's firmness of purpose is another's gastronomical sclerosis. Three Doors Down, one of Portland's palaces of persistence, has a faithful following, and though a dish or two may circulate, nothing on the current menu will strike the observant as unorthodox. If you listen to the restaurant's enthusiastic regulars, it's clear that Three Doors Down knows its base.
The place insists on retaining its established plates come Hell or high temperatures, and almost no provision is made for the bounty and tastes of an Oregon summer. The restaurant has just expanded to open a handsome bar area and welcoming waiting room. But there are few fresh breezes wafting through the menu, and that's the problem.
In three recent visits, not a single berry dessert was offered. The dessert list consists of standards (all $6), such as bread pudding, tiramisu, chocolate torte and a banana cream pie. These desserts are done well, but I left wishing that a blueberry sorbet or fruit tart were available.
An appetizer of boudin blanc sausage ($8)--admittedly one of my favorite things on earth--and roast potatoes is not an appetite teaser but an appetite suppressor. The signature mound of mashed white beans accompanying the Pearl Bakery pugliese ($6) is fine for winter, but just too gluey and ponderous this time of year. The vaunted vodka-sauce penne ($14) is burdened with cream and two plump sausages drowning in it, for a pile-up that an Italian-American sumo wrestler might relish. And however deliciously prepared the pork T-bone is ($17), do you really want it stuffed with bleu cheese and chorizo--let alone bedded on a heap of mashed potatoes--in the dog days of August?
On the menu, there are admittedly a few gestures to seasonality. It was nice to find succulent sea scallops paired with sautéed peaches ($9), though the fruit could have melted more to integrate with the shellfish. Here, each ingredient exists independent of the other despite the efforts of a basil cream sauce--and this restaurant is addicted to cream--to pull them together.
And as a displaced East Coaster recalling steamers from Maine and the Cape, I was cheered to see them on the list ($12). But there's a gross error in this rendition, as the clams arrived with Parmesan cheese sprinkled upon them, and what might otherwise be bracing and briny-fresh mollusks become terribly glutinous. Another example of a missed opportunity is an order of ravioli ($6) with the tang of lemon oil wonderfully elevated by a showering of mint, but the ravioli are saddled with a dense filling of fava beans and ricotta that defeats the delicacy.
Three Doors Down's most popular dish--seafood fra diavolo ($17) is undoubtedly still its best. Tangy shrimp, prawns, mussels, and clams swim in a clotted sea of a pungent, fiery red sauce. Here's an always-exciting, all-weather dish that could persuade me to return, as it's hot enough to overcome rainy blahs, and yet hot enough to sweat off summer swelter. Another fine preparation combines cauliflower, pine nuts and scallions ($13), laced with rosemary and perked up with a bracing ricotta salata.
The best main course is that T-bone pork chop ($17); the meat is just slightly underdone, packed with Iowa State Fair flavor and, I acknowledge, beautifully married with the vibrant bleu cheese and the spicy sausage meat. But I would have welcomed a lighter starch than mashed potatoes. A genuine, airy pommes purées would have helped; these spuds were lumpy and leaden.
As always, the wait staff is consistently cheerful, sophisticated, knowledgeable and utterly on the ball. There's a genuinely warm atmosphere at Three Doors Down, and maybe that as much as anything else is why the place is so popular.
Or perhaps what draws 'em in as well is the downright Americanness of it all. That is, the American rendition of Italian food: more food than is necessary and a greater melange of ingredients than a rigorous purity demands. Over the new bar is a sign: "Drink Eat Drink." For now, the restaurant's mantra is apparently stuck at "Eat, Eat, Eat."
1429 SE 37th Ave., 236-6886Open 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. Credit cards. Children welcome but seldom seen. $$ Moderate.
Picks: Scallops with sautéed peaches, seafood fra diavolo, pork T-bone with bleu cheese and chorizo.
Nice touches: At last a pleasant place to wait until your table--non-reserved--is ready. Superb service.