Chefs are skilled kitchen conjurers, exacting taskmasters and head-over-heels food lovers-but they're not mind readers. That's why it's astounding how often they are able to guess what dishes, from rich coconut curries to rabbit pot pie, will seduce our palates. But behind every triumphant plate lurks at least a few stovetop misfires: dishes only a chef-or, as they'd have us believe, anybody with a real working set of taste buds-could love. We asked a dinner table's worth of Portland's hottest chefs to come clean on their greatest, tastiest hits and their biggest culinary misses.
HIT: It took me a while to search for hits and misses because we do 200 menus in a year. I keep a log of the menus so I can go back and see what worked.
Every day, my sous-chef and I try to guess what people are gonna order. We're batting 50-50 right now.
I don't print the menus until 4:30 pm-sometimes we're waiting on farmers (our menu is driven by what they have fresh for us) or feeling out the weather. Like, if it's cold and rainy outside, we'll run a wild game, a rabbit, maybe a buffalo pot pie. They always work.
"One of the few things we've brought back is a little appetizer of lamb-shoulder crepinettes. It's a slow-roasted lamb shoulder taken off the bone and mixed with roasted eggplant and herbs. We make sausages out of the mixture, wrap them in caul fat and re-roast them to order. It's the only thing that sells more than crab cakes. Crab cakes always stay.
I wanted this to be a neighborhood restaurant, but for people to come here every week and for it always to be a new restaurant…the only thing you should recognize at Fife is the crab cakes."
MISS: Fried sardines. I took whole sardines, filleted them, dredged them in cornmeal and fried them. It was served with pickled onions and a roasted-garlic aioli-but we only sold one order in two days. A lot of people got them for free. If we serve a fish with a head on it, people freak out.
A lot of the time it's trigger words. If I change the word from "fried sardines" to "fried fish," it'll probably sell. We actually do it every day: If we like something and it doesn't work the first day, we change the wording. If I can't sell prunes, I sell 'em as dried plums. Cognac and dried-plum ice cream? We couldn't keep it in stock.
HIT: About three or four times a year, we'll order a whole goat from Sudan Farms in Jefferson, Ore. We braise the shoulder, roast the legs and get chops as well. It'll weigh about 30-40 pounds so we'll get about 18 orders from the whole animal. It's expected to last a couple of nights, but last year it sold out before the first night was through. We might pair it with potato gnocchi and stewed pumpkin served with hazelnuts and shell beans. Each dish has a little bit of everything-the braised shoulder, the chops. The wild gaminess of the goat paired with the pumpkin is certainly appealing. Portlanders surprise us some, how sophisticated their choices are.
MISS: What some of my guys do at night is pair the wild smoked salmon that we smoke in-house with a salad with fennel and blackberry. But the blackberries can be overbearing to the smoky, oily texture of the fish. In fact, the whole mystique of fish and fruit is not a pairing readily thought of in our culture. My adage is, "What goes together, goes together."
HIT: I was scrambling, looking for a pasta dish one day during the week, and remembered a dish my grandma used to make for me on Mondays. On Sundays she would make a braciole (the equivalent of Italian pot roast), sausage and meatballs. The next day she'd cut up the braciole, put it in a tomato sauce and make me a pasta dish. So I made "Grandma Giambalvo's Sunday Meat Sauce." It had chunks of braised beef tossed with the sauce, served over a toothy pasta-a rigatoni, as I remember. I made a gallon of that sauce, and it was gone by the end of the night. It was just fun, and delicious. In a white-tablecloth restaurant like Bluehour, that people would get such a kick out of something so homey….
MISS: There is a type of risotto dish done in Venice, Italy, called Risotto Nero. It uses cuttlefish, but unlike the squid found here, the ink sac in this cuttlefish is quite sweet.
At the restaurant we cut up the cuttlefish and use both the meat and the ink (we strain it and get the essence). The risotto comes out black like tar with all the wonderful flavor of the ink. I would describe it as tasting the ocean. Not like the ocean at low tide, but that sweet, salty smell that you get while you're driving to the coast. Visually, it's shocking. It's black. And when you first eat it, it kind of makes your lips turn black, too. It goes away, but it's that initial goth look that surprises. We bring that risotto out about three times a year, and it usually happens that me, the sous-chefs and Bruce [Carey, Bluehour's owner] eat it. Some customers, I'll just send it out to the table and they'll love it, but it does not sell. I end up giving it away.
HIT: A huge hit for us is the chicken with pomegranate walnut sauce. I thought that wouldn't appeal to people because it has unusual flavors; it's kind of on the exotic and spicy side. The pomegranate is sweet and tart, and it's served with turmeric couscous. But we average at least 50-plus orders of the dish a week.
MISS: On the miss side, one thing that always mystified me is the tortilla españole we had on our small-plates menu. Nobody bought it. It's a standard Spanish dish, your typical baked eggs and potatoes, served with a whiskey-garlic sauce. It just never sold. And that's a dish that I love to see when I go other places. My theory is that people didn't realize what it was. Same thing with our patatas bravas: fried Yukon gold potatoes paired with a spicy Spanish tomato sauce. It was basically French fries and ketchup. But nobody ordered it until we changed "patatas" to potatoes.
HIT: It's hard to gauge hits and misses because at Family Supper everybody has to eat what I serve…everybody always eats everything. People in Portland, in general, aren't incredibly adventurous with their food-yet. So I usually won't do anything like organs (I was a sous-chef for Mario Batali, so I have a background in livers). But one time I did bucatini with chicken-liver ragoût. People loved it. It's got a really deep flavor. It's delicious and comforting. When people have a bad experience with liver, maybe liver and onions, I want to say, "Here, this is what it should taste like."
When the Gotham Bldg. Tavern starts up next winter [that's Habetz's new ripe project-Portland's first "gastropub"], I'll definitely give different things a shot. The way that Mario did it at Lupa is that he would send out tripe or something to a table. He'd have them try it on the house. More often than not they would like it, and they would come back for it.
MISS: Once for a Family Supper I did a fish in pastry-that's huge in Australia. It was a hit, but I got this email from this guy who had attended the dinner. He was all upset because I hadn't made any effort for the vegetarians. I had made a vegetarian pot pie with fennel and celery root in a pasty crust. I thought it really good. He said it was the same thing as the regular dish…without the fish. I kept emailing back and forth with him because I sincerely wanted to know how I could have made it better, but no luck. I mean, I wasn't gonna put tofu in a pot pie. That would have been dumb.
HIT: I have "hit" dishes that have followed me around from restaurant to restaurant that I've sworn I'll never make again! I started making butternut-squash cappelletti with hazelnut marsala and sage at Pazzo, and it followed me all the way to Southpark. I've tried to erase it from my memory.
At Basilico, the dishes that are selling aren't necessarily mainstream: fried fresh anchovies, fried salt cod and fried squash blossoms stuffed with anchovies. But the one that defines us as being different is the spaghetti alla sarda: spaghetti with sardines, raisins and pine nuts. I thought, "When the chefs and the foodies come, they order it. We'll sell one or two a night." Instead, we've gotten such a great response to it we sell a dozen plates of it on the weekend. It holds its own with approachable dishes like the mushroom risotto. We keep hearing how different it is than anything else in town.
MISS: Chefs put things on the menu that we love but that we know people won't like. It drives us crazy internally, the things we know should work but don't. Aaah! Nobody understands us.
One that was disappointing is zuppa della pasta alla Trasteverina. It's a killer soup that comes from the Trasteverina neighborhood in Rome. It's got baby clams and sweet peas, and the cool thing is that it's made with a salt-cod broth. I thought that would be the "mystery" ingredient. Well, it's not selling. It didn't make it through the summer.
People latch on to key ingredients. If a dish has heirloom tomatoes or basil in it, you can sell it all night long. We're just proving right now that if you say the word "anchovies," people won't run and hide.
HIT: I don't know-I wish I could have one of my customers call you! Everybody loves the fish fillet sautéed with green curry. It comes with lots of mixed vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, beans, bok choy. And we use fresh Thai chili pepper here, so a "heat level 1" is spicy and enjoyable. Above that it gets pretty hot.
Customers also like the green papaya salad. My style has grape tomatoes, crushed peanuts, crushed fresh Thai chili pepper and lime peel tossed together with shredded green papaya. It's served with sticky rice in a bamboo container, just like at home in Bangkok (I'm a city girl!). The real Thai version has dry shrimp on it. It has a strong odor, so we omit it from our recipe.
MISS: Green salad with peanut-sauce dressing. Everybody loves the peanut curry and skewers. But when it comes to green salad with the same exact dressing, nobody likes it. It's got red-leaf lettuce, diced tofu, hard-boiled egg, cucumber, tomatoes, fried shallots, red onions, cilantro and peanut-sauce dressing. That is a yum yum! But not many customers order it. Still, I can't take it away because the people who do order will scream at me!
Fife4440 NE Fremont St., (971) 222-3433.
Wildwood1221 NW 21st Ave., 248-9663.
Bluehour250 NW 13th Ave., 226-3394.
Southpark901 SW Salmon St., 326-1300.
Ripe2240 N Interstate Ave., 235-2294.
Basilico500 NW 21st Ave., 223-2772.
Lemongrass1705 NE Couch St., 231-5780.