Two new restaurants with a passing connection to the city's history--Meriwether's and Industrial Cafe and Saloon--are staking a claim on Northwest Vaughn Street as a food destination.
Owners John and Renee Orlando didn't just name Meriwether's after an explorer, they also chose a historic location in L'Auberge, the home of the city's first real French restaurant. The couple's initial plans to open a breakfast joint after a quick spruce-up morphed into a full, $1.5 million remodel. The space now feels a bit starchy, as new as a pair of unwashed blue jeans, while the most notable feature is outside. Even on a dark and windy Sunday morning, the hostess may ask, "Would you like to sit outside?" and she's not joking. The covered patio is equipped with heaters that seem powerful enough to fry your eggs from above, as well as a circular bar surrounding a fire pit.
For all the spark of the restoration, Meriwether's hasn't yet hit its stride. Over several visits, the staff seemed so harried that you might be tempted to refill your own coffee. A couple of dishes, once ordered, never arrived, and the pacing of meals ranged from volcanic to glacial. The menu scoots across the globe like an airline employee with an all-access pass. There's Yucatan French toast with coconut milk for breakfast ($8), an antipasto platter for lunch ($10), and salmon gravlax ($10) and a reincarnated L'Auberge pâté ($9) on the dinner menu. Whatever the cooking style, the kitchen is fond of strong-flavored bacon.
For breakfast, Meriwether's offers the basics, starting with that applewood-smoked bacon, of course, as well as eggs and a half-dozen pancake and waffle choices ($6-$10). For lunch, there are hearty salads and soups, including a seafood chowder ($4 cup, $7 bowl) that's thick with hunks of shrimp and fish, a perfect soup for fall's cooling temperature.
Around town, beet salads seem to be the new Caesar, and Meriwether's version ($8) is worth seeking out, thanks to toasted chevre--the cheese is slightly crusted outside, meltingly smooth inside--which is served over peppery watercress and crisp endive in a light lemon vinaigrette. The gravlax, raw salmon cured for days in salt and spices, would please my Swedish grandmother, though she'd look askance at serving it in little rolls over bagel chips slathered with an artichoke-picholine olive spread. But tradition isn't everything: The "L'Auberge" pâté is sorely lacking in flavor.
A star dinner entree is the grilled beef tenderloin in a truffled demiglace, served with bacon-wrapped potato gratin and soft-cooked leeks. The meat is delicious, though expensive at $29 for the smaller 6-ounce portion and $38 for 12 ounces. The decadent mushroom ravioli ($17) taste as rich as Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Less successful is the crispy sea bass with reduced chicken juice ($24): Neither the gently cooked fish nor the juice had much flavor, while the accompanying black-eyed pea cassoulet tasted mushy and undercooked.
Across Vaughn Street, the Industrial Cafe appears less tradition-bound, thanks to its location in the ground floor of a brand-new condo building. Inside, though, the restaurant is decked out with old metal furnishings reclaimed from an old dam as well as other construction sites. The flatware looks military-issue, pipes jut out of the walls, and the small space is dominated by an imposing full bar.
The menu offers a well-edited selection of classic, affordable fare, including hearty sandwiches (great burgers and a neo-traditional Reuben, $7.50-$8.50). Salad offerings include a good Caesar ($3 small; $6 large) with chicken, salmon or bay shrimp ($3 extra), and a delicious, multifaceted spinach salad with hard-cider vinaigrette ($3.50-$7). Pair a salad with an appetizer--like the crunchy, creamy fritters ($5.50) or the well-flavored salmon cakes ($5.50)--and you'll have enough food for a fine meal.
Of the four entrees on the dinner menu, the best choice is the flavorful pan-fried chicken breast coated in spicy bread crumbs ($10). Like everything here, dessert offerings (all $4.50) are simple, but don't overlook Ms. Margaret's chocolate-chip bundt cake topped with a puff of whipped cream. Ms. Margaret was the cook's neighbor while he was growing up in North Dakota, but with this yummy cake her contribution to Portland's food history will be assured.
2601 NW Vaughn St., 228-1250. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Credit cards accepted. $$-$$$ Moderate to expensive.
Industrial Cafe and Saloon2572 NW Vaughn St., 227-7002. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $ Inexpensive.
With Meriwether's and clarklewis, Portland now boasts two restaurants named after the famous explorers, just in time to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery expedition.
At the Industrial Cafe, you'll want to check out the men's urinal. Seriously. Don't forget to flush (the green light turns red).