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January 12th, 2005 Elizabeth Dye | Food Reviews & Stories
 

RoCk-'n'-RoLL BURGERS

Sample distinctive takes on pub grub at Doug Fir and Slow Bar, two stylish new eastside joints.

     
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Doug Fir
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
Doug Fir, the restaurant/bar/ nightclub/Twin Peaks shrine, arrived in style last fall and settled in like old growth, providing a splashy anchor tenant for Lower East Burnside. You've heard about the bitchin' sound system, the rock-'n'-roll vibe, the smoked mirrors and split-log cladding at the Jupiter Hotel-Doug Fir entertainment compound, where intrepid party monsters can gorge, booze, flirt, rock out and pass out in one convenient location. But what about the burgers?

Doug Fir's is named, oddly, distastefully, the Fir Burger. Available in beef, turkey, buffalo, chicken breast or as a Gardenburger patty ($8.50), it's the everyburger for everyone. Sautéed mushrooms? Onions? Bacon? Oregon Blue or Tillamook sharp? They got 'em. It's grilled. It's served with cut fries. It's not the best burger in town by any stretch, but it's straightforward.

The kitchen relies on quality local vendors--Pacific Seafood, Pearl Bakery--and the restaurant, to its credit, seems committed to being more than a late-night nosh-and-slosh stop for locals or a quickie breakfast for departing hotel guests. It wants the food to be cool.

The result? Overall, there's something a bit Tinseltown about this restaurant that openly tries to offer everything to everyone. There are Northwest nods in dishes named after beloved, departed local clubs (omelettes named for the Satyricon and the Blackbird), as well as an emphasis on local ingredients. There's a blackberry salad with hazelnuts ($9), a grilled wild-salmon platter ($18) and (yikes) the Drunken Buck, an elk roast swimming in a red-wine-and-berry marinade ($19).

On a leaden December morning at 9 am, Doug Fir looks much like the motor-court diner it once was. The tones-of-mocha vinyl, furry carpet and woodsy veneer seem completely unironic--all that's missing is a display of Chiclets and Certs at the hostess station. Overstaffing caused at least four separate employees--each wearing a different, cheeky Doug Fir T-shirt--to swish by refilling water or coffee (Stumptown, of course), replacing dropped silverware or bringing another side order of bacon ("four thick-cut bacons" are $3).

The Frenchy Toast ($5.75), made from thick, sloppy slices of baguette and served with crème fraîche and blackberry sauce, beats the pants off IHOP and approaches the quality of similar offerings at boutiquey breakfast joints elsewhere in town. Meats are high-quality and deftly prepared--those "bacons" were perfectly crisp. The 6-ounce sirloin steak served with the Logger Breakfast ($10) was cooked medium, but arrived smothered in red juices (poured over the top? What, do they keep a vat of blood in the back?), while the fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3) tasted barely better than Minute Maid.

On the other hand, 3 am seems a more authentic Doug Fir hour--the bars have closed, everyone in the place is dipso and drowsy, and you'll want to order something starchy and greasy to seek and destroy all the troublemaking alcohol in your system.

As for fancy dining, no one should pay $23 to eat a buffalo steak in a rock club. Such expensive entrees may be Doug Fir's clumsiest step, and don't be surprised if venison and steamed mussels slip from the menu over time. Dropping the more pretentious offerings would be a solid step toward real, Southeast Portland cool.

Like Doug Fir, Slow Bar has a David Lynch-ian love for all things woody and antler-y; in fact, the name of the Grand Street bar, which has been open since last summer, was taken from Lynch's film Blue Velvet. Owners Michael Barnash and Rob Hemmerling have utterly transformed the moribund Caswell's space into a whiskey-sipping urban hunting lodge of sorts.

The Slowburger is the bar's hallmark, and it's already a local service-industry draw. Barnash and Hemmerling declared they set out to create a "bartender's bar," and considering the crowds of post-shift barbacks and busboys wolfing down burgers after midnight, you could say they've created a hit. At $8.50, it's a bargain--half a pound of Painted Hills ground beef is piled with pancetta, melted gruyère and fried onion rings. Paired with sweet-potato fries ($4.50 for an obscenely large platter, with "stinky cheese" for a buck more) and washed down with a pint (you just know Pabst is on tap here, and you're better off not challenging the staff with a tricky cocktail request), you'll be swallowing enough calories to get you through your next double shift.

Overall, the atmosphere at Slow Bar seems more rowdy than Lynch spooky--if you stopped in on the night the Red Sox won the Series, say, you'd find ordinarily sulky dudes high-fiving and hugging each other at the bar, Slayer blasting from the speakers, and a gruff, all-shoulders bartender who'd ignore you for exactly four minutes before deigning to give you the stink eye. The vibe can feel a little insiderish, but if you're here for the food, ask loudly/politely for a menu and slide into one of the enormous clamshell booths. In short, it's a punk-rock Cheers.

The menu's brief and bar-food focused, the selections engineered by Amy Jermain, a short-order samurai who's also stalked the kitchens of Higgins, Tabla and Paley's Place. Her fine-dining background lends just enough savvy to make the food fresh, but not too fancy. The spicy hazelnuts ($3), a gooey fried-oyster salad that blends torn iceberg with crisp onions and bleu-cheese dressing ($7), and the fritto misto (beer-battered fried veggies, $6) are a classy break from bar peanuts, divey clam strips and onion rings.

Slow Bar's menu also includes a couple of saucy sandwiches--braised beef ribs and a chicken club (both $8)--as well as smallish, comparatively delicate pizzettas ($6.50). There's not a lot of elaborate prep or presentation to these dishes--not that the dim lighting would reveal whether your French fries were symmetrically arrayed. This is food to wash down drinks with, and it happens to be pretty good. If only Slow Bar could be open, like Doug Fir, in the where-now hours after other spots darken. That would be cool.


Doug Fir Lounge830 E Burnside St., 231-9663. 7 am-4 am daily. Credit cards accepted. $-$$ Inexpensive-Moderate.

Slow Bar533 SE Grand Ave., 230-7767. 11:30 am-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 5 pm-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday. Credit cards accepted.$ Inexpensive.

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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