Three Degrees. Spit-freezing, nose-numbing cold, at least in America, but merely chilly in the rest of the Celsius-scale world (multiply by 1.8 and add 32). Or does it refer to a thrice-matriculated addict to higher education? Even if you know about Stanley Milgram, it's a strange name for a restaurant.
In 1967, Milgram, a professor of social psychology at Harvard and Yale, randomly selected people from the Midwest and sent them a letter addressed to a person in Massachusetts. If they didn't know the person, they were to forward the letter to a friend and ask them to do the same. Of the letters that finally made it, the median number of intermediaries was five, and if you add the final connection, you get six degrees of separation, Kevin Bacon, and now this.
Even though the chatty note on the back of the restaurant's menu provides an explanation, this place deserves a name that doesn't require one. If the name doesn't resonate, potential diners won't get a chance to try some good food.
I liked this dining room back when it was Lucere, and before that Esplanade (another unfortunate name). In this comfortable rendition, which has already been redone since the place opened last summer, dark wood warms the room, and the open kitchen even looks a little homey, more Pearl District condo than high-volume food service.
A handful of four-tops sit next to the wall of windows, and cozy little mini-booths are tucked under the low wall that divides the split-level room. Deep half-round booths along the back wall are oriented toward the river and elevated so you can see over the other tables.
And what a view: During the day, the Willamette reflects the sky and clouds, and you might see a lucky fisherman boat a fat springer, the bald eagles from nearby Ross Island, or maybe just a couple of idiots on jet skis. After dark, freeway traffic animates the night with a ribbon of red and white lights, and even the Marquam Bridge looks good.
The river looks even better when you're eating something as good as clams steamed with miso and sesame seeds ($7.25), a creative change from the usual wine and garlic, or hot-smoked trout with a dab of horseradish crème fraîche ($6.25), or bruschetta topped with a slightly sweet chestnut purée and crispy slivers of pancetta ($7.50).
Chef Aaron Dionne worked with Greg Higgins and Pascal Sauton, and he takes the same approach: Use local providers and respect the classics, but don't be afraid to try something a little different.
The line-caught wild salmon ($21.50) gets a nice burnish from a simple pan searing, and Dionne balances the natural richness of the fish with a saffron-crab vin blanc. It's not a common pairing but one that makes this preparation stand out from the other thousands of iconic salmon filets served endlessly in the Northwest.
Three Degrees' osso buco ($22.50) tweaks tradition, substituting a lamb shank for the veal, but also pays homage with a carrot-potato purée that looks surprisingly like the polenta usually served underneath. A braised half chicken comes in an herby broth with a pair of old-school dumplings ($15.95), but my grandmother never put parmigiano in hers.
The roasted squash and wild-mushroom risotto ($16.50) had lots of flavor but was a bit stiff for my taste. The burger, house-ground Painted Hills beef topped with organic white cheddar ($8.75) arrived a little more well-done than ordered but was still juicy. The fries, thin, crisp and near perfect, more than made up for the overcooking.
Even with good food, a nice dining room and a great view, Three Degrees doesn't seem to get too busy. That can't be good for the bottom line, but it makes it easy to drop in for dinner and keeps the dining-room din down. While the buzz of noisy energy can add a certain excitement to something as simple as eating, I get a little tired of shouting across tables in Portland restaurants.
The service runs from competent to tentative. The servers don't have a consistent presence, and while I don't mind a little individuality, it's jarring to experience coolly detached one night and overly personal the next. A minor quibble, but a little front-of-the-house oversight can make the difference between a pleasant evening and an odd one.
Maybe I'm wrong about the name. Here in the itty-bitty city, it does seem like everybody knows everybody else, or at least knows somebody who knows them. But I'll still think of Three Degrees as the restaurant at RiverPlace.
1510 SW Harbor Way, 295-6166. 6:30 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm daily. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate.
Sitting at one of the restaurant's booths might make you feel like everybody's looking at you, but they're more likely trying to identify the Portland notables in Catherine Mayer's impressive mural. The billboard-sized artwork has already become something of a local draw. Former Mayor Vera Katz is easy to pick out, and WW's own Byron Beck is the guy in the middle with a wine glass.