I never made it to clarklewis' first incarnation, and always had the feeling I'd come to The Producers just after Nathan Lane had left the show. A Portland transplant, I missed the initial onslaught of fawning local and national press, with ripe's brash impresarios Michael Hebb and Naomi Pomeroy cast in the roles of Bialystock and Bloom, and chef Morgan Brownlow as the star of Springtime for Portland . So my recent visits to clarklewis—now owned by the Bruce Carey restaurant consortium, with California transplant Daniel Mattern in the kitchen—well, it was all new to me.
What's changed? The very seasonal menu is a bit simpler (eight salads, six entrees), and the Hebb pick-your-platter-size is replaced with uniform pricing (except with the pastas, which come in small and large). The famously uncomfortable chairs have followed Naomi Pomeroy (the couple dropped their mashup surname "Hebberoy" when they split in 2006) to her new eatery, Beast. The ripe hubris/ethos has been dialed down, if not eliminated: The food empire's notorious "writer-in-residence" is off the payroll, and the excellent bread from Ken's (served with soft butter twinkling with fleur de sel ) is now gratis, as it always should have been. At clarklewis 2.0, there are even capital letters sneaking onto the menu. All to the good.
You can't go wrong starting with one of the restaurant's top-notch cocktails ($8-$10): a hard lemonade with fresh berries, a gin and tonic with basil flecks floating lazily like green mica, and the wonderful "French Leave," a second cousin of the traditional French 75, made with Lillet and orgeat syrup. The wine list could drop the lecture at its top ("wine, like food, should express a sense of time and place...") and rely on the strength of its selections, all West Coast wines, none of them particularly a bargain.
The starters and salads are little seductors. An early-fall plate of grilled figs with Gorgonzola and radicchio or arugula ($10) was a perfect meld of sweet and peppery, soft and crunchy. A chicory salad with nectarines and pecans ($10) didn't need the flavorless pancetta that accompanied it; it was faultless on its own. Crostone was smeared with pâté and capers, then topped with a miniature frisée aux lardons ($9), complete with a tiny poached farm egg. Even a simple corn salad with fresh shrimp was mindblowingly tasty enough that you could forget you were paying $11 for niblets.
The famous open kitchen and hearth are staffed with bustling young people in matching T-shirts, and the crowd is dressy for Portland, which makes it that much more puzzling that the servers are a mismatched bunch, in outfits more suited to a Hawthorne hangout. Some were dutiful, but others passed pushed-out chairs and empty water glasses, staring into the distance; in one case, a young man sat down at a table to take an order. ("Maybe he knows them," said my companion hopefully.)
Then there was our particular server, who recited the evening's specials directly to me and not to my female companion. Bad idea; what if the lady's paying? But it was hard to concentrate, because...well, the server smelled. Bad. Not that he'd worked up a sweat (about anything); he was just ripe. When he drifted off, I asked a patron at the next table, "Do you notice anything unusual about our server?" "Other than his reeking body odor?" she replied.
Unfortunately, the server's attitude matched his aroma. When we bit into housemade whole-wheat fettuccine with green beans and basil ($13-$17), the sauce was snappy, but the pasta was a sticky ball of underboiled noodles. On the waiter's next pass, I told him, "This is delicious, but it's undercooked."
"We like to serve it al dente," he informed us. "And we like to eat it al dente," I replied, "but this is undercooked."
Exit waiter. A different server soon appeared with an entirely different, unasked-for substitution—ricotta-stuffed ravioli ($17). "That herb you taste? It's rosemary," she chirped helpfully. Indeed it was, and the pasta pillows were cooked to Gerber-gummy softness. That began the evening's decline: a skate wing with squash blossoms and bacon ($26) was agreeable, but not enough to finish it; a pork loin ($27) was, well, pork loin. On another visit, the experience repeated itself with a candy-bar-sized piece of sturgeon ($28) with all the pizzazz of frozen orange roughy. As my companion said, "It's like it didn't come from the same kitchen."
Desserts ($9) from pastry chef Roxana Jullapat brought every meal back on keel: a financier with fresh pears, a deep-chocolate cake that elicited moans from my chocoholic companion and a cake with fresh plums and ice cream.
On my last visit, we devised a winning strategy. We sat at the bar and let Jordan, the excellent young mixologist, help us construct a small-plates dinner from the salads and apps menu. The braised squid with garbanzos ($10) was outstanding, as were a couple of hearty salads: roasted beets and wax beans in a salsa rustica ($10), a mélange of last-of-season tomatoes with sheep's milk ricotta and torn bread ($10). And then, perhaps the best dessert I've ever had in Portland—a Concord grape tartlet drizzled with an inspired red wine-caramel sauce: the pastry equivalent of post-prandial port and cigars, paired with an equally rich buttermilk ice cream.
With its glass loading-dock wall open to gritty Southeast Water Avenue proscenium-style in good weather, and twinkling like a department store window on drizzly nights, clarklewis is still as much theater as restaurant. With a few cast tweaks and some work on the middle act, it should be in for a good, long run.
clarklewis, 1001 SE Water Ave., 235-2294. Dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Hours "based on menu availability." $$$. Expensive.