Way Off-Key

Quartet tries to bring true fine dining to Portland.

In this unicorns-and-rainbows town, all the food carts are fabulous, and free-spirited chefs never fail to deliver mealtime magic on the cheap. Sycophants cheer the indie scene with the shrill fervor of a Swiftie getting a backstage pass to one of Taylor's shows. But behind the chorus of self-congratulation, Portland has a dirty little secret: Unlike other sizeable cities, Portland lacks a fine-dining culture. The young creative class that has flocked here in recent years gives high-end dining the cold shoulder as older and well-heeled locals open their wallets in New York, Paris or anywhere Michelin stars twinkle. 

Which brings us to Quartet—riverfront heir to Lucier, the most colossal face plant in the history of Portland fine dining. Even before Quartet opened, the foodie crowd ranted as though a Wal-Mart had been targeted for Southeast 20th Avenue and Division Street. One writer—breaking accepted protocol if not news—trashed the place in a review filed from a free media preview dinner. Anonymous blog commentators piled on, one deeming Quartet unworthy of patronage based solely on its online menu.

Quartet deserves praise for wanting to fill the fine-dining void and help Portland realize its full gastronomic potential. The view of the Willamette River just steps beyond floor-to-ceiling windows is peerless. The décor is stunning, from soft, luxurious chairs to thick carpeting to striking chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. I can't think of a more dramatic venue to take first-time visitors, especially in the summer, when the river and waterfront reveal themselves as the buzzy, beating heart of the city.

Quartet is also unequaled for a romantic night out, with everyone all dressed up and a jazz quartet noodling gently in the background. Let's face it: If the company is great and the evening special, all else tends to fade into the background.

But, of course, this is Portland, where you can have a splendid meal for $25, while Quartet will run you $100. To have any chance of winning over recalcitrant locals, the food at Quartet has to be even more compelling than the atmosphere.

It has a long way to go.

Let's start with this: How on earth do you screw up a hamburger ($16 on the bar menu)? The misshapen wagyu beef patty was partly medium-rare as ordered, partly raw. And the accompaniments surpassed creative, skipping directly to bizarre: fried green tomato, roasted chilies, arugula, Gorgonzola and "Dijon caramelized onion aioli." Might as well call it the Cheech & Chong burger.

Worse: a Dungeness crab cake that arrived with the iodine reek of cheap brown gulf shrimp, which, I surmise, were chopped and blended with the crab. An entree portion runs $38; as one component of "The Quartet" entree ($65), one of these sorry cakes comes with a small filet, a decent-sized fried lobster tail and whipped potatoes. The lobster tail (as a solo entree, $55) gets a promising tempura treatment, but the crunch and delicate sweetness of the shellfish were defeated by a splotch of thick, spicy "sauce étoufée." Clumsy balancing of flavors also marred a decent pan-roasted chicken breast ($31). The accompanying goat cheese grits were fine, but the abundant "maple vinegar sauce" tasted like something you pour over pancakes.

On one visit, I was served a "chopped salad" that bore no resemblance to a chopped salad—notwithstanding my server's offer to "have the kitchen chop it up for you." Coincidentally or not, the chopped salad is no longer on the menu, and the pretender I got—a satisfactory mix of lettuces, jicama and pine nuts in a light sweet-tart dressing—is now called a "Q Salad" ($10), displacing a prior version of the "Q Salad." Another salad snafu: The spinach in the wilted-spinach salad ($13) wasn't wilted, probably because the bacon dressing designed to do the wilting wasn't hot. Yes, I'm confused too—by this and a menu the kitchen seems unable to master. Even the wine-by-the-glass list is odd, failing to disclose the vintage of any of the numerous options.

The trick to a satisfying meal at Quartet is to pretend you are at El Gaucho, where many of the staff formerly worked. Order the standards: Caesar salad ($16, two-person minimum), prepared tableside; steak, including a filet mignon ($45) or porterhouse ($59), each of which comes with a choice of potato; and tableside bananas Foster ($12, two-person minimum). Not ambitious, but enjoyable.

Against a backdrop of resistance to formality and expense, Quartet has taken on the Herculean task of persuading Portlanders to embrace a high-end restaurant. The lessons were there to be learned from Lucier's failure, but they appear to have gone unheeded. Sandwich shops and food carts, have no fear: The development of a fine-dining culture is still stuck in the Stumptown mud. 

  1. Order this: Frank’s fried lobster, hold the sauce ($55).
  2. Best deal: Happy-hour nibbles ($7, 3-6 pm and 9 pm-close Monday-Saturday, all day Sunday).
  3. I’ll pass: Dungeness crab cakes ($38).

EAT: Quartet, 1910 SW River Drive, 222-7300, quartetpdx.com. 3-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 3 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday, 3-10 pm Sunday. $$$$.