Lunch plans had to be canceled—Nick Arnerich knew that right away.
When Arnerich's new, wood-fired Italian restaurant, Renata, was chosen as The Oregonian's favorite new spot in its annual restaurant issue just two weeks after officially opening, it paradoxically made it impossible for him to follow through with the plans that won him the accolade.
"We had to make some big changes, which was hard," he says. "We'd been focused on lunch, and made an investment in lunch. That was part of the business plan from the start. But we knew we had a responsibility to the city of Portland to get it right, and we couldn't spread ourselves that thin."
It was a bold, and wise, decision. Six weeks after officially opening, Renata is far from perfect, but it's doing a lot right. And to talk with Arnerich—I found it impossible to just file a straight review of this restaurant given the way media coverage has shaped the project—you get the impression he's going to smooth out most of the remaining wrinkles.
First, a little backstory: Nick and his wife Sandra both previously worked front of the house at Napa Valley's French Laundry, arguably the world's best restaurant. Nick is a Portland native. His father, Tony Arnerich, is a former restaurateur who now runs an investment firm that manages $22 billion in assets.
From his father, Nick got the keys to a 10,000-square-foot space for a restaurant with space for an in-house dairy, specialty food market and a chocolatier. Renata's kitchen is helmed by chef Matt Sigler, who previously worked at Flour + Water, an excellent pizzeria in San Francisco's Mission District.
At this point Renata isn't making good use of either the Arnerichs' fine-dining service experience or Sigler's proficiency with pizza. But the young restaurant does have a few nice moves.
Music comes from the White Stripes and other early naughties garage rock. Coasters and water bottles (still or sparkling) are branded with the restaurant's logo. The service is plentiful and free-form—you may be tag-teamed by five or six staffers in an evening. Clear at least two hours for a meal. On one visit, it took an hour to get to the entrees.
For now, plan to drink cocktails or wine. Though Arnerich will be adding more taps in the weeks to come, right now there are only three. One goes to cider—a winy crabapple drop that goes for $1 an ounce. The beer list consists of two local kegs and five Italian bottles, which top out with a $25 A Modo Mio IPA (56 on RateBeer, unrated on Beer Advocate). Servers are the type who pronounce Lambrusco with rolling-R verve and describe a beer as "the saison from Farmhouse" (actually the Saaz-hop saison from teeny-tiny Humble Brewing). The other tap goes to a cream ale, which I found pairs poorly with pastas and breads.
The cocktails were wonderful early, but seem to be lagging of late.
On all three visits, we ordered the Nights in Cabiria, which has Calabrian chiles, lime, apricot and gin, and a spritzer called the Silver Spoon, made with Clear Creek grappa, Champagne-vinegar-pickled nectarines and cinnamon.
On our first visit, the Silver Spoon was a showstopper. It came out with a comically large fruit skewer, including a quarter of a lime and a whole candy-sweet strawberry the size of a small beach ball. By the third visit, it had deflated to half the size. Likewise, the gin-based Nights in Cabiria had a nice bite from the chilis on our first visit, and thereafter missed their wonderful flicker of heat.
When it comes to appetizers and salads, pretty much everything is solid. The best thing we've had from the start of the menu is crispy pork trotters ($10), little deep-fried triangles of impossibly rich, shredded pig foot balanced by a chutney of bright cherries.
The $10 bread basket is close behind. Yes, it's $10 for bread that isn't as good as what you can get for free a few blocks away at Ken Forkish's Trifecta. But between the ultra-buttery focaccia, surprisingly fluffy Pugliese and spreads that include gooey-sweet honey butter with bee pollen and pleasantly grassy olive oil, it's a worthy add-on to your meal.
Like the rest of the menu, the salads ($12-$14) are in constant flux, but all of them we've had juxtapose fatty and bitter notes to great effect. One of the more interesting is a chopped salad with a sharp vinegar sting and big chunks of salty, unaged prosciutto. It also has stunningly delicious croutons: garlicky chunks of brittle, dry crust that crunch like puffed rice. The basic seasonal lettuces used soft, little, fried dough balls as croutons—a true touch of brilliance.
Pasta is where Renata will make its name. Already, it joins a very small group of restaurants—Ava Gene's, Luce, Piazza Italia—capable of delivering a noodle-based knockout punch.
The best thing I've had at Renata, and indeed one of the best things I've had all year, was an umami bomb of canestri, brownish-purple, porcini-inflected elbow noodles dressed with braised pork, toasted pine nuts and a dusting of salty Parmesan. My second visit led to a similar revelation: doughy orecchiette colored by green tomato leaves and topped with juicy pink meatballs and garlic-bread croutons made from the foccacia. On my third visit, I was wowed by ricotta-stuffed triangles sauced by a creamy blend of crushed almonds and shredded Parmesan. All were perfectly taut, snapping like a ribbon under the incisors.
Not all of the pasta is so good. One gnocchi dish was a mess: overcooked to the point of almost losing their pillowy form and drenched in a saline sauce that crashed like a tsunami over the greens intended to provide a balancing bitterness. A pesto pasta was also overcooked.
When it comes to mains, steer toward meat and away from pizza.
If it were my restaurant, I'd just Luca Brasi the pizzas. Both were huge disappointments—the first, a meatball pie, because of a dull sauce, and the second, because it was baked too long, developing that sour, blackened flavor that comes when you burn a few kernels of popcorn in the kettle.
But every meat plate we had—a mixed beef plate, a roasted half-chicken and a plate of sliced brisket—was well cut and prepared.
That simple chicken was as good as any you'll find in town, drippingly moist and paired with brightly bitter greens. The brisket came with a killer sauce of garlic and pureed kohlrabi, an earthy turnip-like vegetable. It's gone for now, and likely won't return until next year, when the next kohlrabi crop comes in.
That, I think, is one of the most interesting aspects of this project—it's the largest restaurant in Portland with such a fluid, seasonal menu. And it's why Renata is worth keeping a close eye on, even if the entire business plan is in flux.
Though Arnerich had a tough time abandoning his plans for lunch, there is a silver lining.
"I have a little more time with my kids. I'll thank [The Oregonian's restaurant critic] for that," he says. "We know we have a long road ahead of us to have a great restaurant. Nothing's sacred, nothing won't change. I get bored really fast. We want to keep it fresh and excited."
I'll salud to that—after they add a few more taps, anyway.
EAT: Renata, 626 SE Main St., 954-2708, renatapdx.com. $$$-$$$$. Monday-Friday 5:30-10 pm. Saturday 5-10 pm.