Tuesday, March 28, 2017

BBF Preserves: Blood Orange Shrub

Shrubs, a sweetened, vinegar-based fruit syrup, have been appearing on cocktail lists for a while now, and while I usually like them, they can easily verge on too acidic. Inspired by Food in Jars' Mastery Challenge, I decided to make my own, thinking if I could control the amount of vinegar, I could create the perfect tart and tangy syrup. 

I used Cara Cara and blood oranges sent to me by Limoneira in California—I figured a wintertime citrus shrub would go well with either the bottle of Portland-based Hardshore gin I recently purchased or else would serve as a nice, non-alcoholic beverage for a weeknight (I know, who am I??). 

I roughly followed the Food in Jars recipe for blood orange shrub: squeeze juice, mix with an equal amount of sugar and let stand until fully dissolved. I ended up with a cup and a half of orange juice. Then I added a cup white wine vinegar—a little less than equal parts, since I was trying to keep it more on the sweet side than the acidic one. 

I also added the spent orange halves to the sugar and juice mixture. I figured letting them macerate in the sugar would extract any juice or pulp I may have missed. And I was right—the rinds were nearly completely empty when I extracted them a few hours later. I strained the juice before I added the vinegar, opting for a pulp-free shrub. 

I ended up with about three cups of blood orange shrub. The shrub needs to be refrigerated and will last a few months. 

I tried it with some gin, which wasn't anything special. I'm really trying to recreate a cocktail I had in the tasting room that involves pine syrup, tonic, grapefruit bitters, and rosemary. I feel there's room in that recipe for some blood orange shrub. I enjoyed the shrub most as a spritzer—about 4 tablespoons diluted with some sparkling water. 

Blood Orange Shrub

4 blood oranges, washed
1-1/2 cup sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar

Juice oranges, then pour juice into a clean quart container. Add sugar and stir. Let stand until sugar is fully dissolved, stirring occasionally. Strain juice, if desired. Add vinegar and refrigerate.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Maine Restaurant Week at Sur Lie

When Maine Restaurant Week, the much-lauded, oft-maligned dining promotion, rolled around this year, I took the opportunity to dine out with fellow Portland food blogger Steffy Amondi. We narrowed down our choices to a short list of places we'd either never been or only been for drinks and appetizers. Sur Lie emerged as our top choice—at $35 for four courses, it seemed to be a true Restaurant Week deal. 

We arrived at 7pm for our reservation, but learned that a group was camping out at our table, meaning that they'd paid the bill but showed no signs of leaving. We were nonplussed—we enjoyed the time to order drinks at the bar and chat for a while. 

Sur Lie is known for its bar program—specifically its craft cocktails, so we all took the chance to order from the list of nine speciality drinks. I ordered You Can't Handle The Chartreuse ($11), with Back River gin, Chartreuse, arugula, Thai basil, grapefruit, lime, and lemongrass bitters. It was tart and herbal, as you'd expect, although I wish the arugula/basil/grapefruit flavors had been more pronounced, since the Chartreuse overpowered them. 

Once we were seated at our table, we spent a considerable amount of time digesting the large Restaurant Week menu—each course had three to five choices. Sur Lie's menu is an eclectic mix of cuisines and is made up of small plates, the portion somewhere between an appetizer and an entree. Our server told us that while each of us would order one dish from each course, the portions would be enough for the table to share. 

The first course, "To settle and nibble..." included five dishes from the restaurant's regular menu, and we ordered nearly all of them: warm marinated olives, sweet pea hummus, and cheese and charcuterie board. The sweet pea hummus was light, almost bordering on too mild, but great for spring (if it ever arrives), while the snack board was a crowd-pleaser with contrasting textures and strong flavors. 

Sharing these snacky courses helped create a nice homey vibe at our table—it's always fun to dine out with a fellow food blogger, since you're free to talk in-depth about the food without feeling like you're boring your company. Our boyfriends bonded over sports talk and the ups and downs of dating a food blogger (they concluded it's mostly "ups" ūüėė ). 

Our next course was a round of small plates in true Sur Lie style: the fried milk-braised cauliflower, celery and fennel salad, and crispy pork belly over wheat berries, kale, and white beans (the pork belly was the first dish we encountered that isn't on the regular menu). 

The celery and fennel salad was my favorite of this round: fresh and crunchy with great pops of flavor throughout from candied pecans and Pineland Farms cheddar. The cauliflower was a little soft for something being billed as fried, but had great flavor, while the pork belly was very rich—a bite was plenty for me—and hearty with its classic combination of pork, beans, and greens. 

Next up, a round of "Sur Taters," a bowl of fried potato cubes topped with roasted garlic, crumbled blue cheese, and pickled jalapenos; fried haddock with a salsa verde squiggle; and lamb bolognese over casarecce pasta. 

The potatoes and the bolognese were the winners in my book—the fried haddock suffered from a soft, rather than crispy, battered coating, and its flavors were too mild to stand up to the other dishes on the table. The bolognese was my favorite, with a tangy sauce and lots of orange zest. 

Dessert was largely what drove me to choose Sur Lie in the first place—I'd spied strawberry-jelly filled donuts on the menu, so my choice was obvious. The others ordered a flourless chocolate cake with cara cara orange puree and gelato, and a passionfruit panna cotta with granola. 

The donuts were perfect—crispy and sugared with the right ratio of filling to dough. Dessert was one course we didn't share, or rather I was only interested in my donuts, so you'll have to read Steffy's report for her panna cotta feedback. 

Sur Lie's Restaurant Week menu was a great choice—a nice mix of regular menu items and new dishes, and at $58 a head (includes a $10 glass of wine, tax, and tip), was a bargain compared to a regular meal there. While it's maybe not the place for those of you who like to make the joke, "I spent $100 and still had to go to Five Guys afterwards," the unique approach to the food and drink menu will please foodies and comfort food-lovers alike. 

Sur Lie | 11 Free St, Portland | 207-956-7350 | Open for dinner at 4pm, Tuesday through Saturday

Thursday, March 2, 2017

My Attempt at Whole30

Now that it's March 2nd and my Whole30 is technically over, I feel I'm ready to share my experience with you. For the uninitiated (oh, how I envy you), the Whole30 is an elimination-style diet where one doesn't consume *deep breath* grains, dairy, sugar, alcohol, legumes, and some preservatives/food additives for 30 days. In avoiding the foods that can cause inflammation in the body, the diet's creators argue, your gut can heal and your mind will reset its unhealthy eating habits. 

A ban on ice cream, danishes, and margaritas can be expected in any healthy eating plan, but no quinoa, brown rice, or beans?? Yeah... on the Whole30, all that's left to eat is high-quality meat, vegetables, fruit, and blessedly, coffee and kombucha. Fortunately, there's great support online and in branded cookbooks to help with recipes, meal plans, and shopping lists. 

Winter citrus salad with mint and Meyer lemon vinaigrette
While this diet claims to help mediate everything from bad skin and allergies to digestive issues and weight loss, I didn't come into it with too many issues. But who knows? The gospel that is Whole30 success stories would have you believe you've been living your life in a fog and that a radical change in diet will lift the veil. Maybe I've been operating at 75% my whole life and stand to gain enlightenment and self-actualization. 

Plus I like a challenge, and I had some help—my partner A. was in, looking to avoid the weight gain that seems to come along with every winter in Maine. And my friend G. was in, because, I dunno, she's a masochist like me. 

We started by clearing the cabinets of any non-compliant items and restocking them with Whole30 staples and snacks. I gave away the granola, composted all the moldy cheese ends, and froze (breaded) fishsticks. I spent $75 at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods on nuts, unsweetened dried fruit, almond butter, fresh fruit, kombucha, and chicken thighs for a slow cooker dinner. I may or may not have eaten a Micucci's slab pizza, "last meal" style. 

A variety of Whole30 breakfasts
On Day 1, I was riding high (as true to the Whole30 Timeline prediction "Day 1: So what's the big deal?"). I had scrambled eggs, home fries, avocado, and salsa for breakfast; leftover compliant beef stew for lunch, and came home later in the evening to what I thought would be delicious Greek-style chicken over green beans and tomatoes. It turns out the recipe was an utter failure—greasy, overcooked and bitter. But as I was coming down with a cold, I didn't have much of an appetite, so I ate some olives and salami and went to bed. Despite the recipe fail, day 1 didn't prove to be a hardship; after all, any diet is pretty easy for just a day.

I also sailed through Day 2, not feeling like I'd made too much of an adjustment in my eating habits. By Day 3, I was feeling really good, as far as pride and a sense of accomplishment. Look at this fabulous lunch I made! I wasn't feeling deprived at all. This was going to be easy.

Butternut squash soup with pistachios and proscuitto; spinach with beets, pine nuts, balsamic vinaigrette 
But after an early evening yoga session and then an ill-advised "quick errand" to the mall with no emergency food on hand, I was feeling grumpy, low-energy, and resentful of the diet (theme alert!).

Fortunately, a chicken ranch salad saved the day—I had the ingredients on hand to make Whole30 mayonnaise and then from that, Whole30 ranch dressing. I seared chicken breasts and crumbled prosciutto over a salad, and enjoyed that I was eating something that didn't feel like deprivation.

*Mind you, I've made it three whole days and was starting to feel pretty over it already. Red flag.

BLT salad—Whole30 ranch + bacon = game changer
Day 4 brought my first Saturday on the plan, with plans to go to a concert at the State Theater that night. I foresaw multiple challenges: my normal routine for a show is to go out to eat beforehand and have a drink at the concert venue. Was I ready to tackle both eating out on Whole30 and a stone cold sober concert?

As per Whole30's advice, I scoped out the menu of a few restaurants near the State and suggested Norm's (excuse me, Congress Street Bar & Grill) to my friends. There were several menu items there that could be modified for Whole30 compliance.

At this point in the Whole30, I was suffering from what they call the "carb flu." As I understand it, your body switches from burning carbs to burning protein and fat during the Whole30 and this adjustment can take a few weeks (!!) with negative side effects. I felt out of it (almost completely biffed a stop sign by the mall), exhausted, and hungry all the time. I was also sick with a cold, compounding the issue I'm sure. I took several multiple-hour afternoon naps during this transition.

So Saturday, after my nap, the 3 Whole30ers ventured out to "pregame" in solidarity at Vena's Fizz House. Since Vena's serves a great variety of mocktails, we figure we'd find something with no added sugar to sip. Jackpot. Spirits were high as we enjoyed Blood Orange Cordials (blood orange puree, apple cider syrup, lemon, blood orange bitters) in fancy glasses with a snack of kale chips.

At Norm's, we enjoyed steak salad (hold the bleu cheese) with balsamic vinaigrette and bunless burgers with salsa instead of ketchup. I broke a rule and ordered fries with my burger. Homemade oven-roasted potatoes are ok but fries aren't? Whatever, Whole30. 

I left Norm's feeling good—satisfied but not unpleasantly full. Who needs buns on burgers anyway? Since I was sick, I didn't even want to drink and had great energy for the entire concert. Usually I fade at the end and rely on the boost from the booze to keep me up until midnight. 

Next up...Super Bowl Sunday. 

So A., being a huge Pats fan, built in a "cheat day" (yes, I know those are not a thing on Whole30) for the Super Bowl. He ate compliant food, but enjoyed beer with the game. Since I'm not a Pats fan, I packed up my kombucha to bring with me to the party like a good girl. I snacked on only compliant foods (ribs and beanless beef chili) and didn't ask any questions about what was in the barbecue sauce. 

Cold Thai salad with "sunshine sauce"
During the second week of the diet, I had varying degrees of success coping with my new eating habit. Gradually, my cold went away—although I'm convinced it took longer to than if I wasn't on Whole30—my brain fog cleared, my energy returned, and I was sleeping great (I started sleeping great after one day without any alcohol though). 

We found compliant bacon at Whole Foods, learned that we love butternut squash zoodles in place of pasta, and were generally loving how many fresh fruits and vegetables we were eating. I ate all of my CSA share vegetables before the next delivery—something I'd never accomplished before. Because easy foods like grilled cheese and breakfast sandwiches weren't available to us, it forced me to actually cook the food in my fridge, rather than staring at a crisper drawer of vegetables, declaring there "wasn't any food in the house" and heading to Rosemont for a sandwich. 

Day 12, one I labeled as "the wheels have come off," I awoke to a very happy A. making pancakes from eggs and bananas. I had to burst his bubble and tell him that wasn't allowed on Whole30. While Paleo eaters can make treats out of complaint ingredients, Whole30 wants you to avoid this for 30 days, arguing the treats will still perpetuate the same unhealthy eating habits. They call this "sex with your pants on" food—eating it will only serve to increase your craving for these unhealthy foods. They were right. Egg white pancakes with almond butter were nowhere near as good as fluffy gluten-filled ones covered in butter and maple syrup. Into the compost my half-eaten pancake went. 

Whole30 lunch at Terlingua: beanless chili (hold the cheese), salad with vinaigrette
Around Day 8, after I moved through the "constant hunger" phase (in which I frequently joked I was starving to death), I entered into the "constant stomachache" phase, which ultimately was my downfall. I must confess I didn't finish my Whole30, but rather bailed on Day 16. 

Digestive issues can be part of the transition, which can take up to three weeks (again, !!!) to resolve. As someone who didn't have any stomach troubles going into Whole30, I found this increasingly frustrating. Maybe I was eating too many nuts? Maybe I was eating foods too high in FODMAPs? Or insoluble fiber? I thought maybe it was all the cauliflower rice (cauliflower can be hard to digest, and if you think about eating half a head of cauliflower instead of a cup of rice, you can see why that might give you a stomachache). 

I went down the rabbit hole trying to suss out the cause of my daily stomach pain, but nothing I did seemed to make a difference. It didn't help that the Whole30 Timeline prescribed that I'd be feeling "boundless energy" and "tiger blood" coursing through my veins—kind of the whole goal of the program—by now. Where was my damn tiger blood?? 

Sitting at my computer one grouchy afternoon, I realized I didn't have to do this. I was an adult, I could voluntarily choose my diet. I'd previously never had any issues around what I ate—no guilt, no shame, just unfettered joy. I realized I could quit Whole30 at any time. And I felt free. 

So if I was going to bail, what was it going to be for? What was I going to eat to reclaim my own personal food freedom? I ran/walked down to Standard Baking and scarfed this sucker so hard: 

Butter, sugar, gluten all in one. Heaven. I waited a few hours, expecting to feel some sort of systemic shock. Nothing. I ate a compliant dinner of cauliflower fried rice (ugh) and delicious chicken lettuce wraps. When a friend used bottled hoisin sauce that surely contained sugar, I didn't say boo. I felt so much better about eating. 

My trouble came two days later on a Saturday, when I tried to resume my normal eating habits: an innocent-seeming egg and mushroom breakfast sandwich. I ate it at 10am and was full for five hours. I had a lunch date at 12:30, but was so full I had to get my food to go, and then didn't feel like eating until 3:30pm. After eating two tacos, I tried to clean my apartment and had to lay down multiple times to rest because I was so full. What was happening?!? 

Since the "full on two tacos" incident, I finished the month out eating largely compliant Whole30 meals. I've given myself the freedom to eat treats when I want them (hello, Honey Paw soft serve) and to have a drink occasionally—although after taking the better part of a month off from drinking, I find my tolerance so severely reduced that I don't really want to drink very much or often. I've added half and half back into my coffee, since the coconut milk as creamer really was sucking all the joy out of my morning cup. If I eat out, I stick to protein and vegetables, still fearing that unpleasant, overly-full feeling. 

Crispy mango chicken with cauliflower rice (seriously, I ate a lot of cauliflower)
As for A., he stuck to the Whole30 for the month and felt pretty good about it the whole time. I made him weigh himself yesterday and he's lost a whopping 15 pounds. We've agreed it was easy to swap out empty carbs for vegetables (like squash noodles) and to stop relying on cheese and crackers for our after work snack. We like that we don't drink at home every weeknight—two beers a night wasn't doing anyone any favors. Kombucha from the Urban Farm Fermentory has been a good stand-in. 

While I don't regret attempting Whole30, I'm definitely glad it's over. There were some undeniable perks and habits I'll continue going forward, but it will take me a while to unwind all the negative feelings around food I've internalized. 

Oh, also another casualty of the Whole30? ALL OF MY HOMEBREW. It unceremoniously exploded after four weeks in the bottle. Apparently I bottled it before fermentation was complete. I blame Whole30—if I'd just drank it after 2 weeks, as per the kit's recommendation, it wouldn't have been around to explode. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Valentine's Day at Izakaya Minato

We braved the towering snowbanks and poorly shoveled sidewalks to walk down to Izakaya Minato, the newest addition to Portland's Washington Ave., last night. This petite Japanese eatery opened a few weeks ago next to Terlingua and has gained an instant following within the neighborhood. The bar has been consistently full the few times I walked by after its opening. 

When we visited, there was some seating available at a communal table, but the hostess offered us a table in the dining room—which I didn't even know existed, since it's not visible from the street. There's another room off the bar that has table seating for about 20. The whole place has a very homey vibe and was full of friendly people. We waved to some neighbors, and throughout our meal compared rave reviews with the couple seated at the table next to us. 

interior of Izakaya Minato
Once settled with our menus we checked out the drink choices. There's a selection of Japanese bottled beers, mostly local drafts, sake, and cocktails (many made with sake). I went with a ginger kombucha from the Urban Farm Fermentory and turned my attention to the dinner menu. 

The menu has a good mix of vegetable, seafood, and meat dishes, as well as noodle and rice dishes. While there were many items we wanted to try, when our server came, A. ordered sashimi omakase for two (market price that night was $14 for one serving) and three other dishes. As is common in small plates restaurants, we hung onto our menu in case we wanted to order more food later. 

The sashimi came first, a beautiful arrangement of uni, scallop, tuna, fluke, and...ah, shoot, I was on a roll there, but forget the last one. The plate also had artful arrangements of thinly sliced vegetables and herbs that added some flavor zings to the cool, fresh fish. 

Our server came back to check on us and declared the uni his favorite—I had to tell him it wasn't mine, but that I was working on it. I think that's the first time I've ever had straight uni; usually I encounter it in other dishes. It has a buttery texture, but a pretty strong briny flavor that, like oysters, may be an acquired taste for some (including me, I guess!). 

We finished all of our courses before the next one came, which was kinda fun—we sat eagerly awaiting the next surprise. 

Our next course, the kani dashimaki or crab and egg omelette ($9) was juicy and savory. So much flavor was packed into the thick slices of egg. The pile of shreds on the plate was daikon radish with some soy sauce, which I didn't love, so I went without after sampling it. 

The tsukune shiitake arrived next—mushrooms stuffed with chicken sausage and served with chili Kewpie mayo ($8). Fortunately, they were sliced in half (we all know how crazy hot a stuffed mushroom can be) since we devoured them so quickly. The little caps were salty, savory bombs and dragging them through the spicy mayo gave it a smooth richness. If I had any food guilt issues, this dish would have triggered them! 

And lastly, another savory meat treat—the kalbi or Korean-style short ribs with kimchi ($14). These thinly sliced ribs were doused in a spicy, sweet sauce then charred on the grill, and the combination of crispy fat and tender meat was addictive. They're also fun to eat, gnawing around the bones for little bits of flavor. The kimchi added a nice crunch and cut the fatty meat with its tart, fresh flavors. 

Deciding that we'd ordered the perfect amount of food, we declined another round and dessert as well. Our tab came to $76 before tip (includes three kombuchas), which while not cheap, was a fair price for the high-quality seafood and skillfully prepared small dishes we enjoyed. 

My takeaway is that Izakaya Minato a great hangout spot that's different enough to feel casually hip, while the food is a good mix of the familiar and novel. As of now, the Izakaya opens for dinner at 5 p.m. and is closed Sundays. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

My First Homebrew: Everyday IPA

I joke that there are certain hobbies I'm saving for later—like knitting. I figure I've got a long life ahead of me (knock wood), so I've got to save some things for later. Homebrew fell into that category for a long time, and plus it seems like a mid-30s hobby... your taste in craft beer needs to develop and you need to have enough disposable income for the pricy supplies. So this past fall, something finally clicked, and I stopped seeing homebrewing as a somewhat boring activity, and became interested in trying it. 

Fortunately, a lot of the men in my life have dabbled in homebrewing, so there was no shortage of family members who wanted to give me their equipment and dole out advice. I started by slowing gathering the equipment and helped a friend brew a Scotch ale in order to get an overview of what the process was like. 

homebrew supplies

After receiving a beer kit for Christmas (thanks, Liz!), the time had come to jump into making my own batch of beer. I started with a one-gallon kit from Brooklyn Brew Shop for Everyday IPA. The idea behind Brooklyn Brew is for city dwellers with limited space to make small batches of beer, so the kit comes with everything you need minus some common kitchen items. My next batch will be five gallons of beer or about 50 12-ounce bottles (!!).

The first step is heating the grain (aka mashing) to create the wort. This involved heating the grain with water to a certain temperature, maintaining that temperature for a period of time, then straining out the grain. This step does a few things, but its primary purpose is to turn the starches into fermentable sugars.

The next step is to boil the beer and add hops as you go. The boil takes an hour, but my IPA recipe called for me to add hops every 15 minutes. Hops are added in different stages to contribute to flavor development (i.e. creating bitterness when added at the beginning of the boil and more volatile hop flavors, like pine or citrus, when added at the end).

After the boil was complete, I put the pot in the sink to cool. I do have a fancy wort chiller, but it wasn't worth it to hook it up for a gallon of beer—an ice bath in the sink brought my beer down to 70*F fast enough. 

After the wort was cool, I add the yeast and funneled the beer into its fermentor. I used the one-gallon growler that came with the kit, but my next batch will go in the five-gallon glass carboy my dad gave me (thanks, Dad!). 

After sealing the beer off with a tube/cup of sanitizer situation, I let the beer sit on the counter for two days. I was pleased to see signs of active fermentation happening, which was a sign that I hadn't killed my yeast off by adding it to wort that was too warm and that my yeast wasn't old/inactive. 

Two days later, I replaced the tube with an airlock and put the growler in a dark place for two weeks to fully ferment. 

After two weeks, the beer looked pretty much the same, save for the couple of inches of sediment at the bottom of the growler. This is called the trub and is made up of yeast that has died after living its short, but useful, life. We thank you for your service, yeast. 

And now bottling time! The part where I probably screwed it up, due to sticking my less-than-sanitary hand into the beer a few times. 

In order to create carbonation, I added some honey to the beer, before I siphoned the beer into four 22-oz. bottles (only four?!?) and capped them. Theoretically, the remaining yeast will feed on the sugar, create gas, and fizz my delicious-tasting IPA. There's a lot that could have gone wrong, so we'll see. 

Two more weeks in the hole, and the beer will be ready. Stay tuned to Instagram for the taste test. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Big Fin Poké, Westbrook

I often complain about going to Westbrook, not for any particular reason other than Portland-centrism and that I always manage to get lost whenever I attempt to navigate to or through our neighboring city to the west. But add Big Fin Pok√©  to the small, but growing, list of things I'll happily (ok, begrudgingly) travel to Westbrook for. 

Pok√©, if you're not familiar, is best described as deconstructed sushi. It's a Hawaiian seafood salad made up of raw fish, seaweed, onions, and seasonings like ponzu, soy, or sesame oil. I will be annoying and tell you that I first had pok√© years ago from a grocery store deli in Maui. It was way better than poi, another traditional Hawaiian food, that I'm pretty sure you had to grow up eating to appreciate. 

But pok√© has arrived on the mainland (or at least on the upscale menus and glossy magazines of the mainland), riding the popularity of sushi, "clean eating," and food served in bowls. Here in Maine, we now have Big Fin Pok√© on Westbook's Main Street in a space with large windows, hardwood floors, and high ceilings. 

You can choose to make your own pok√© bowl or choose from selections of Big Fin favorites. I went with the Hawaiian Original, as making my own from the myriad options seemed overwhelming. I thought the tuna, green onion, sweet onion, chili flake, sesame oil, and seaweed sounded like a classic combination as an introduction to pok√©. I also said yes to toppings pickled ginger, sesame seeds, seaweed salad, jalapenos, and cilantro (see what I mean about overwhelming options??). 

Pok√© bowls come over rice in a regular size for $10.95 (or a large for $13.95). You can also order your fillings wrapped in sushi rice and a seaweed sheet as a "pokiritto." 

The poké was made with big, solid chunks of tuna and the whole bowl was a delightful experience in contrast: cool fish, warm rice; soft fish, crunchy onions and ginger. The seaweed was mild, if you're put off by overly sea-y (sea-ish?) flavors like I can be. It was a light but filling lunch that felt healthy but still indulgent.

On future visits I'll try yellowtail poké with pineapple and yuzu sauce or spicy tuna with cucumber and add some avocado. While it's not necessarily on the beaten path for many Portlanders, you should go out of your way to try poké for lunch or an early dinner.

Big Fin Poké is open 11am-8pm and 12-7pm Saturday and Sunday. They sell beer and wine too!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

EVO Kitchen & Bar Review

It's difficult to come to you with seemingly trivial praise for a local restaurant when the news is a parade of awfulness brought about by our new Cheeto-in-Chief. But one cannot maintain this level of anger and anxiety for four years—the risk of burnout is real. While that's not to offer an excuse for checking out if you aren't checked in in the first place, self care is necessary in order to continue to fight against the fear and prejudice espoused by our upper administration. 

So continue to call your representatives, donate your time or money to organizations, and do something kind for a neighbor or friend. But relax for a few minutes, enjoy these pictures of beautiful food, and do something nice for yourself today—ideally something that also supports a local business, since we've got the greatest chance to make a difference in our own communities. 

(Side note: can I just add that writing the above was hard for me? I'm much more comfortable with straightforward food talk or snark. But I need to be honest and part of that is getting used to being uncomfortable. After all, no one promised us that life would be 100% comfortable all the time...from discomfort comes learning. Now back to food!) 

Seared tuna with ginger, scallion, pepper relish and an avocado garlic sauce

So, EVO. For some reason, I had an unfair "meh" feeling about EVO, despite never having set foot in the place. From the outside, it seemed kind of corporate, due to its proximity to the new Hyatt (even though the businesses aren't related) and I've grown tired of the trend of small, expensive plates of food. 

Combined with a few mixed reviews after its opening, EVO hadn't earned a spot on my "must try" list. Just like you, when I do have the money to go out to eat, I don't want to risk it on a place that may deliver mediocre experience, hence my tendency to stick with a rotation of "tried and true" favorites. 

But I ended up really loving EVO, and while the cost of the small plates can add up quickly, I had some solid, delicious food that makes me want to pay the diminutive restaurant a visit again soon.

Brussel sprouts with butternut squash and a tahini shmear
The seating on the first level of EVO is all bar seating, either along the kitchen or the window facing the street. It's great for people watching, whether that's passersby or the kitchen staff—since the kitchen is completely open and about the size of a walk-in closet. The second floor, a lofted space over the kitchen, is obscured from view from both the street and the restaurant below, so if you're seeking more intimate space (or if you're in a larger party and don't want to sit in a row), then request a table upstairs.

EVO's menu is Lebanese, which has become well-represented in Portland recently, between TIQA, CN Shawarma/Baharat, and Falafel Underground.

Jerusalem artichoke soup
We started with the tuna, which I probably would have passed over had my dining companion not suggested it. Like...tuna, ginger, scallion, we get it. But there's a reason it's so prolific—it's damn good, and EVO's is no exception. The spicy relish topping and quinoa chips were a nice contrast to the soft tuna.

The cream of sunchoke soup also played around with texture, the pickled sunchoke slices and crunchy crumbs (of what, I forget) topping an impossibly creamy, rich soup. The Brussels sprouts salad's tahini dressing emphasized the nuttiness of the seared vegetables beautifully presented on the ceramic dish.

Another hit was soft gnocchi, tossed with assertively spiced lamb sausage, peppery arugula, garlic, and butternut squash. I wanted to take a deep dive into a bowl of cubed potatoes, chorizo, and a poached egg—a dish that also appears quite at home on the menu at the newly offered Sunday brunch.

Gnocchi with lamb sausage, squash, arugula
Potatoes with chorizo and egg, topped with egg foam 
The scallop dish didn't receive its proper due, since I was quickly becoming very full. But these scallops replace in my heart the one we lost at Ebb & Flow when it closed. At EVO, the perfectly seared scallops are paired with potatoes three ways—in roasted cubes, pureed and in fritters with lemon and dill.

You can see from the portion of the scallops that the "small plates" can actually be rather large, making dinner at EVO one you don't have to worry about coming away hungry from.

Scallops with potato fritters and purée
I managed to make room for a scoop of baklava ice cream, which, while I loved the baklava itself, pieces of it throughout the ice cream made it seem icy rather than smooth and creamy, like you'd expect.

All in all, EVO was a hit. Even if you still see EVO as a special occasion place, stop in for one of their speciality cocktails and sample a dish. I bet it'll win you over, just like it did me.

Note: EVO will be closed to update their ventilation system from January 29th until February 2nd. The existing system had created some complaints about the smell/air quality in the restaurant, so they're upgrading it.

Baklava ice cream
EVO Kitchen & Bar | 443 Fore Street, Portland | (207) 358-7830
Dinner at 5PM, Sunday brunch 10AM-2:30PM, closed Mondays

Disclosure: I was treated to this meal, but the opinions and words expressed in this post are my own.