Monthly Archives: November 2015

Benkay – Let’s Have Some Sushi, Man

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I’m a terrible eater of sushi – the absolute worst kind. I’ve mentioned before my distaste for both raw fish and avocado, yet if those ingredients are absent, I love the bite-sized, wrapped rice rolls. When my wife had a craving for them, I was up for it and suggested we try Benkay Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar on India St in Portland. I assumed they had a good enough selection that I could find something to suit me. She had been there many years ago and I had never been, so it would be essentially new to both of us. Without much hesitation, she agreed that was where we should go, and we made our way over for a pre-movie meal.

Arriving early for dinner, their parking lot was mostly empty and the crowd was pretty small. The restaurant was typical Japanese style with appropriate decor and a sushi bar. There was a large standard menu and a one-sheet specials menu provided. Nothing on the specials menu seemed particularly enticing to me, so I opened up the other and got down to business. I wanted some rolls and lots of them, so I looked at all the choices and then considered some apps and whatever else I thought might please my taste buds. There were some large “signature specials” which looked like they could feed an army – or me. I threw those int for consideration too.

After much contemplation and passing up drinks other than water, we were finally able to come to some conclusions about what we wanted to eat. We started with Miso Soup for my wife and Calamari for me. With the appetizers in, we went crazy with the rest of our order. She ordered Tempura with vegetables only, Spicy Crunchy Tuna Maki, and Spicy Scallops Maki. I went for an order of the spicy scallop rolls too and then added kani rolls or Maine Crab Sushi, and the signature special Volcano Roll which came with fried scallop, tempura bits, tobiko, and sweet and spicy sauce. I told them to hold the tobiko though, because no matter how you label them, fish eggs/roe/tobiko/caviar is still not something I’m dying to shovel into my mouth.

Food came out as it was ready, with Mrs. Portlandeater’s soup as the very first arrival. She tried it and in response to my inquiry about it’s fitness for consumption responded with “it’s hard to screw up miso soup.” That is no doubt the truth and she seemed to enjoy it sufficiently. As the soup was nearly gone, we received the tempura and squid. I tried the tempura with some of the dipping sauce with which it came just to say I did, but I am not a big fan of tempura and tend to find it on the low end of the deliciousness scale. Unfortunately, this tempura was no different, though I was impressed at the variety of vegetables included on the plate.

As she worked on the tempura, I started to dig into the calamari. I prefer mine with cherry peppers aka Rhode Island style, but I certainly didn’t expect a Japanese restaurant to have such a creation. They did however have their own take on the matter which was to have some hot green peppers also fried and battered and mixed in nicely with the squid. I tried the funny, little sea creature and the peppers and found that the peppers gave the dish the boost that it needed and really added a pack of palate pleasing. The spice was only an afterthought, but the overall flavor they brought was what made the dish so good. I ate most of the sizable app and my wife took a bite or two. From there, we relaxed and awaited more morsels for munching.

Soon, our rolls came to the table and I was prepared to drop those down the hatch without wasting any time. Of course, the sushi was joined by the traditional pickled ginger and wasabi and a bowl I had filled with soy sauce.  I started with the two Maine crab sushi pieces which were simply rice rolls topped with a generous portion of crab and nothing else. Adding some soy and wasabi to the mix, I ate one. It’s incredible how something so simple can be so good. The crab was incredibly fresh – among the best crab I ever had. After the first piece, I gobbled a piece of the ginger and made my way to the next.

Finishing the kani made me a little sad, but then, like a shoulder to cry on, the spicy scallop rolls looked at me as if to say, “don’t worry, friend, I am here for you.” And they were, so I started working on them without prejudice. It wasn’t much of a way to treat a friend, but I made my way through them quickly and without emotion. They were excellent with the creamy, spicy sauce adding a great layer of flavor to the bivalve mollusk of which I never tire. The wifeling made her way through her sushi noting that the tuna was indeed quite spicy. I believe that meant she enjoyed it as she generally sees spicy food as a challenge that must be overcome.

Just as I was eating my final piece, the last of our meal came out – my volcano roll. I was taken aback by the enormity of the task at hand. The plate was heaping full of fried goodness. I did see the pictures of it when I ordered, but how large it was didn’t really hit me until it was sitting on the table in front of me. I gave the waitress a “how am I supposed to eat all this?” She replied with the suggestion that my wife would help, but I knew that was unlikely after all we had already eaten. I did note to myself too, that without the red tobiko/lava on top, my volcano was more of just a mountain. A mountain of food seemed acceptable in place of a volcano of food, however.

I was anxious to whittle down my heaping pile of Japanese joy. I tried a few pieces. Because of the tangy sauce and scallops, I didn’t have the aversion to the tempura bits as I did with straight-up tempura. And though the crunchy, fried food was somewhat heavy after having eaten all I had to that point, it was good enough to continue. With several bites gone, something interesting happened though. Like cleaning out the house of a hoarder and discovering two baby grand pianos, as I got toward the bottom of the plate, I found eight avocado rolls. I don’t know what I was expecting from a dish called “volcano roll” but I obviously didn’t look at the picture on the menu closely and the description didn’t specify actual rolls in the item.

With my newly discovered sushi, I had to perform some surgery. I took each one and squeezed the avo right out of it onto my small plate. Leaving only a plain rice wrap remaining, I took each one, added soy and wasabi, chomped it down, and followed it up with the ginger. I repeated that process eight times. When all was said and done, I had eaten about 90% of the food on the plate and I felt like a whale…a very full whale. My wife had barely a single bite of the dish, but I did my best to finish what I could and not drive myself into a massive food coma.

The final total was 75 bucks before tax and tip. That provided us with a huge amount of food with no drinks. If I had a do-over of my first visit, I’d stick to what I ate, but probably request cucumber rolls instead of avocado on my volcano. I might try a drink too as those were reasonably priced and looked wicked, supa good! That notwithstanding, I was happy with everything I ordered and Benkay had several items that I didn’t have to alter at all to suit my insanely picky sushi tastes. I will definitely try other items next time as they have lots of other options I would enjoy. If you’re a true sushi connoisseur and not some fly-by-night sushi summoner like me, I think you’ll like Benkay. They’re definitely in the pack with the other good, local sushi stores in terms of menu selection, food quality, and atmosphere.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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Roustabout – New World Italian

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Portland isn’t a place that is really known for its Italian restaurants, but there are a handful of them, and the newest is Roustabout. What I like about the Italian scene in this great city is that every restaurant of the type has their own thing going. Each has little resemblance to the other and the menus are all quite unique. Roustabout is no exception to this pattern which got me pretty fired up about trying the Washington St. location next to Maine Mead Works.

Upon walking in, I immediately noticed that the restaurant was very aesthetically pleasing as are the majority of new restaurants in the area.  It was also very busy which wasn’t much of a surprise considering they had only opened a couple of weeks before. We had reservations and were seated and immediately began looking at the menus. I wasn’t drinking that evening, but there was a solid selection of cocktails, beer and wine available. My wife quickly decided on a Sauvignon from France and we started our scouring of the food options.

With headings of appetizers, pastas, entrees, sides, and desserts, the menu seemed pretty basic and wasn’t overly large. There were a few of the standard items within, though I was focused on something a little more signature. I considered a number of dishes, but had a bit of trouble deciding if I wanted fish, chicken, pork, or something else altogether. When the waitress came over to take the drink orders, I decided to ask some questions and thought that might help me make the best choice. I inquired about some of the food and specific ingredients and the waitress’ knowledge of the menu appeared to be comprehensive and her ability to describe the food was impressive.

After my line of questioning was complete, the waitress left and I tried to think, but nothing happened. Eventually though, something did happen and both my wife and I came up with final decisions. When the wine came to the table, we were prepared to order. I went with a starter of Seafood Salad – chickpeas, chilies, bitter greens. My entree was Sweet and Hot Sausages – pepperonata, polenta, golden raisins. My wife decided on the Eggplant Parm served with rigatoni and a Whole Leaf Caesar – grana, meyer lemon – and asked the waitress to hold the marinated anchovies.

We impatiently waited for our meals because we went light on food consumption earlier in the day and were quite hungry. While we waited, my wife and I tried to ignore our growling stomachs by discussing all the most important things in the multiverse. Only a few minutes in, we got to crazy cat ladies wearing ugly Christmas sweaters and decided to end the conversation there because we couldn’t come up with anything more important than that. It did take a little longer than we hoped, presumably because they were so busy, but in due time, the salads came out.

My wife’s Ceasar looked good, but my seafood salad didn’t look like much to me other than some lettuce and a little seafood. I figured I should dig in to see what was doing and I was surprised at what I found. My salad had practically an ocean full or mussels, octopus, and squid and it was astoundingly tasty. The dressing – some sort of vinaigrette – was potent and added a nice bite. As I got more and more into the salad, I was blown away by the seemingly never-ending seafood and how fresh it tasted. I think there was as much seafood as there were greens and I felt that the muss-octo-squid combination was absolutely perfect for a salad. No one else in town has that mix in a salad that I’m aware of, but those are some of my favorites.

I got into the deep end of my dish and was very pleased. My wife’s Caesar was very good too with another solid dressing that really added a punch of flavorlishousness. We consumed while raving about the virtues of our lettuce-based plates. We finished the salads and remarked at how many people were walking in the door for an opportunity to try the restaurant. It seemed to be a constant stream of bodies, many of whom looked like they didn’t want to wait the required time for a seat which I’m sure was extensive.

Our entrees came and the eggplant on my wife’s plate was circular and topped with lots of cheese and sauce. My sausages were each sliced in half and swimming in a pool of polenta on one side and a saucy puddle on the other. I think the sauce might have been part of the pepperonata which seemed to consist primarily of roasted red peppers. I first separated the halves of my sausages and then tried to pick out the hot one. I cut and then slogged a piece through the sauce and grabbed some peppers along the way. I stuffed it into my face and found that it was indeed the hot link. The heat hit me with a light jab, but not the uppercut which would have had me down for the better part of a 10-count. The sausage was quite good, but the pepperonata was really great, adding a flair that you wouldn’t necessarily get with the sausage alone.

As my wife consumed her eggplant, she gave it a figurative thumbs up. I continued to eat my food and found that the sweet pork treat was actually better than what I expected – not overly sweet, but still very well seasoned. I also found that the polenta went quite well with the pepperonata and sausage both together and individually. After we finished our meals, we were at just about the right level of fullness, though we agreed to check out the dessert menu. After taking another look – it was on the original menu – we decide to pass in favor of some treats we had at home.

Roustabout served us an excellent meal and is another place I found would be fun to sit at the bar if you wanted to just have a couple of drinks. The place looks great and the staff is very well schooled in their offerings.  Our meal clocked in at 68 bucks before tip, so the prices were reasonable. I did think my seafood salad was a bit pricey at $13 until I actually ate it and realized that there was absolutely no skimping on the seafood. They also whipped up a sausage dish which made a favorite of mine even better. My wife and I left very happy, but as I left, I was again stuck with the question “how many damn good restaurants can Portland handle?” I think the right answer is that we’re still not there yet.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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The Velveteen Habit – Going Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere

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I had the good fortune of being invited to The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick this past weekend. I don’t know much about the food scene in that area as I’m simply not there often, but I had heard from various sources that the restaurant that was there previously was a great place to eat. With a little research, I learned that the new restaurant had opened in the middle of last year and saw some pictures which showed a beautiful location punctuated by strong rustic overtones and a bar which was downright beautiful and very inviting. Maybe the coolest part of TVH is that they have their own micro farm which is one acre in size and at peak provides as much as 85% of the produce they use. That’s about as local as it gets and certainly a real reason to give them a shot.

We made the trek to TVH over the hills and through the woods to a remote but moderately busy location. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Owner/Founder/Sommelier/Host Ben Goldman who introduced himself and took us past the bar to a table where we faced the window. Unfortunately it was dark, so I couldn’t tell what was outside, but I imagined a beautiful micro farm. I don’t actually know if that was the location of the farm, but it was fun to pretend. A bit of head turning confirmed what I had seen in pictures – a quaint, rustic ambiance that felt very inviting. Even though there were plenty of customers nearby it certainly felt like our small slice of the room was secluded from everything.

A review of the drink menu let me know that there were no shortage of options for the thirsty customer. Mr. Goldman has compiled an impressive array of libations with an obvious emphasis on wines. Still, there were plenty of beer choices and intelligently crafted seasonal cocktails along with some house made sodas and sipping spirits. A quick scan of the mixed drinks guided me to a Whiskey Paramore with Laphroag Scotch, Clement Creole Shrubb, rosemary honey, and lemon. Mrs. Portlandeater landed on a Gruner Veltliner from Austria.

Moving on to the food menu was the next step in my night. We had been informed that the menus were printed daily – they are indeed dated – so I was excited to try the latest and greatest TVH had to offer. The menu had categories of Charcuterie, Cheese and Preserves followed by Small Plates, Dinner Plates, and a sidebar of Vegetables. They also offer a total of four family service meals for two each night, but that was not on my radar as it would not have fit within Mrs. Portlandeater’s diet restrictions and I really wanted to just sample the standard menu.

Cheese was the first thing that caught our eye and we decided it would make a great start to our meal. A review of the several cheeses listed helped us settle on the Invierno Two Year and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, both from Vermont. After our drinks were delivered, we placed our cheese order and I tried my juice. Scotch drinkers know that distinct smoked peat flavor and Laphroag provided it in spades. The drink exuded every bit of that smoke and the lemon stood out too. I thought most scotch drinkers would appreciate the combination of flavors present unless they were scotch snobs who refused to mix it.

Our cheese delay was nearly non-existent and two large hunks of cheese came out with large, crisp lavosh and honeycomb. We immediately dug into the dairy delicacy, snapping pieces of the lavosh upon which to lay the cheese. I tasted each one after dragging one end of the crispy cracker pad through some honey to get just a hint of the sticky, sweet bee bounty. Both cheeses were great and we consumed way too much of each. It’s tough to go wrong with cheese, but these were great choices for certain.

With cheese down the hatch, we were ready for a small plate of TVH Tots with bravas sauce. I’m a big fan of potatoes and a superfan of tots, so I didn’t think there was any way the house tots would let me down. We continued to sip our drinks and enjoy the scenery. Before long, we had a plate of sizable square potato blocks in front of us. I couldn’t wait and dove in like Greg Louganis. I cut one of the taters in half and dropped it in my tater tunnel. It was spectacular with perfect seasoning. The bravas sauce added a beautiful, creamy zest to the potatoes that a typical add-on of ketchup could never match. Those spuds were definitely a multi-order option as I could have eaten them all night.

After our tots, I decided to go with Scallops – cranberry mostarda, grilled maitake, celery root – as my main course. Mrs. Portlandeater wished for Atlantic Salmon – creamy farro, peas, horseradish, grilled onion. Once those orders were in, I was ready for another drink and had my sights set on the Crabapple Rye sipping spirit. I asked to try it when I really just wanted to order one of the infused concoctions. I was told there was only one drink of it left, so not enough for me to have a sip and then pour another drink of it. I clarified that I just wanted a full serving and was promptly delivered a glass by the bartender with a large rock in a separate container and an added tasting of their Orange Spiced Rum. I poured the drink over the ice and readied my mental state.

My rye exhibited a floral, fragrant aroma which translated into an equal flavor. It was absolutely exceptional and most certainly the best pour of rye I ever tasted. It was so accessible that I had my wife – a total non-whiskey drinker – sip it and and she thought it was great. I basked in the glow that was a result of my rye as I waited for our entrees. They came out in due time and we were initially pleased by the presentation. It all looked quite appealing.

A piece of scallop quickly found it’s way to my mouth. The scallop was cooked as I ordered it – a little better than medium, but the kitchen was heavy handed with the salt. It’s possible my salt surplus was an isolated incident, but if not, it should be dialed back a bit. Fortunately, a pairing with the cranberry mitigated the sodium excess somewhat and overall, the meal was quite good. My wife was enthusiastic about her salmon and loved the farro mattress upon which it was placed.

Once our entire meals were gone, she was craving a dessert. After receiving the menu, we ended with a small version of Cinnamon Spiced Pound Cake with apple butter and granola. It came out with the chunks of cake surrounded by the apple and whipped cream and topped with a bit of the crunchy oat cereal. I was pleased that the granola was not excessive enough to distract from the other flavors. The dessert was light, not overly sugary, and small enough not to cause gastric issues. I ate a few bites and Mrs. P finished it along with a decaf coffee. While she did that, I finished my rye and tried the orange spiced rum. It was very good and frequent rum drinkers would surely love it, but for my money, it was no competition for the magical rye. After we finished it all, it was time to move on.

The Velveteen Habit is not somewhere I probably would have ever visited unless I had been invited, but I’m happy as hell that I was. Save for a slight misstep on the scallops, our dinner was exquisite.  It’s hard to fault them too much as many people say I’m a bit salty myself. Stupid jokes aside, TVH has a good thing going. The service was outstanding, the food was superb overall, the atmosphere was one of the best in recent memory. Additionally, the bartender, as the women next to us stated, is an artist.

You should definitely consider heading to TVH, particularly if you’re in the vicinity. It’s a bit off the beaten path, even for that area, but when I was there, there were enough people around to verify that TVH is getting their name out. I think their micro farm is an excellent feature and they encourage patrons to arrive early and walk through it with a drink in hand. If that doesn’t work for you, consider pulling up a seat at the beautiful bar and ordering the crabapple rye. Don’t worry about sampling it, just get one for everyone in your party. It’s a can’t miss beverage. Aside from missing out on the rye, I don’t see how you could go wrong at TVH. I think they are on the right track and I bet you’ll agree.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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Tao Yuan – Coloring Outside the Lines

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Most of my trips to restaurants are simple, but after years of rave reviews from friends and family alike, we scheduled a friend’s birthday dinner at Tao Yuan in Brunswick. The trip north through Friday rush hour traffic was less than pleasant and led to us being 20 minutes late for our reservations, but we made it there safely. Tao is the sister restaurant of a Portland location I’ve previously reviewed and my spidey sense gave me the inclination that the highly regarded restaurant was such for a good reason. Still, I would reserve judgement until after I tried it for myself.

There was was quite a crowd in the restaurant when we arrived. As soon as we sat down, it was explained to us that we had the option of ordering from the menu or if – and only if – everyone from the table agreed, we could order the chef’s 15-course tasting menu for $68 each. Much to my dismay, because of the different tastes of the four of us at the table, we immediately decided that ordering from the menu was the right thing to do. Now I had work to do as the waiter suggested three to four plates per person for a full dinner.

Before I got to discussing the food with the table, I requested “regular” water and silverware; the already provided sparkling water and chopsticks weren’t my style.  With that out of the way, a couple of drinks were ordered including wine and a Hibiscus Swizzle with Goslings Black Seal Rum, Clement VSOP Rhum, Pineapple, Hibiscus, Orange, Mint.  The drinks looked great, but I passed as I was driving. We all began to set our sights on food items, many of which used local and organic ingredients in their preparation. We decided we would order for ourselves and also share a bit with others if they were interested. I was fine with that and decided to order one item from each of the four sections of the menu – To Start, Cold, Dim Sum, Hot.

After thorough discussion about where we were headed with our meals, we pretty much settled on ordering virtually everything on the menu. I stuck with only four items for myself as planned, but amongst the table we ordered a total of 15 of the 19 menu selections and got doubles of certain ones. It was going to be a party! The waiter informed us that the food would come out as it was ready with the starters and cold items obviously appearing toward the beginning.

It seemed like it took forever, but in truth, I don’t think the wait was excessive for our first bits of food; it was probably just that I was ravenous. Asian Slaw – white cabbage, pea pods, carrots, shallots, peanuts and Spicy Greens – purple daikon, white soy dressing, sesame – made their way out first. I tried my spicy greens right away. They were good, but not particularly spicy and I felt the dressing could have been a bit more potent. I tried the Asian slaw and felt that was better. I enjoyed both, but the crunchy slaw had an edge on the more understated greens.

Next out for our table were Fried Goat Cheese with mint and Sichuan chili oil and a half dozen Local Oysters with lemongrass mignonette. I avoided the oysters, but was well prepared to try the cheese. Tao Yuan’s unique take on cuisine makes them the only Chinese restaurant at which I ever remember having cheese of any sort. That made it much more interesting to me because I didn’t really know what to expect. The cheese appeared to be pan-fried. I tried it. It was really delicious though I used the house cherry pepper hot sauce to perk it up. That was a solid combination. I also dunked a piece in soy sauce for good measure. The cheese was great any way I had it and definitely unique.

The next delivery of food included Yellowfin Tuna Tataki – curry oil, avocado aioli, puffed rice – and Smoked Pork Belly Spring Rolls with apple, hoisin, cilantro, Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil, dynamite sauce along with some white rice. I tried the spring rolls. They were quite tasty with a super shot of pork belly flavor and a look that said “dip me in sauce”. And so I did, starting with sweet hoisin, I took my half spring roll and dipped it, creating a beautiful flavor baby which cried tears of taste. After that, I tried the roll with a dip of the dynamite sauce which was spicy with a vinegar base. It was awesome with a bit of the dynamite bite.

Our dim sum was staggered, but we ordered some of each type offered that evening. The daily House Dumplings were of the pork and shrimp variety. Steamed Shao Mai with pork, shrimp, water chestnut, shiitake mushroom was also brought to the table along with Grandma Tang’s Roast Pork Buns – brown bean paste, hoisin, scallions. I tried the shao mai, but shrimp aren’t something with which I am particularly enamoured, so I ate, acknowledged, and moved on to the pork buns which I had ordered.

I grabbed one of three buns with some concern about getting my hand slapped. On the outside, they were plump and soft. I sliced one in quarters and took a bite. Heavy on pork and hoisin, the spheres of dough were absolutely outstanding. I could hardly wait to savor the next bites. I tried those with both hot and soy sauces and nothing could reduce the greatness of the buns that Grandma Tang built. I can say with certainty that Grandma Tang has the most delicious buns I have ever eaten. I shared them, but I was hesitant to give away a food that unleashed such a murderous rampage of deliciousness on my taste buds.

Coming toward the end of our meal were some veggies starting with Bok Choy flavored with oyster sauce, garlic, and ginger and some Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with bacon, garlic, soy. I tried the Brussels which tasted exactly as expected. They were rife with bacon flavor and infused with serious soy-garlic love. I skipped the bok choy because I was getting close to outgrowing the waist on my pants, though it got rave reviews from the table. My wife got an order of Barley Miso Panko Cod with carrot ginger puree, rainbow carrot salad, garlic confit which she gave the maximum number of stars.

Despite offers from my wife to try her cod, I passed in favor of waiting for my Pan Seared Scallop with black garlic, apple, preserved Meyer lemon, tarragon, sunshine squash. A couple bites proved the scallops were great, but the light, buttery whip of squash took the plate to another level. With sticks of apple adding a crunch, the scallops were a shining light in an already bright sky of food. I ate relentlessly and savored each bite as though it might be my last. Of course, eventually one was my last, but it was a slight disappointment because I wanted more.

Pulling up the rear of our food was a plate of Pan Seared Duck Breast with parsley root, golden raisin, apple chutney, and jus. While I’m neutral on my thoughts of duck, I decided to try a slice of the quacker. It was much better than I anticipated. The accoutrements were well played with the sweet, fruity flavors pairing quite well with the tender bird. We all shared bits of the duck and agreed that desert was an unlikely finale after the incredible conglomeration of food we consumed. Post dessert  menu viewing, we reaffirmed our stance.

Add Tao Yuan to the list of amazing restaurants I’ve visited lately. The food is great and the prices are fair. The plates average about 10 bucks apiece. Our total of $243 before tip included five drinks and plenty of food for four hungry people; food for the next day’s lunch even went home with one of our party. For a restaurant that considers itself a Chinese eatery, they are definitely creating food that is outside the box and there isn’t anything wrong with that. By the time we left, the place was packed and with good reason. I’d bet a serious sum of money that many people were there to taste Grandma Tang’s buns, but even if you don’t like the way those things shake, there’s much more to love about the popular Brunswick location. Go there now and procure some food. And if you trust me, go ahead an order multiple Grandma Tang buns. Next time I go there’ll be enough buns at my table for a bikini contest.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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Empire Chinese Kichen – Not Your Traditional Chinese Food

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The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word “Empire” is the 1990 album by Queensrÿche. Sure, 1990 was a long time ago, but it was their true breakthrough into the mainstream. Today, that album still brings back good memories, but the Empire in the forefront of my mind is the restaurant at 575 Congress. It took me about two years to get there which is ridiculous considering my love of Asian food, but I finally did and was surprised that the place was absolutely mobbed; the wait was nearly an hour and we were there early.

Without delay, we went to the bar to wait for a table and took a look at the drink menu.  There were beers and cocktails on one side and wine and sake on the other. I wasn’t going to have anything until I saw the Foolproof Brewing Peanut Butter Raincloud Porter served with a peanut butter cup. I just can’t resist anything with peanut butter so I plucked up one of those. She decided on the 88 Mai Tai – rum, honey, juice, grapefruit and elderberry bitters with a Myer’s float.

A few minutes after our order was placed we received our thirst quenchers. Mine unfortunately did not have a peanut butter cup as promised. It was somewhat of a disappointment for me, but that was assuaged some when I tasted the beer and realized it was excellent. The peanut butter was nearly non-existent, but it was still probably the best porter I ever had. My wife happily sipped her mai tai. We stood by the bar drinking and inevitably blocking the staff trying to get through from the dining room.

As we neared the end of our drinks, a duo of spaces opened up at the bar. Without hesitation, we pounced like honey badgers on the attack and took the seats for which we were next in line. One of the bartenders provided us with food menus and offered to take our orders whenever we were ready. We looked carefully at our options on the one-sheet menu which offered dim sum, traditional favorites, and rice and noodles flanked on either side by small and large plates.

I was up for whatever food the night brought and the other half and I discussed the possibilities, settling on the idea that we would order a bunch of food to share. We decided to start with some small plates. I suggested the Sa Cha Chicken Skewers, but we instead settled on Lobster Rangoons – wasabi tobiko, scallion – and Garlic Green Beans with roasted garlic and grilled onion. I was excited about our choices and we placed the order noting that we would eat those dishes and probably get more after.

One of the bartenders was particularly bubbly and we chatted with her a bit as we waited for our food. At one point, as it neared the time when we should be getting our plates, she went to check on them and we received two platters of joy only seconds later. I requested silverware and hot mustard and both were delivered quickly at which point I was ready to stuff my face full of everything I could fit in it. I started with Lobster Rangoons, trying a bite plain, one with the rangoon sauce, and one with the hot mustard. They were awesome with a capital “AWE” – undoubtedly some of the best rangoons I ever had. They were well-stuffed with the lobster and cream cheese concoction. After quickly downing two of those, I switched to the long, green garlic veg. Those were also delicious with flavor for days – an outstanding example of the dish and certainly the single, best I had ever tasted.

We quickly ate through our very tasty food and started to consider our next dinner moves. After a short period of indecision, we agreed on the Lobster Dumplings and Kung Pao Chicken – lightly spiced cage-free chicken, roasted peanuts, thin noodles. We had considered the Chicken Teriyaki, but decided that the Kung Pao was where it was at. After throwing those items at the kitchen, we happily waited for our second round of food nuggets.

Our dumplings came out shortly after we ordered and just after that, the chicken made its way over. I was pleased to see that the dumplings were steamed and not fried. I started with one of those. They were a little difficult to maneuver. There was plenty of lobster filling in the doughy delight, but the outer shell was still relatively oversized, so cutting it in half meant possibly having all the lobster in one of the halves and none in the other. Nonetheless, a little extra work put the dumplings in my mouth with proper proportions of the filling where they needed to be. These again had potent lobster power and combined with the provided ginger sauce offered a whole lot of love to my tastebuds.

Dumplings went down the hatch smoothly and we moved on to the Kung Pao Chicken. I was excited to try it with the noodles instead of the traditional rice. I grabbed a bite and was very pleased.  The sauce was plentiful with the typical sweet flavor, but I think the most impressive part of the dish was the chicken. It was much higher quality than the typical Kung Pao bird. Gone was the fatty, low-rent poultry generally found at traditional Chinese eateries and in its wake were lean, tender pieces of the feathered beast.

Happiness with the food was turning out to be the theme of the evening as I finished the chicken. I was really fond of the noodles as a change of pace. Again, the dish was a shining example of what others serving similar food should strive for. It was simply a better version of what I had eaten 100 times before. We ate it all and asked the bartender what was available for dessert. After hearing the list of choices, we decided to have some steamed buns with nutella, banana, and a side of warm chocolate sauce.

There was a long wait for dessert which we were eventually told was due to the kitchen having run out of our buns and needing to make them fresh. That sounded good to me; I wasn’t in a rush. They did finally come out and we found two of the steamed spheres hiding some banana slices and the hazelnut and chocolate spread. I cut one in half and dipped it in the chocolate sauce. It was quite yummy and didn’t have the overpowering sweetness that I was looking to avoid. The soft texture of the bun was also a pleasing note.

After we finished with our food, I couldn’t help but think that we’d probably just have been receiving our first course if we had waited for a table. We got the bill and our total came to $77 after tip. I had eaten just enough to feel good about my life and not too much to feel disgusting. Empire definitely made an impression upon me. I couldn’t believe how busy they were and after eating, the reason for that was clear; their food was really, really good. They certainly offer plenty of the traditional dishes you would find at most Chinese restaurants in the area, but they offer a unique version of them with plenty of local ingredients and they also offer items you won’t find at those other restaurants. If you’re looking for Chinese food in Portland, Empire is most certainly the place to go. The food is majestic and as a result we left smiling and I was calm and clear as I drove home in silent lucidity.

Stay hungry.

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