H50- confused but trying so hard…   Leave a comment

Seeing H50 is like seeing a young man with so much potential who still hasn't quite come to self-realization of his potential and ability. He's going through a kind of growing pains as he strikes out to try a little bit of this and that, with mediocre results. You want to tell him exactly what he should do- but you shouldn't, because even if he did what you said, it wouldn't turn out right- it has to come from his own independent discovery and success. So you patiently watch him flounder, hoping he won't give up and satisfice- that he'll keep pushing and find that sweet spot that you can see the big bud just waiting to blossom. Boy, what a bunch of mixed metaphors huh.

H50 Bistro opened in 2008, and it happened to be when I came in to visit Portland. I met the ambitious chef with a dream at Bite of Portland. He had an example of his menu, and boy he was sooo hopeful. I remember perusing it and blinking quite a few times at mentions of some molecular gastronomy techniques in fancy dishes. Honestly, I would have felt right at home if that menu had been a trendy new place in LA or New  York or Vegas… but Portland? As part of a renovated Sheraton? Would the market support someplace that was trying to bring in the world's latest avant-garde to food in a city that seemed to care more about classic and local?

When I finally made my way there, I had to admit the atmosphere was just right- trendy but not hipster- it has more of a refined, modern contemporary art lounge quality, but not pretentiousness. The first cocktail I ordered was one that caught my eye out of a really interesting cocktail menu: "Desperate Housewives", with white sangria, triple sec, blood orange, and cava. It seemed to perfectly personify what H50 was trying to do- be beautiful and post-modern and tasty.

However, the food wasn't holding up. When my seafood salad sandwich showed up and was this mess, I realized that H50 was still trying to grow up. That mayo and carrot slop just destroyed what should have been fresh Pacific Northwest seafood.


They had a veggie sushi which presented much better- but didn't offer much in terms of favor. A blue cheese tart with balsamic vinegar hit the sweet spot of offering both visual appeal and good flavors, but seemed muted- I'd had tarts just as good from the Tart Lady Monia Halici (of the Market Gourmet) at the Portland Farmer's Market, though I did appreciate the attempt to bring it to a restaurant setting. If there had been more on the menu similar in class to the tart- well, that was what I was expecting. Instead, it was as if the restaurant wussed out.

    

A year later, I went with some friends to lunch. They are trying to redo their menu, and I noticed he's since dropped a lot of those original concepts from that first menu I saw. Fortunately, his eye for presentations are still there- gorgeous platings so you can eat with the eyes before you taste. But, still the same in that it stumbles. The lunch menu had a few appetizers which I could tell were his refuge for his more creative ideas, such as smoked salmon fritters and pork belly in a beggars purse.

H50's dubiously arranged Smoked Salmon Fritters hickory smoked salmon, lemon, capers spicy parsley cream were mostly batter and fritter, and not sure where the salmon was. I guess there were some flecks- disappointing. After all, it was supposed to be hickory smoked salmon, lemon, capers, spicy parsley cream- and all I tasted was batter, much less any trace of smoked salmon, much less the hickory smoked taste of that salmon.

 

Meanwhile, the Nueskes Pork Belly dish of crispy beggars purse, pineapple and jalapeno relish, orange puree… the dish just looked spectacular, and the relish and puree were a great foil for the richness of the pork belly. But the crispy beggars purse? Can you say… wonton? Overwhelming taste of dough and oil that seemed to fight tooth and nail to not let me enjoy the fat and acid of the meat and fruit. This dish could have been so great. Instead, it wasn't bad. It was the difference between an A and a B.

At least the soups didn't stumble. Besides the appetizers, there was a section for… sushi? And five different kind of burgers? And… that's it? Really? There are so many great paninis that could have played well with the soups and salads (which from looking at all the other diner's food, really were the stars here)- and you could get pretty creative with those. In fact, the way the soups were plated (a Manila Clam Chowder with yukon gold potato, crispy nueskes bacon, and green onion, or a Tomato Basil Soup with san marzano tomato, organic basil, and cream) it was perfect for having a great grilled cheese sandwich (perhaps make your own a la Savor Soup House's cart).


Also, seriously how can sushi and burgers appear on the same menu. Who
are you trying to be here? I can understand one really incredible sushi
creation, or one really incredible burger- but that's half your all day menu?
Even though that blue cheese burger was good (how can you go wrong if
you cook the meat right and have good ingredients, in this case
mushrooms, smoky bleu cheese, and caramelized onion), but there are lots of
good burgers in this town- hope that's not what you counting on to
bring in an audience for a place that looks as lovely as this. Brunchbox has more buzz for that and they are cart. You can have one outstanding amazing burger that let's say makes it on Portland Monthly's list… but having five on the menu seems to be counter-intuitive when you say you want to represent all the latest innovation and whimsy in food.

But the drinks are still gorgeous.

Caramel Corn Martini: buttered popcorn-infused vodka, tuaca and caramel. Would have liked to see it topped with a caramel drizzle since most of that stuck on the glass and didn't mix.

Cinnamon blood orange margarita: cinnamon-infused tequila, fresh orange, blood orange puree. Tasty, but this needs to be served by the pitcher to get you going…

Figgie port, a concoction of  vanilla vodka and fig-infused vodka, white port was surprisingly light and delicate

Lemon candy "oybe" with grappa, yazi ginger vodka, orange, lemon and creamWould have been perfect in summer.

Orange Chocolate: yes, I licked this glass clean

I would not be surprised if I saw the executive chef on Top Chef: he would be one of those young chefs you see mixed results from, who has great ideas but you can see still needs to be mentored and learn from those who are able to both conceptualize and execute consistently, or better get a better wingman aka combination of both sous chef and business manager to help round him out. Or, to use another show's analogy, if you are going to be on Project Runway and produce really couture looking designs you better have impeccable execution on your sewing and tailoring and go all out and have a full complete vision- don't only go halfway, commit to it. Actually, I think that's perfectly how I am interpreting what is going on here, IMHO. Man, I hope he never reads this blog entry. Really, cuz I'm pulling for him. Yeah, it's a restaurant in a hotel. But Grant Achatz also did the same thing at Trio, which was the restaurant of a boutique Homestead Hotel- just like H50 anchors Hotel 50. I think that's where he is trying to go- and keeps stumbling. The ideas are there in his dishes- just not fully formed, definitely not always well executed- and it's about successfully marketing this kind of food to the audience that does exist here- we don't necessarily mind whimsical innovation, this is a town of so many artists after all- but we also want real as the foundation underneath that.

Hope H50 finds that self-awareness.

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Posted January 14, 2010 by pechluck in Uncategorized

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