A tale of two chars

I planned to name this post "Char Times," but I realized that attentive readers might think that I'd recycled an old post about chard and introduced a typo. A new title was needed, and I returned for inspiration to my friend Charles to provide me with a title about char.

I'll stop punning now.

For my birthday, the Butter Bitch and I escaped to the Oregon wine country. We ate dinner at two restaurants with similar approaches to ingredients but different takes on food, and at both places I opted for arctic char. Char is a tender-fleshed fish with a taste somewhere between steelhead trout and salmon, according to both restaurants. The style of preparation - and perhaps the age of the fish - makes for a big difference in the fish's taste. Seafood Watch gives arctic char its best rating, though that rating is for farmed char. Both of my char were line-caught, according to the restaurants.

Before Friday's dinner, we stopped by The Dundee Bistro, founded by the Ponzis, one of Oregon's pioneering wine families. We refreshed ourselves with a glass of wine and watched the cooks at work. The Bistro has an open grill area, where you can watch the chefs, and features an excellent selection of regional wines. The Bistro features local and organic ingredients, and would have been our destination if not for existing reservations at our next stop.

The Painted Lady, in Newberg, Oregon, features local, seasonal ingredients paired with an impressive wine list. The restaurant is named after the style of painting grand old Victorian houses with bright colors. Diners may order a prix fixe meal, or select options from a second menu. If the prix fixe option is chosen, then everyone at the table must have the set meal.

We found the meal to be fine, but not great. Part of the problem was that we ate at 9 p.m., which was the earliest that we could get a reservation. The Butter Bitch's arugula salad was tasty, and my mushroom Napoleon was good, although the use of homemade potato chips was a little odd. The Butter Bitch's prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin was good, but not overwhelming. To quote the Butter Bitch, "It was good and piggy, but not mindblowing."

My bacon-wrapped char had a very mild flavor, much closer to trout, and I remembered why I dislike bacon-wrapped dishes - the bacon loses much of its flavor, and imparts too little flavor to the rest of the dish. The bed of beets combined with the meats to go well with the Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir that accompanied our meal. The cheese plate that I had in lieu of dessert consisted of no local cheeses and only one West Coast cheese, Humboldt Fog. The Butter Bitch's goat cheesecake with poached pears was more successful, with the goat cheese providing a savoriness that matched well with the slightly soggy poached pears. Overall, we were disappointed with the Lady.

The following night, we went to Cuvee for my birthday dinner. Cuvee is located in Carlton, Oregon, not far from Newberg and The Painted Lady, but the atmosphere and style are considerably different. The restaurant is the creation of Gilbert Henry, a charming Frenchman from Alsace who always looked slightly surprised when he spoke with the Butter Bitch and me. Perhaps surprise is a perpetual quality, or he was amazed to speak to only two people at a table. The rest of the small, intimate restaurant was given over to three large groups. Normally, the restaurant features small tables for two or four people, and I expect that our table was more to his liking. The evening was busy enough that he appeared in the dining room several times, and gave us an extra bit of attention while the rest of his staff managed the larger tables.

Cuvee blends local, organic ingredients with French country-style dining, and the results are wonderful. In the flurry of activity, the lone waiter gave us a sample of syrah and pinot noir to try, as suggestions for pairings with our disparate dishes - breaded arctic char and lamb tajine. We selected the Burgundian (pinot noir), but Chef Henry brought us a different Burgundy - Domaine Noel Perrin Clos de Chenoves 2001 - that was even better than the first, and reasonably priced.

The first course was a selection of local mushrooms in cream, including small shitakes, tiny buttons, and a garnish of fresh enokitakes. I wolfed down the mushrooms and sopped up the juices with chunks of bread. The Butter Bitch, still recovering from the previous night's late meal, abstained until encouraged by the passing waiter to join in.

When our main course arrived, we were surprised at the flexibility of the Clos de Chenoves. The wine had an earth-and-straw bouquet, and an interesting palate of chalk and cherry. It was a little tart and not too tannic. The wine stood up to the complexity of the Butter Bitch's spicy lamb tajine, and nicely complemented the strong flavor of my breaded char. Unlike the previous night's char, my meal was closer in flavor to a good filet of salmon and had a similar rich, pink texture.

For dessert, the Butter Bitch ordered the rosemary crème brulée. My request for the Pommeau de Normandie drew another look of bemusement from Chef Henry, whose expressions remind us of a friend in Portland. Pommeau de Normandie is made with year-old French apple brandy and the must of non-fermented apple cider, then aged anywhere from 18 to 30 months. The drink has a strong, bitter pectin taste.

The crème brulée was surprising and a little disappointing. The Butter Bitch thought the dish looked eggy, a common flaw in crème brulées, but it was deliciously creamy. Unfortunately, the rosemary flavor was less strong than expected and was overwhelmed by lemon. We liked the dish nonetheless, and I helped finish the treat while the Butter Bitch partook of my drink.

Dickens, from whom I paraphrase the title, ends A Tale of Two Cities by contrasting the orderly madness of the French mob with the stately peacefulness of England. From our dining experience, I recommend that you take the opposite course. Leave behind the stately but disappointing food of The Painted Lady and embrace the orderly madness and delicious food of Cuvee.

2 Responsesto “A tale of two chars”

  1. Jim Dixon says:

    I'm happy to hear that Henry's restaurant is so good. Long time residents of NE Portland miss Winterborne, his old neighborhood place, although the loss is easier to bear since the space has been occupied by Ristretto Roasters.

  2. Man of La Muncha says:

    Thanks for the roaster tip. I always enjoy finding a new coffee source in Portland.

    I'd not heard of Winterborne, but am thrilled that I stumbled upon his new establishment.