Sunday, August 5, 2012

Allium Redux: wherein we revisit one of our favorite eateries

There are some truly outstanding restaurants in Portland.  Fortunately for foodies, there are some equally outstanding restaurants in the Portland ‘burbs too.

Allium Bistro in West Linn has to be ranked as one of the most outstanding, whether urban or ‘burban.  West Linn and Lake Oswego residents have no trouble flocking to the place, since it’s always busy and bustling.  If Portland foodies and hipsters ever find it, they’ll have lines out the door and down the block.
Chef/Owner Pascal Chureau has had an…interesting…history on the Portland restaurant scene (and he’s back in that downtown scene again with Brasserie Monmartre), and when he decided to open a place in the bedroom community along the Willamette, many thought he had semi-retired to bucolic bliss and an unchallenging cuisine.
They were wrong.
On a relatively quiet tree-lined boulevard just off I-205 Chureau and his chefs are dishing out some of the finest plates you’ll enjoy in the Portland metro area.

When you first walk in, Allium doesn’t seem all that special.  It’s pleasant enough with its deep gold walls and heavy-on-wood décor, but it’s not much more than a fairly standard suburban neighborhood restaurant, just a bit fancier.  The wine list is very good…but not great.  The cocktail program is limited but appealing, with some creative variations that are extremely enjoyable and occasionally daring.

All in all, a pleasant experience in a great neighborhood bar/restaurant.

Then the food begins to arrive. And suddenly everything changes.

Pommes frites
While sipping at an utterly delicious Lucien Albrecht BrutRosé Cremant d’Alsace (which has to be one of the best all time pink bubbly sparkler values, ever, but especially so on the first day of an unprecedented hot spell), we munched contentedly on true honest to god Belgian-style pommes frites in the traditional white paper cone, crispy outside and piping hot and creamy-soft inside and slathered with sea salt (you can also order them with duck fat and rosemary or truffle oil!) and irresistible;  food you wish you could simply inhale, and then you try your best to do just that.

The Brut Rosé was kicked up a notch with the next arrival, a short wooden skewer impaling four perfectly char-grilled shrimp resting on a bed of slightly dressed greens delicately touched by Serrano pepper and tilted up on a wedge of ripe watermelon.  It was as perfectly balanced an appetizer as you could wish, and performed exactly as a true appetizer should---to appetize, to make one ready for what is to come, to stimulate the palate and the imagination.

This was as precisely balanced an arrangement of appetizing flavors as one could possibly wish: plump sweet shrimp with just the right amount of char, bursting fresh greens with the lightest perk of pepper flavor imaginable and sweet, ripe watermelon, all mixed in with the Albrecht pink sparkler.

[One should note the use of the Serrano pepper---which also shows up in one of the cocktails, by the way.  It’s a sign of the brilliance of Chureau’s approach to food.  There’s almost no heat to the pepper; it’s used as a very light condiment to add flavor to the greens and offset some of the fruit sweetness of the watermelon.  And the use of the pepper is a testament to the knowledge of food: a slight bit more and the dish would have been overwhelmed; a slight bit less and it would not have attained that marvelous balance of delicious flavors.  It was the difference between “good” and “vibrant.”]

The two main dishes were equally outstanding, an iron skillet of paella that was simply everything a paella should be and frequently isn’t, and what may be the single best and most satisfying plate of pasta I’ve had in the Pacific Northwest.

Paella at Allium
If you haven’t had Allium’s paella (a local favorite with the faithful), then you need to try it.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s one of the most ultimate comfort foods there is, and nobody does it better.

The pasta, a bowl of pappardelle in a tomato sauce, made me feel for a moment I was back in Italy.  Fresh, bright, precise flavors of tomato, spices, peppers, and a toothy, al dente, and eggy pappardelle flat noodle were combined in, once again, perfect balance.  The tomato juices, not quite a broth and held together with juicy morsels of fresh tomato flesh, were rich and bright with acidity and bursting with lovely flavor, and the broad, flat pappardelle were perfectly made, perfectly cooked, and perfectly served at the peak of texture and flavor.

For extra delight, they have one of our mutually favorite white wines by the glass at Allium, and it proved the ideal foil for both dishes. The new vintage of the 2011 Chateau Guiraud “G” Sauvignon Blanc, a dry white from the producer of Sauternes, was more herbal and less mineral and less vibrant than previous renditions, but it still had searing acidity and accompanied both dishes nicely.

For dessert, we enjoyed Pastry Chef Kim Wilson’s Hazelnut Chocolate Mousse, a creamy concoction paired nicely with a healthy dollop of crème fraiche for excellent contrast, and a delicious multi-layered orange olive oil cake with marcona almonds.  [If you’ve never had or made olive oil cake, look for a good recipe; it makes a superb fruity-rich and moist cake batter.]

As we were about to leave our leisurely repast, we overheard the waiter asking the nearby foursome how their meal was.  All mouthed their appreciation, but the lady in the group volunteered “This is the best meal I’ve had all year!”

I expect they hear that frequently at Allium.
[Note:  One of the all time great meal bargains in the metro area is Allium’s frequently offered Family Meals, where Chureau serves his plates a la famille at big tables (wine included or you can bring your own) for astonishingly low prices.  You have to pay attention when they’re announced, though, as the word is out, and they sell out fast whenever they are offered.]