I recently realized that I’m unbelievably addicted to making reservations. At this point I think OpenTable just might be one of my most favorite websites to visit during a slow work day. It’s got me totally spoiled; I love being able to walk into a restaurant, hang up my coat and be seated immediately. I like not being able to worry about crowds or table availability, and I simply love having a schedule. It’s the sense of promise, I think, that really gets me — the idea that, on this night, everything will go as planned.
Too bad the city of Portland doesn’t agree. Only fifty-eight restaurants are listed on OpenTable, and at least five of those are branches of national chains. I wasn’t going to let that stop me; after all, it’s not as if I need OpenTable. I’m perfectly capable of picking up a telephone. What I quickly learned, though, was that few places in Portland even take reservations, let alone those for a party of two. Luckily, Sel Gris is one of the few that do.
When I’m at a restaurant I’ve never visited before, particularly one as highly-lauded as Sel Gris, I get very, very excited; in this case, I was practically clapping my hands and hopping up around in anticipation. My eagerness was not only about the food, which I was thrilled about, but also because of where Keith and I would be seated: the Chef’s bar, with a view of the kitchen. I was so looking forward to watching the chefs work, as well as ogling things such as the stove and multitudes of silvered pans, so imagine my disappointment when I found that our seats were at the section of the bar that had a view of, well, the bar’s stores. I was so disheartened, I don’t know if I can even thoroughly describe it.
I try not to look at a restaurant’s menu before I go in for the first time; I admit that sometimes I do peek but in this case I held myself back, and good thing too — there were too many amazing-sounding dishes to choose from. For someone who can waffle between options, more time to deliberate can be a bad thing. As it was, I was already going back and forth between several starters and a handful of entrées — did I want crispy sweetbreads with apple butter? The foie “two ways”? The pan-roasted scallops? The escolar with mussels and clams? The answer to all of those questions were, and are, a resounding yes. Of course, a decision ultimately had to be made, but it felt as though it took me a million years to get there.
In the end, I finally decided that the soup d’Jour ($8.00) would be the appetizer for me. A preface: Oregon is hot and humid, and this soup was just the ticket. Now I know how crazy that makes me sound, so let me explain — this was a chilled melon gazpacho. I’ve had “refreshing” soups before — terrible refreshing soups, I should say — but nothing ever like this. Simultaneously light and satisfying, it was also both sweet and savory, thanks to the herbs and (I think) shallot flavoring the dish. Afterward, Keith asked Chef Mondok what exactly was in the soup, and it turned out the answer was pretty much every melon under the sun. At the risk of sounding completely cliché, but each spoonful tasted like summer. Honestly. It’s a completely cravable soup, one I want to eat every day until the leaves change.
You would think that the gazpacho would be enough to satisfy me, but, really, no amount of that dish would be enough, except perhaps by the vatful. I’m not kidding, which is why Keith and I decided to split another appetizer, the Mussels “Billi-Bi” — chorizo, tomato, saffron and cream ($12.00). Recently Keith’s developed a little crush on shellfish, mussels in particular, so it feels as though we’ve been eating them at every possible opportunity and Sel Gris was no exception. Traditionally, Billi-Bi is a cream of mussel soup made with the same ingredients listed but like I said the other day, who cares about things such as tradition when the end results are so wonderful? I only wished that, like my dream of limitless gazpacho, we had an endless supply of grilled bread — the better to sop up the juice with.
The entrée I initially wanted to order were the scallops, but they were sold out, unfortunately. Bad timing on my part, I suppose, but the dish I ended up with was a great finish on a summer’s night. The linguine “Barigoule” — pasta, goat cheese and peas, alongside artichoke hearts and two different types of mushrooms ($19.00) — was light and summery, and those peas were to die for. As with the mussels, there was a spin on something more conventional; in this case, it was the artichoke and mushroom combo, as a barigoule is generally comprised of just artichokes. Again, though — what’s the point of convention? I much prefer innovation, which is really successful here.
I mentioned earlier that I was upset about our view of the eau-de-vie bottles, but by the end of the meal it was almost as if I had forgotten all about it. I do think that saying that the diner can see into the kitchen from the section of the bar where we were seated isn’t entirely true, but I can’t deny a few things. First, Chef Mondok brought each of our plates to us and answered any questions we had about our meal. Second, the service was fantastic, though I’m positive this is the case throughout the entire space. Third, as things in the restaurant were winding down and other diners began filtering home, Chef Mondok wandered over to us and we had a nice little chat covering topics ranging from wines to urban farming (he grows his own produce literally in his own backyard, as well as provides food to local co-ops, CSAs and other restaurants) to Portland’s best pubs (Horse Brass, Concordia Ale House). He was so ardent and unreserved about his likes and dislikes that it was positively infectious; we were literally taking notes.
No matter how glum I was about not being able to watch the flurry of activity in the kitchen without craning and straining my neck, the quality of the food and hospitality more than made up for my original thoughts. Not only that, the tonal gray-on-gray décor is so chic that it’s actually feels good to be seated in the space. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted so badly to live within walking distance to a restaurant before; I know that we would certainly become regulars, turning Sel Gris into our go-to spot.
1852 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, Oregon 97214