Monday, November 03, 2008

New Lessons for the Old School

I don't know about you, but there are places here in town that exemplify the term "old school." Jake's, the Ringside, Tad's Chicken 'n Dumplings, Huber's. Places that are as old as Methuselah and haven't updated their menus for decades.

Chef Serge Selbe.

Oh, maybe they swerved into pasta territory in the 70s, or made a concession to fresh greens in their salads in the 90s, but these classics pride themselves on keeping the flame burning. So it was with great curiousity that I went to that bastion of tradition, the London Grill at the Benson Hotel, for the debut dinner of a (gasp!) new menu by their newly-minted executive chef, Serge Selbe.

Now, this is a place that is the definition of "venerable," where you'd take your rich uncle or a wealthy client hoping to impress them with your taste and discernment. A place for prime rib and cognac, where innovation may take the form of new carpeting or upholstery, but it is never allowed to creep onto the menu. Suffice it to say I hadn't ventured into it in years, and then only to take my mother for a drink in their elegantly appointed lobby bar at Christmas.

Lamb with polenta, etc.

The garlic soup starter was terrific, if not surprising, a pale broth infused with rich garlic flavor and the freshest of prawns and crab, luscious and flavorful. The next three courses, all fish, reflected Serge's most recent stint as chef-owner of Fishtales in the Sellwood neighborhood, and were probably the biggest departure from the old menu.

Featuring scallops, rockfish and monkfish, each course was given a unique and (for this restaurant) revolutionary treatment. The scallops came with a deeply flavored portobello gratin with an olive and jalapeño tapenade and were accompanied by a (brace yourself) red wine, a Domaine Drouhin pinot. The monkfish was served with a moon-shaped slice of squash and common mustard greens. But the rockfish was truly fabulous in a pool of what looked like water but turned out to be an immensely flavorful liquid from filtered gazpacho. This was verging on cool!

The final course was a plump lamb rib chop on polenta with a ratatouille crepinette, rosemary jus and hazelnut emulsion all topped with a paper-thin dried vegetable slice. Very good, but looking back it somehow made the whole meal feel a little over-accessorized, like the On The Street column in the New York Times with photos of fabulously turned-out New Yorkers. They may take an interesting picture but, really, is that the only definition of attractiveness?

Obviously Chef Selbe has terrific culinary chops, and it's going to be fascinating to see if this huge step away from its tradition-bound roots will put the London Grill on Portland's must-eat list. And if you get a chance to check it out, perhaps with Uncle Biff and Aunt Polly picking up the tab, definitely report back!

Details: The London Grill at the Benson Hotel, 309 SW Broadway. Phone 503-228-2000.

Photos by Jennifer Fields.

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