Portland has a wealth of creative and inspiring restaurants, which makes it even harder to choose which to visit during Portland Dining Month. Which of the 90 restaurants offering 3-course menus for $29 in March would I choose first? I last ate at West End Spanish/modernist Ración Open Kitchen + Bar during their pre-opening preview dinners. As chef Anthony Cafiero celebrates the one-year anniversary of it's opening, it was definitely time to return.
The restaurant has been evolving through its first year, changing the seating in the lounge area to accommodate more diners. But we asked to be seated at the horseshoe-shaped kitchen bar, which is the heart of the restaurant. Chef Cafiero works his magic in the all-electric kitchen. Circulators let him create sous vide delights. Acetylene torches are available to sear the amuse bouche. You watch and are welcome to ask questions and learn about their cool tools.
The cocktails and wine list are also a draw. Chauncey Roach demonstrated the right way to shake the shaker. I had a Hemingsway's Blood with smoked Bacardi 8, grapefruit, Cherry Heering and Carpano Antica. One of my companions enjoyed his first experience of the Basque txakoli wine.
The usual 5-course tasting menu was printed on paper in front of each bar stool, and our server pointed out the 3-course variation for Portland Dining Month. We would miss only the scallop crudo and the dessert (but could buy the dessert separately). The rest of the menu available are the racions, small plates. We all opted for the 3-course Dining Month variation.
First: Soup. This varied from what was on the Portland Dining Month listing, but was excellent. The bottom of the bowl has powdered browned butter, parsnip chip and smoked olive oil. Then the soup was poured over it. We debated whether to stir and eat or to eat and enjoy the elements as they cropped up in each mouthful. The potato skins were extracted as well as the flesh, giving the soup an earthy dimension.
Second: Sous vide egg on couscous with curry, spinach butter and chickpea cracker. The egg has been cooked in the circulator to a silky firmness throughout. I mixed it a bit with the other elements to get a bit of the crunch of the cracker with the texture of the couscous and flavors of the butter and curry. I enjoyed it.
Third: Wagyu Culotte Steak with heirloom carrots, smoked apple cider and watermelon radish. We all agreed that this was outstanding. The steak was cooked sous vide, retaining all of the juices while allowing it to be gently cooked throughout. Then it was seared on the plancha for a nice finish. The smoked apple cider gel was a fantastic accompaniment, as was the carrot sauce. Simply a great dish worth the price of the entire dinner.
Dessert - this is an additional charge, and there is only one dessert, the chocolate ganache with pumpkin seed crumble, malted ice cream and burnt orange. One of our party had it and loved it. I had a different variation last time I was at Racion and enjoyed it.
The ingredients for these modernist cuisine creations are locally sourced. Cafiero lists Gathering Together Farms, Foods in Season, Sheridan Fruit Co., Prairie Creek Farm, Cascade Organic, GroundWorks Organics, Nicky USA, Snake River Farms, Viridian Farms and Dancing Roots Farm as sources.
Portland isn't all pork belly and pickles, it has a growing number of modernist chefs who like to expand the range of culinary techniques. Ración is a playful and experimental place. Open your mind and palate to see what combinations come from Chef Cafiero.