Which brings us to Quartet—riverfront heir to Lucier, the most colossal face plant in the history of Portland fine dining. Even before Quartet opened, the foodie crowd ranted as though a Wal-Mart had been targeted for Southeast 20th Avenue and Division Street. One writer—breaking accepted protocol if not news—trashed the place in a review filed from a free media preview dinner. Anonymous blog commentators piled on, one deeming Quartet unworthy of patronage based solely on its online menu.
Quartet deserves praise for wanting to fill the fine-dining void and help Portland realize its full gastronomic potential. The view of the Willamette River just steps beyond floor-to-ceiling windows is peerless. The décor is stunning, from soft, luxurious chairs to thick carpeting to striking chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. I can’t think of a more dramatic venue to take first-time visitors, especially in the summer, when the river and waterfront reveal themselves as the buzzy, beating heart of the city.
Quartet is also unequaled for a romantic night out, with everyone all dressed up and a jazz quartet noodling gently in the background. Let’s face it: If the company is great and the evening special, all else tends to fade into the background.
But, of course, this is Portland, where you can have a splendid meal for $25, while Quartet will run you $100. To have any chance of winning over recalcitrant locals, the food at Quartet has to be even more compelling than the atmosphere.
It has a long way to go.
Let’s start with this: How on earth do you screw up a hamburger ($16 on the bar menu)? The misshapen wagyu beef patty was partly medium-rare as ordered, partly raw. And the accompaniments surpassed creative, skipping directly to bizarre: fried green tomato, roasted chilies, arugula, Gorgonzola and “Dijon caramelized onion aioli.” Might as well call it the Cheech & Chong burger.
Worse: a Dungeness crab cake that arrived with the iodine reek of cheap brown gulf shrimp, which, I surmise, were chopped and blended with the crab. An entree portion runs $38; as one component of “The Quartet” entree ($65), one of these sorry cakes comes with a small filet, a decent-sized fried lobster tail and whipped potatoes. The lobster tail (as a solo entree, $55) gets a promising tempura treatment, but the crunch and delicate sweetness of the shellfish were defeated by a splotch of thick, spicy “sauce étoufée.” Clumsy balancing of flavors also marred a decent pan-roasted chicken breast ($31). The accompanying goat cheese grits were fine, but the abundant “maple vinegar sauce” tasted like something you pour over pancakes.
On one visit, I was served a “chopped salad” that bore no resemblance to a chopped salad—notwithstanding my server’s offer to “have the kitchen chop it up for you.” Coincidentally or not, the chopped salad is no longer on the menu, and the pretender I got—a satisfactory mix of lettuces, jicama and pine nuts in a light sweet-tart dressing—is now called a “Q Salad” ($10), displacing a prior version of the “Q Salad.” Another salad snafu: The spinach in the wilted-spinach salad ($13) wasn’t wilted, probably because the bacon dressing designed to do the wilting wasn’t hot. Yes, I’m confused too—by this and a menu the kitchen seems unable to master. Even the wine-by-the-glass list is odd, failing to disclose the vintage of any of the numerous options.
The trick to a satisfying meal at Quartet is to pretend you are at El Gaucho, where many of the staff formerly worked. Order the standards: Caesar salad ($16, two-person minimum), prepared tableside; steak, including a filet mignon ($45) or porterhouse ($59), each of which comes with a choice of potato; and tableside bananas Foster ($12, two-person minimum). Not ambitious, but enjoyable.
Against a backdrop of resistance to formality and expense, Quartet has taken on the Herculean task of persuading Portlanders to embrace a high-end restaurant. The lessons were there to be learned from Lucier’s failure, but they appear to have gone unheeded. Sandwich shops and food carts, have no fear: The development of a fine-dining culture is still stuck in the Stumptown mud.
- Order this: Frank’s fried lobster, hold the sauce ($55).
- Best deal: Happy-hour nibbles ($7, 3-6 pm and 9 pm-close Monday-Saturday, all day Sunday).
- I’ll pass: Dungeness crab cakes ($38).
EAT: Quartet, 1910 SW River Drive, 222-7300, quartetpdx.com. 3-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 3 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday, 3-10 pm Sunday. $$$$.