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December 15th, 2004 Jim Dixon | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Bright Lights, Big Pity

Downtown's new haute spot, Harrison, has the visual chops. Shame about the food.

     
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HARRISON
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
Harrison is probably the nicest-looking restaurant in town. During the day, natural light floods the dining room, then bounces off the dark cherry wood to illuminate the hand-painted wallpaper. In the evening, that dark wood provides a warm but subtle glow, which makes the stretch of Park Avenue outside the Fox Tower appear to sparkle with life. It's the kind of elegant, urbane place that might make Portland diners feel like they're in the big city. But the food is right out of Beaverton.

Before suburbanite readers get all worked up, I know that there's decent food served over the Sylvan hill, while the unbearably hip neighborhoods of Stumptown are littered with shrines to mediocrity like Applebee's. But you can't deny that the best food in town is, well, in town. And if Harrison wants to play in the same league, it's got to do better in the kitchen.

The most glaring example is an appetizer called "baked artisan cheese and artichoke dip" ($9), a dip could've come straight from TGI Friday's. A ramekin of melted orange goo surrounded by an inadequate amount of nickel-sized slices of "herb pretzel bread" isn't artisanal, unless maybe the artisan has opened a can of artichoke hearts and microwaved them with a block of Velveeta. Maybe there's some local cheese in this mess (Tillamook cheddar doesn't quite qualify as "artisan"), but you couldn't tell from the flavor.

Inspired by cassoulet, the confit of duck gratin ($8) gets the beans right but little else. Any duck confit in the smallish casserole is either well-hidden or near-microscopic, and the dish, like much of the food here, are underseasoned. The beef carpaccio ($14) suffers similarly. It's not enough to call out a local supplier like Misty Isle on the menu unless you're also able to make its very good product sing. This too-cold plate of paper-thin raw beef with a little Parmigiano and reduced balsamic can't carry a tune.

Some offerings rise to pedestrian but are overpriced, like the $16 shrimp cocktail made with very few big tiger prawns and lots of sauce. A bowl of oven-roasted clams ($13) is OK, but with neither bread nor spoon offered, the winey juice that gives the tiny clams a little flavor goes to waste.

Shrimp-and-coconut fritters ($8) tasted doughy and were missing any discernable coconut flavor. The wild-mushroom soup ($7) had a searing acidic bite that not even the dollop of crème frâiche could cut. Spaghetti with pistachio pesto ($6.75 for a half-order at lunch) was oversauced and undersalted.

Dinner entrees follow the same pattern, but with bigger portions. A cinnamon-brined pork chop ($24) had been soaked in a sugar-and-salt solution so long it resembled a thick slab of ham, and the cinnamon kicked in a sharp afterburn. The farro risotto served alongside was tolerable. A piece of grilled wild salmon ($25) was just that, fine if you don't mind paying a premium for a simple piece of fish.

Most disappointing were the seared scallops ($23), a handful of small, too thin scallops that were not only overcooked and rubbery but full of sand, too. A seared tenderloin ($38) was good and cooked correctly, although the perfect half-dome of mashed potatoes alongside looked like they came from the scoop of a cafeteria lunch lady. But more than one steakhouse in town does the same thing better and cheaper.

Harrison's signature dessert, a poached pear filled with vanilla cream, wrapped in baked angel-hair pasta, and served in a pear-brandy chocolate sauce ($8), exemplifies the food here, which tries too hard and fails to deliver. The pear was overcooked, the cream filling superfluous, and the chocolate sauce could've been poured from a can marked Hershey's. The baked pasta wrap added much-needed crunch but couldn't stop the train wreck.

The best things I ate at Harrison were the fresh, hot little doughnuts that came with the mocha pot de crème ($7). I skipped the pudding itself to savor the only genuine food to cross the table, and then I wished I'd started with them and passed on dinner.

Overpriced and underwhelming, Harrison's food doesn't live up to its setting. The standard is set high in Portland, but Harrison doesn't even seem to be reaching.


Harrison838 SW Park Ave., 299-6161. 11 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, 5:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 4:30-9 pm Sunday. (Bar menu starting at 2 pm Saturday.) Credit cards accepted. $$$ Expensive.

Owner Steve McLain upgraded the food at the Hall Street Bistro in Beaverton when he took over in 1993, and his nuevo latino pioneer, ¡Oba!, one of the first restaurants in the Pearl, makes next-door neighbor Mnazana Rotisserie Grill look like Taco Bell.

The restaurant is named for McLain's 4-year-old son.

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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