Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Simpatica Evening at Simpatica Dining Hall

As you may have read in our previous post, Michelle is unhappily crippled, and as a NICE sister, I was supposed to stay home Friday night with her and watch Netflix Instant Movies and drink champagne and eat Fudgsicles while sneaking pensive glances at her cracked foot, wondering when on earth it would just HEAL already so we could ride our bikes to that food cart in Sellwood that just got written up in Bon Appetit.


But alas, sometimes I am a NOT NICE sister, so instead I went to Simpatica (which means "nice" in Spanish) Dining Hall with Leigh and Beth. No simpatica of me. My stomach made me do it! The thing is, when I pressed the dial button on my darling little Blackberry Pearl in order to cancel our "Table For Twelve: The It's NOT Nice to Eat Somebody's Lamb, but it IS Nice to Eat Dinner at Simpatica Dining Hall Edition" due to Michelle's immobility, I could not bear to do it. The dinner was sold out, Cara of Simpatica said. SOLD OUT? Nothing makes me want something more. I'd probably even get back together with my super lame ex if he told me he was Sold Out. Not to mention, I was yearning for pork loin and asparagus and spring strawberries. So I canceled MOST of the reservation, then stole over there at 7:30 pm with Leigh and Beth in tow, after a quick stop at Doug Fir for an apertif, of course. I told Michelle I had to attend a Family Injury Sensitivity Training Seminar entitled, "My Sister is a Gimp, What Do I Do?! How Can I Support and Nurture Her Through This Rough Time? And More Importantly, Who Will I Ride My Bike to the Sellwood Food Cart With?!" She nodded sadly and I told her to cheer up, I'd return with a fresh supply of Fudgsicles and champagne.


As Leigh and Beth and I walked up to Simpatica, we saw our old friend Blake manning the sidewalk barbecue, overseeing the slow grilling of fat, juicy, bundled-n-rubbed-with-good-stuff Carlton Farms pork loins. Leigh and I met Blake at Taste of the Nation last month; he was on Simpatica fried ravioli duty in the back hall, while Leigh and I were on Garbage Girl duty. Blake told us the pork loins were rubbed with smoked Spanish paprika and garlic, and we closed our eyes and took deep lungfuls of the sizzling pork mingled with the plumes of fragrant smoke coming off the chunks of applewood smoldering beneath the grate.
Bidding farewell to Blake, we headed inside and took our seats at a communal table against the back wall, where we were greeted heartily by our tablemates Yelena, Steve, Will, and Martha, who were already enjoying a glass of wine and Simpatica's smoky salted marcona almonds.
 Our server and Simpatica sommelier Travis happened by, and we ordered a bottle of Albarino (Martin Codax, Spain, 2006, $27), a nice Spanish white wine I became fond of last summer in Barcelona.

We sipped the chilled wine, enjoying its peach, tropical, and starfruit notes, and surveyed the dining room, which was bursting with jovial food lovers waving their menus about, ordering wine, and trading Friday night war stories of their week.

Before the kitchen released the first course, the sound of a piece of cutlery tapping the side of a crystal wineglass cut through the merry dining room din, and Chef Scott Ketterman came out, to regale the crowd with an in-depth verbal preview of the dinner to come.

We oohed, we aahed, we salivated.

"I'm going to quit talking and get some food on the table," Scott wrapped up. 

"He's cute," Bethie said.

"I know," I agreed. Leigh nodded, it was unanimous. Chef Scott Ketterman is cute.

We craned our necks to check for a ring.

"Can't see one," Leigh said.

"He probably takes it off when he cooks," I theorized.

"We'll ask him," Bethie said enthusiastically.

"I don't think that's a good idea," I said nervously, remembering the last time my friends attempted to set me up with a chef. Wine and matchmaking don't mix.

"We'll be subtle," Bethie assured me. "We'll say something like, 'Dinner was wonderful, you're an amazing cook, your wife must be so proud?"

"Or," Leigh piped up, getting into the spirit of it, "We could say, 'Gosh do you cook like this at home? Your wife must love it."

"I like being single, remember?" I said hastily. "Oh and look, here comes the salad!"

And what a salad it was. All thoughts of cute chefs flew through the gauzy curtains shrouding the high basement windows and into the waning dusk, as a server gently placed the Baby Beet, Cucumber and Sweet Basil Salad with Dungeness Crab on the table. Chunks of sweet red and golden beets gently nuzzled slices of crisp English cucumber drizzled with a mild, slightly fruity extra virgin olive oil, and cradled a nest of pale pink Dungeness crab tossed with a creamy lemon black pepper dressing. The salad was strewn with fragrant torn basil and salty slivers of what tasted like Meyer lemon rind. The crowd quieted for a reverent moment, then the buzz began all over again as boisterous exclamations of crab-love bounced off the walls and cement floors and dark wood tables.

When the Viridian Farms Asparagus Soup with Creme Fraiche arrived, the windows were nearly dark except for the glow of the dim streetlights lining the barren industrial-ish neighborhood where Simpatica Dining Hall crouches in the basement of the 828 SE Ash building. The flickering votive candles danced over the stark white bowls that showcased the bright green soup, which was accented with a playful swirl of creme fraiche. The richness of the leeks coated our tongues with each creamy spoonful, and was followed by a burst of fresh, slightly astringent asparagus.

"I could live on this stuff," Yelena rhapsodized. We agreed. It was good soup. Really good.

At last Blake's lovingly tended Carlton Farms pork loins threw off their dressing gowns and stormed the stage. Three fat slightly pink rounds of pork lie lasciviously in the center of the plate, topped with strikingly red roasted piquillo peppers from Navarre, Spain. Cooked with garlic, the little peppers practically melted in our mouths. Peeking from beneath the pork was a smattering of perfectly tender new potatoes and spring onions, studded with chunks of house-smoked Viande bacon and basking in a light sheen of flavorful bacon drippings. "Potatoes and bacon, can't say much more about that," as Chef Scott put it. While tougher at times than other pork loin I've had, the smoked paprika and garlic-rubbed meat was so flavorful, I forgave the jaw workout.

I have been accused of living in the future, and I won't deny it: I spend most of our dinners out thinking about dessert, and what might be for dessert, and what I'm going to order for dessert, and what other people are going to order for dessert, and if I can manipulate everyone at the table into ordering everything I want for dessert and giving me bites. The twin beauty and tragedy of the prix fixe menu is that all that delicious stress and guesswork are taken out of the dessert process, so I was able to push most thoughts of the luscious small sweet spring strawberries to come from my mind throughout dinner.

"Oregon strawberries are finally here," Chef Scott had told the dining room, "I wish summer were here, but at least we have gives us a glimpse."

And suddenly, they'd arrived on the table, the lauded glimpse-of-summer Oregon strawberries in all their crimson glory, clustered clicquishly in the bottom of the bowl, swimming in a shallow pool of their own juices and a fresh mint syrup and sprinkled with bright green mint chiffonade, paying homage to the translucent ball of Muscat and Mint sorbet, a divine balance of sweet wine and the most refreshing of all herbs.

"Someone's drinking out of their bowl over there," Bethie observed, watching the table across the way.

I peered at her over the rim of my own bowl. "Are you going to eat those?" I asked Leigh.

"Here comes the cute chef," Bethie hissed. "Think of something to say! Hurry!"

"I'm a writer," I blanched. "I can't make small talk. Give me a napkin, I will write him a note."

Chef Scott came over and asked how everything was. We smiled goofily at him. I fervently wished Michelle was there and not gimping it up on her couch with a drippy Fudgsicle. She always knows what to say, even it it usually gets us in hot salted boiling water.

"Um," I quavered. "Well, it was all completely....simpatica." Chef Scott smiled politely and moved on.

I know, I know. Good thing Michelle is having her (surprisingly roomy) garden shed converted into an Old Maid quarters for me. Thanks Sis! I'm sorry I went to Simpatica without you. But it was worth it, even if I did leave you home, looking like this:


Simpatica Dining Hall * * (503) 235-1600 * dinner Fri & Sat by reservation only, brunch Sunday * 828 SE Ash, Portland, OR * yes it's wonderful, yes the chefs are cute, yes we think they are all married, yes since she broke her foot Michelle is turtle-slow, ho ho ho 


  1. Sis,

    I can't believe you didn't attend, "My Sister is a Gimp, What Do I Do?! How Can I Support and Nurture Her Through This Rough Time? And More Importantly, Who Will I Ride My Bike to the Sellwood Food Cart With?!" class!! The next time you come over I am going to push you off my balcony and break your leg!! Just kidding... I cannot believe the only thing you told the Chef was that is was SIMPATICA.. Totally Lame... You are going to be single forever!!! Mom said, "You should have just slapped him on the butt and said,'Wonderbar.'"

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