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Rostra rating: 2.5
Team Mago’s multiple excursions to 23 Hoyt have revealed a case of culinary schizophrenia. This is not necessarily an uncommon gastro-disorder in Portland. Bamboo Sushi, to mention a prominent example, has some of the best sushi in town and one of the worst happy hours (see our earlier review of Bamboo Sushi). 23 Hoyt is bi-polar in the opposite direction: an excellent watering hole with good bar food shackled to a wannabe “fine dining” restaurant.
Let’s start with 23 Hoyt’s happy hour fare. The deviled eggs are not your grandmother’s; they are much, much better. The semi-mousse-like yolks were possessed of an excellent mouth feel that contrasts very nicely with bits of crispy bacon and salty grated cheese. They are a steal at a buck apiece, but MagoGuide would happily pay more for a duck egg-based preparation. They go especially well with the quite potable house bubbly, which is a bargain in and of itself at $5 a generous glass during happy hour.
The humble chicken liver pâté is elevated at 23 Hoyt to very close to the quintessence of liva butta and nicely enhanced with flaked finishing salt. Even better are the great pickled onions served with this dish that put the traditional cornichons to shame in a bite for bite competition.
A great happy hour duet involves ordering either the vegetarian or meat-centric flatbread to accompany the pate. Regardless of topping preference (and either does a very creditable job), the star of the show is the flatbread itself, whose crispy/chewy combination is somehow produced in the kitchen without the aid of a wood fired oven.
The house corn dog is a priapic home run based on a 12 inch Olympic Provisions hot dog and more great pickles. It hit our table only a minute or so out of the fryolater and was rapidly devoured, demonstrating that even clichéd fair ground food (as well as church basement deviled eggs) can be elevated to gastro-pub cuisine with a little attention to detail.
Tempura delicata squash also played to the strength of the 23 Hoyt’s fryolater. The batter was ethereal and the squash meltingly soft beneath that crispy millimeter or two of crust. It could have been served a bit warmer but probably stayed in the penalty box too long awaiting the emergence of the corn phallus from its baptismal oil bath.
It was thus passing strange to Team Mago as to why 23 Hoyt’s hand cut French fries were such a mixed bag. Perhaps Addephagia has chosen them to serve as a metaphor for 23 Hoyt’s confused cuisine. On at least three separate tastings, an order of fries was split right down the middle between large, limp, and oily abominations on top and correctly cooked smaller ones on the bottom. Several culprits come to mind: 1) even if you cut the tater by hand precious, they must all be of essentially uniform size and thickness if you intend to fry them in a single batch, 2) the fryolater was overloaded, and/or 3) the two different sizes of fries were not sequenced properly in the fryolater.
If the few problems with happy hour offerings could be solved with a couple judicious tweaks in the kitchen, the dinner service cries out for euthanasia. It is criminal what the kitchen did to excellent Pacific Northwest oysters. The cornmeal batter was made with a very, very coarse polenta grind that made the otherwise correctly cooked bivalves taste like a handful of warm gravel that some one had spilled oyster liquor on right before service. The nice arugula salad and the gribiche foam were just fine, but they could in no way save the dish.
The linguini with wild mushrooms, white wine, butter, roasted garlic, herbs, and pecorino romano was in the same league as the oysters sans grit. The pasta was a tad overcooked and skimpy on the ‘shrooms, which were completely overpowered by the heavy handed use of salty pecorino.
It was, however, 23 Hoyt’s take on fried chicken that stood out as one of the most poorly executed entrees that Team Mago has tried in over a year of Portland eateries large and small. Our unpaid intern for the holidaze summoned it up in a short sentence: “This is not fried chicken.” For those who would like the dirty details, the leg and thigh arrived drenched in a sloppy sauce that was a bland romesco gone horribly wrong. The sauce bonded with the over-breaded bird, completely eliminating any hope of the crispy/juicy experience that is essential to fried chicken.
The sides did not really help that poor yard bird out of culinary hell. The crispy polenta (perhaps the culprit for those abused oysters and the crippled chicken as well?) was flat out bland. In a nod to the kitchen’s aversion to salt, 23 Hoyt supplies each table with a little bowl of decent table salt, but the concept of bland also embraces heat and the lack of pepper at table was a serious lapse given the under-seasoning of virtually every choice on the dinner menu. The roasted delicata squash was basically wet cardboard compared to the fried offering at happy hour. The kale was actually quite good, delivering much needed crunch followed by a nice mouth feel, but it basically amounted to rearranging a single deck chair on the Titanic.
Even service is better at happy hour and at the bar than at dinner. We have had several great sessions with Chris or Bo in attendance. Service was friendly, funny even (in a good way), and very professional. At dinner we had a very different experience. Our server will remain nameless because he was clearly having a bad night and a lot of his angst originated in the kitchen, but not all.
I began with a friendly inquiry concerning a new sparkler on the menu that hailed from Bordeaux and was composed of malbec and merlot grapes. I was intrigued and eager to try this wine, but our waiter immediately coped an attitude and vanished for about 15 minutes without delivering the drinks that my colleagues had already ordered. He finally returned sans drinks and actually pulled up a freakin’ chair from an adjoining table, sat down, and started whining about the fact that he had not had a chance to taste the wine, which in any event had not been chilled yet. He suggested a blanc de blancs from Albuquerque (!) as a substitute. I voiced no small amount of skepticism and he nicely offered to pour me a taste. I am glad that I did since this sparkler definitely broke very bad, being flat and pat on the palate. But it took another ten minutes for the taste to arrive during which my colleagues’ drinks still did not show up. I gave up and drank an excellent Ninkasi Total Domination IPA, but the trend in slow drinkage continued throughout the evening even though the bar was hardly slammed during our meal. I was glad that runners delivered the food so that our interactions with Mr. Grumpy were kept to a minimum. Nonetheless it still took too long for the food to arrive given its state of luke warmness.
The debut of 23 Hoyt’s spring menu was unfortunately typical of 23 Hoyt’s manic wait staff. We sat outside on a lovely Friday evening, but soon fell victim to the wait staff lottery. There seemed to be a separate waiter/runner pair for every other outside table, and ours had an aversion to pavement, fresh air, aging but polite (yours truly) boomers, something. It took long enough to get our initial drink orders and food that I began a quantitative analysis of how frequently tables to my right and left were serviced by their attendees. I calculated that our waiter was somewhere between a multiple of two or three beyond the standard deviation for wait time.
Our waiter did apologize on three occasions throughout the meal concerning the speed or lack thereof with which food and drink arrived at our table, but these efforts seemed perfunctory and also more designed to antagonize his colleagues than assuage his patrons. The worst delay involved a round of drinks ordered with the tardy arrival of our food orders. It took at least 20 minutes for a very flat keg dreg of Ninkasi IPA to show up next to our long-empty plates. Our whineserver allowed as to how it was really the bar tender’s fault, although the bar was not crowded and the interior space was at best half full by this point.
Another twenty minutes passed as I timed service at neighboring tables before I finally had to carry the offending pint back into the bar and return it with a request for the bill after the beer had been removed from it. That took ten minutes and resulted in another blameology from the waiter (this time it seems that the slacker bar tender had not changed the keg as he should have). After another wait during which every other outside table was visited twice by its assigned wait staff, Team Mago left cash on the table and decamped for for Uptown Billiards where they understand how to run both the front and back of the house simultaneously.
Since I will willingly take a rabbit punch to the kidney in order to eat a great tripe dish in a Subura back alley, service is usually just above the afterthought category in determining a restaurant’s rostra worthiness. Unfortunately, even Team Mago is vulnerable to repeat offensives and 23 Hoyt seems to dish up an ennui-drenched and/or drama-driven waiter (gender specificity intended) about 33.33% of the time.
Team Mago has been more than patient with 23 Hoyt and generous with our ducats, but the time has come to throw in the towel. It is a shame, since 23 Hoyt should be MagoGuide’s kind of bar. Any place that eschews sports for politics on their televisions can’t be all bad, and the food is quite decent if you avoid about 60% of the menu and remember to order your fries extra crispy. But when one out of three visits is marred by aggressively indifferent service, it’s time to take back some rostras and bestow them on more worthy establishments.
The temptation of the knock-on effects for a combined bar and restaurant are very hard to resist and almost as hard to pull off to the satisfaction of an establishment’s clientele. Cross marketing and cash flow are both enhanced if customers can start in an excellent bar and then transition to an excellent restaurant all under the same roof. Many of Portland’s best restaurants have mastered this approach but that is not what made them great. What made these establishments cash factories is that they had the kitchen and front of the house leadership to fuse two significantly different dining experiences as well as the staff to pull it off. 23 Hoyt needs non-trivial time on the culinary couch in order to join this august fraternity.
Mago Tips: 1) If you still want to try 23 Hoyt, find out which part of the space either Chris or Bo is working and get a table under their supervision. Or sit at the bar where, freed from the tyranny of middlepersons, the drinks and food to come quickly and the service is professional. 2) If you have a serious jones for fried chicken (and only fried chicken) and find yourself on NW 23rd Street, light the pilot light at 23 Hoyt with drinkies and nibbles from the happy hour or bar menu and then head a few blocks down the street to Southland Whisky Kitchen. About the only thing they do right at Southland is fried chicken, but it soars above 23 Hoyt on this preparation, if nothing else.