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Rostra rating: 3
MagoGuide is pissed at Willamette Week’s number two ranking of St. Jack in its list of Portland’s 99 best restaurants. There are two very different reasons for our ire: 1) St. Jack is simply better than Imperial, which WW crowned “The 2015 Restaurant of the Year” and 2) WW’s mother of all listicles clearly seems so far to do more harm than good for both patrons and clients of the Great Gastropolis.
Willamette Week produced a treacle-laced puff piece masquerading as a review of Imperial. Don’t get me wrong, I am always happy to learn that a Missoula homeboy navigated Portland’s culinary cursus honorum from callow commis at Lucier to kitchen capo in Vitaly Paley’s gastronomic Leviathan. But Martin Cizmar’s declaration that Imperial delivers “high-end dining on the grand scale Portland hasn’t seen done so successfully in a long time,” is simply ludicrous.
Let’s start with “one of the best fried chicken dishes you’ll ever eat,” which hit Team Mago’s plates about 40 minutes after we ordered. Cizmar gilds the humble yard bird with ejaculatory prose claiming that it “drips with juices inside a golden-brown and buttery shell that crackles like paper under a fork.” Yes, the batter is crisp, but it arrived even as that batter lost surface tension with the underlying meat, a common problem with a slammed fryolater and less than optimal expediting.
Cizmar’s real culinary mendacity concerning this dish, however, involves his claim of moist sapadity. The chicken was in fact one-half of a degree of humidity short of dry. The reason for this was obvious from the first close encounter with cutlery: boneless fried chicken? That surely is not how Chef Adams’ grandmother fried chicken in Texas (nor either of my Texan grandmothers, thank you very much). And don’t try that easier-to-eat excuse on me either, dude. Diners in Portland frequently treat utensils as an afterthought with far messier preparations.
Our party included two hot sauce fanatics and their verdict on the barrel aged and eyedropper-delivered concoction served at Imperial was that it lacked heat and had a unidimensional flavor profile.
Imperial’s French fries were worse than the chicken. Maybe the fryolater was having a bad hair day, but our fries spent too little time in the oil and too much time waiting for pick-up. In fact, all of our dishes arrived together in a state of luke warm indifference. And it took well over half an hour from order to table. Now, Team Mago would not have minded the wait if a) the food had been of the caliber served at, oh say, St. Jack, or b) Chef Adams had not bragged about the speed of his team in WW’s review, in which he strongly implies that he enforces a 15 minute rule.
The curry wurst sausage possessed excellent flavor, best I have had since Germany several decades ago. However, like the chicken, the sausages teetered on the precipice of being dry and tough, while the otherwise very good house Russian sauerkraut (perhaps Rotkohl is named for its communist tendencies rather than its color?) was essentially cold (and I do not think that was the intension).
Unfortunately the burger was a bit of a mess, bespoke bun and all. I do, however, like what Imperial does with pickles, especially the onion and bread and butter ones served with the fried chicken.
The best dish of the evening was the pan roasted cauliflower. A vegan pearl nestled in a meat-heavy and indifferently executed menu. The hummus and pomegranate seed foundation added to the complexity of the dish’s flavor profile and supplied needed texture to the unctuous cauliflower.
I would speculate that part of the problems at table stem from the design of Imperial’s kitchen. Opting for the stunning wood-fired grill for the kitchen’s marquee makes sense, but establishing the rest of the line and the pass to the right side of the chef’s counter has the effect of creating the mother of all traffic jams. Our table afforded us an excellent view of Chef Adams as he handled order slips, wiped plates, corrected, and delegated as wait staff and line cooks wove around him. Traffic flowed in both directions so that people, Adams included, were constantly pulled off station to accommodate the bi-directional jostle. I might not have understood the kitchen layout from my vantage point, but Chef Adams seemed positioned in a choke point during the course of our meal.
Cizmar is on much firmer ground when he praises the front of the house at Imperial. The restaurant and bar were packed at 7PM on a Wednesday night, and when we arrived a little early the hostess steered us toward the Penny Diner for drinks with the promise that someone would come and get us when our table was ready. And they did. Throughout the meal our waitress was attentive and efficient with everything that she had any hope of controlling. If the kitchen could pump out well-executed food at a rate that complemented rather than hobbled the wait staff, then most of Cizmar’s hype would have more than a nodding acquaintance with reality.
This is a problem with Willamette Week’s 2015 dining guide in general. WW makes a big deal concerning the anonymity of their reviewers, but while I have no doubt that they follow their own rules concerning “visiting unannounced” and purchasing their own meals for reimbursement later, it is hard to believe that many of the 99 establishments, particularly the top fifteen, did not know what was going on. Certainly the anonymous opacity vanished after the list was compiled in order to conduct the exercises in culinary hagiography scattered throughout WW‘s listicle. The Michelin Guide’s conceits of anonymity and objectivity were punctured long ago and chefs have not suddenly gotten stupid. Restaurants make it their business to know how reviews are conducted in their gastro-spheres–both in traditional and social media–and they respond proactively. Chefs and restaurateurs are social animals (even a grouchy bubero is a shit load of fun to hang out with in his element) and if they figure out that you are reviewing their establishment, they are smart enough to make sure your party’s food is done right.
And that’s just great; MagoGuide loves to eat at places where we have a congenial relationship with the chef and staff. But that is not how most diners experience a restaurant and great chefs either act as their own publicists or they hire one. Team Mago’s reviews are based on a single principle, how does a restaurant treat a table of Montucky hicks on their first (as far as anyone can tell) visit? This is our gold standard for restaurant reviews. If you are friends with the chef and/or regulars, then your experience is usually very nice and most mistakes rapidly corrected. Most people, however, are not regulars and it is their hard earned ducats we are concerned about, not fashionable foodies, wealthy whales, or reverent reviewers.
MagoGuide’s approach may strike readers as excessively old school. Certainly the foreign ministry of France has sought a post-modern approach in producing (with corporate funding) La Liste of the thousand best restaurants in the world. Generated by an algorithm named Ciacco that iterated over data from 200 restaurant guides, the list is topped by a gourmet temple in Switzerland. Really? The best restaurant in the world is in Switzerland? The last time MagoGuide supped in Helvetia, a giant pristine rodent made me her bitch over the incorrect use of silverware during a multi-course meal. The food was fine but not worth the experience of fascistic supervision while trying to ingest it.
Evidently, the gastro-experts who tweaked Ciacco ended up spending north of $300K of their corporate sponsors’ money in a bid to displace the controversial and corrupt S. Pellegrino list of the fifty best restaurants in the world that emanates annually from (where else?) Perfidious Albion. And the best they could come up with was a Swiss restaurant? Clearly socialist governments partnering with consortiums of food and luxury brands to produce a computer-generated restaurant guide needs a bit of a rethink.
Which is why it is important to fact check not only politicians but restaurant guides. Sans algorithms, MagoGuide is prepared to soldier on with our scrutiny of Willamette Week’s 99. This will definitely include a return visit or two to Imperial. I want to try the “always-incredible Parker House rolls” of Mr. Cizmar’s superlative-saturated review, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of “gobsmacking ponzu-spiked poke salad” as well as a front row seat at that open hearth monster. It will take more than one meal to generate a genuinely anonymous and accurate report on the state of foodage at Imperial. Let’s just say MagoGuide’s first reconnaissance discovered a struggling slammed kitchen.
Which brings me to reason #2 involving the unintended consequences of most restaurant guides and listicles. MagoGuide recently dined at St. Jack (check out our last St. Jack review here) and there were definitely signs of success stress. It took several calls to secure the chef’s counter on a night when Chef Barnett was at the helm instead of conning his pinnace at La Moule (check out our review of that gastro-bar here). Now I know that for a restaurant of St. Jack’s caliber the chef’s attendance is not necessary for an excellent meal, but I was with my father and I wanted him to meet the chef and watch his kitchen at work. We indeed had a fine meal and the chef was very accommodating to a party of four off-the-grid gourmands camped out in front of the line and curious as to many aspects of the food and its preparation.
The action on the line, however, was very different from every other time I have eaten at St. Jack. To start with, sous chef Amanda Williams occupied the garde manger station and I did not recognize any of the line cooks. Chef Barnett acknowledged that they were trying out some new staff; but for the majority of diners seated at tables, their experience–with the exception of a slighly lengthier wait than normal for their food–was indistinguishable from an all-veteran team in the kitchen.
At the chef’s counter on the other hand, Team Mago witnessed a slammed St. Jack for the first time. Barnett and company may not have been in the weeds, but they could certainly see them at close range during culinary high tide with both bar and restaurant packed in the eight to nine thirty slot. The food made it out and it was great, but I have never seen Barnett, not to mention Williams, off station so frequently. Stewardship of the pass rotated through at least three people over the course of ninety minutes. Chef Barnett did everything from rim wiping to shucking oysters and a lot more in the back kitchen that was occluded from Mago pere et fils.
Troubling as it may be to see a culinary ballet decay into gastronomic crisis management, the evening was also a testimony to Barnett and Williams’ professionalism. There was zero kitchen drama as Chef Barnett improvised a 21st century tournant position and then filled it himself. He owned up to being tired at the end of the shift, but he still had a great sense of humor in dealing with either staff or clientele throughout the evening.
Both Barnett and Adams are victims of the unintended consequences of Willamette Week in particular and restaurant guides in general. Guides tend to make restaurants so popular that their cuisine declines due to brutal diner attrition. The fact that Barnett’s team handled the hordes of fame better than Adams’ is really neither here nor there; they are both trapped in a competition model that is antithetical to the dining public at large (witness WW‘s game-showy rationing auction of seats at this year’s winner in advance of publication). And, even worse, ranked lists of restaurants inculcate their users in an ethos of competition that has little or nothing to do with actually enjoying good food and everything to do with review outlet, advertiser, and restaurant symbiosis. Again, I am sure that WW does not favor those restaurants that advertise in their weekly, however, if you generate a new ranked list of the top restaurants in Portland every year, that is going to contribute to positive advertisement churn. For the sake of those who cook as well as those who partake in commercial establishments, the 21st century culinary listicle needs to join its corrupt and discredited analogue brethren of the 20th century on the ash heap of culinary history.
Update: Now we learn that the Emperor has left the building. Chef Adams, Eater Portland’s Chef of the Year 2015 is leaving for an undisclosed project in an undisclosed location. MagoGuide stands by its less than fawning review of Imperial and wonders why Chef Adams is eschewing the heat in its wake.