After an evening at Bailey’s Taproom back in November last year, I asked F to try Imperial for dinner. Imperial by “Iron Chef – Radish” winner Vitaly Paley had just opened in September, and features a revival of Northwest style plank cooking, as well as just Northwest cuisine in general. It aims for breakfast lunch and dinner service while also being accessible to the general as it is part of the Hotel Lucia, and replaced the space previously occupied by Typhoon while Bo’s Restobar is now re-envisioned as the breakfast/lunch offering from Paley called Portland Penny Diner.
The atmosphere of Imperial seems reminiscent of the Oregon history museum mixed with the glamour of the fine dining from the 40-50s, which is not what I had pictured from the name. I suppose given that the Portland Penny Diner also is meant to reference the penny that decided this city’s name, the historical slant of the word Imperial is not about royalty but apparently Lewis and Clark peaceful progressive imperialism? Ah, wait, I see- it’s from the original name of the hotel that used to be at this location. How did that nugget of information get lost- you would think maybe there would be a photo of it by the front host stand, or something on the website. Anyway, moving right along…
When you first enter, you are greeted by a clean modern wall of wood and a host stand, and some antique chandeliers, but then you see exposed pipes and bricks and a big ox head. Perhaps you may notice the wood paneling continued by the front dining area, but then it transitions bare pocked concrete pillars, and an accent in the middle of a dated yellow wallpaper boasting images of farm animal friends like pigs, chickens and cows along with the face of a pale white lady with a crown. In the back more brick is exposed as you approach the open kitchen with the wood fired oven. A medley of historical and modern boutique hotel trendy.
So the perspective Paley has for Imperial is meant to reflect the concept that traditional dishes incorporate local ingredients and historical cooking techniques of the mix of peoples during those early days of the Pacific Northwest Territories. And given this, not surprising then that given the menu’s plank cooking premise from frontier days, the restaurant space centers around a wood oven and rotisserie as if this is a fancified version of an indoor campfire, although they aim to step it up by using planks from wine barrels.
For dinner during my first visit in November, we started out with the Soup Du Jour of cauliflower soup and a Kale and Raw Vegetable Salad with sunflower seed brittle and goat cheese dressing. Both plates were cleaned so nothing was left behind when it was time to pick up the finished starters. Yum.
I wanted to order the organic roast chicken from their Wood-Fired Grill & Rotisserie section, but the server told me sadly they were out, so I picked out the second choice of Tails and Trotter Pork Secreto with romesco and grilled leeks. The pork itself was beautiful and cooked perfectly, but the dish seemed incomplete. Don’t get me wrong- I appreciated that each piece of pork was tender and juicy. And I could detect the sweet smoke undercurrent of flavor that came from the pinot plank. It was a wonderful pork. But I still wanted more- be it more smoke, or some fresh ground pepper, something crunchy or or something to balance out the wonderful meat. The romesco added more sweetness, though I wish it had a bit of paprika for a little heat.
Maybe if it had a better accompaniment as the leek didn’t really offer anything at all for me. I didn’t realize that although this isn’t a steak restaurant, you have to order a la carte and pay for a side dish separately to round out your $25 entree- if only the waitress had mentioned it. I suppose I should have been observant enough to notice it after I saw you have to order bread service as its own starter dish.
The other entree was the Potlatch Pilaf Stuffed Poblano Peppers with rice pilaf, acorn squash, chestnuts, roasted shallots, and walnut cream, which was mushy in texture. But the smoked flavors of the peppers and the chestnuts were lovely and a complex and better than expected vegetarian option.
When it came time for dessert, the one I had my eye on was also out already for the night, so we passed on a sweet ending for that visit. Our tab for what you see above plus one beer and tip- $80.
My next visit was in March, but this time I partitioned caloric room for cocktails at Imperial and came for happy hour. I started with a cocktail called “A Radish Walks into a Bar…” with ransom old tom gin, carpano antica vermouth, radish gastrique, lemon, and cracked peppercorn. This I adored, even trying to get the last dribbles despite the ridiculously large iceberg (however pretty it looked) in my glass. However, even I was willing to get ice on my face only so many times for the last drops. It made me appreciate the ice more as I sat at that bar and saw them pull out this huge coffee table sized slab of ice and hand carve pieces from it in order to make the ice that would be used in the cocktails.
The other cocktail, the Chef’s Breakfast with bacardi 8 year, becherovka, lime, falernum, and honey was nice and its herbaceous quality made me pretend it could pass off as a healthy drink, but didn’t wow me like the Radish Walks into a Bar.
To soak up the alcohol, I had the Imperial Flat-top burger on Rye Brioche with lettuce, tomato, caramelized and pickled onions, sharp cheddar cheese, secret sauce, and a sqqueeee adorable Fry-Basket of Fries also with secret sauce. The fries were nice and crisp and not too greasy, a contrast to the very messy burger. And how cute is that fry basket.
A second happy hour in June gave me a chance to try the Sleight of Hand cocktail with pisco lillet rose, pamplemousse, flamed negroni mist. I blushed from the extra bartender attention as he flamed the negroni. All I have to show is the finished product.
There are other interesting cocktails on the menu, and I will eventually get that roast chicken! I’ve also heard they have an amazing brunch. I’ll have to report back again!