A five course prix fixe at Genoa 8/27/2011

The atmosphere of the new Genoa (neither of us had ever been to the original which served the 7 course meal, but had heard of it and always wanted to try it) was serene and comfortable and intimate. Curtains flowing from ceiling to floor let in a hint of the white bright sunshine while doing logistical duty to separate the area where you first enter and were greeted in hushed voices and then were  granted entrance from the seated dining area.

When you first enter as a guest, as they part the curtains and reveal the space as you step in and you swish past the rippling light fabric, you feel like you are being ushered into a VIP area of a show. While at your meal thanks to those same curtains, you don't see any busyness or urbanity of the outside, you are enveloped in a world of the slight hush of a few words of other conversation that sometimes travels through the air but barely so and barely audible music that is there in the background but never interrupts conversation. Despite the tables around you, you feel like you are at a more elegant version of home- you know, the one where you get butler service.

The staff is there at your table to announce the descriptions of your wine and courses, but then seem to just disappear so you have your privacy yet appear from who knows where again after only a few minutes of finishing your food so you never sit long with empty glasses or plates. The seats are cushy and comfortable- thank goodness for that during a multicourse meal.

The decorations are simple- a small flickering candle offering romance but there is enough ambient light around enough to clearly see the fresh colors of your food instead of eating in shadows.   A large vase of oversized flowers by a large front table provided the positive emotional backdrop of the beauty of life (I always think this when seeing real flowers inside, and science backs this up to some extent) while also giving a slight undercurrent living larger then normal life. Seriously, those thistles were lovely and also about the size of my fist!  Then there was the modernity yet warmth of various shell chandeliers that drape delicately from the ceiling while also offering a modern touch to a room of classic dark hardwoods softened with walls covered with rich drapery so you almost feel like you have box seats to a culinary performance…

So what were the players of this show? We opted for the wine pairings with the meal as the mostly Italian wine list meant we didn't recognize even what the profiles would be for the offerings. This meant we could try more wines anyway. We had both the regular Agosto menu and the vegetarian version.

Our amuse bouche (vegetarian and omnivore versions): a mini Salade Niçoise for the omnivore with the best part being that smoked fig underneath the dill topped fishy. I wish this had been served just a little chilled rather then room temperature. The vegetarian version with creamy corn pudding and roasted beet coins was the tastier amuse.

The next course would be our favorite when all was said and done: the Antipasti of a Gazpacho, specifically a cucumber and melon gazpacho with a bush berry salad, fennels fronds, chickweed, farm flowers, Tabasco jelly (that uses agar not gelatin and is made in-house so is vegetarian friendly)… and in the omnivore version, also the addition of a crispy prosciutto. The course was paired with Avinyó's Cava Brut Rosat from Penedès, Spain NV, and you can never object to starting with some sparkling bubbles, and the flavor was very light.

It was presented with the various fruits and vegetables arranged artfully to enjoy with the eye in the bowl before a small pitcher of the gazpacho was poured in tableside. The gazpacho was thick with flavor, and then a little burst of extra texture and flavor whenever a fruit or vegetable also was in your spoonful. You can see in the closeup the crispy prosciutto perched atop a melon ball up from the flood of the gazpacho…

Our next course was also amazing, our second favorite dishes of the evening. For the omnivore, the Primi was Gnocchetti con aragosta, housemade baby gnocchi with poached Maine lobster, salsa rossa, shaved summer squash and blistered cherry tomatoes, paired with Domaine Brana's Rosé “Harri Gorri” from Irouléguy, France ‘10. I was eating each of those lil gnocchi one by one so they could carry as much of the sauce as possible as they melted on my tongue. For the vegetarian the Primi was Ravioli di mais, a course of housemade ravioli stuffed with sweet corn and pecorino, Dancing Roots farm beets, griddled corn, thyme and topped with frisée.

At first a glass of the Rosé “Harri Gorri” was also poured with this, but the Sommelier returned to correct his mistake with the actual pairing, Domaine Guillot-Broux's Mâcon-Cruzille “Les Genèvrières” of Burgundy, France ‘08. The pour had a tiny bit of cork in it so we were not able to completely finish it, but it was our favorite wine of the night. Since we had already come out with an extra glass of Rose, we let it go.

Third course, Insalata panzanella, composed of heirloom tomato, lemon basil, cucumber, grilled torpedo onion and torn country bread with grilled squid (squid only in the omnivore version), dehydrated olive and moscatel vinegar. We were cleaning our plates wiping up that olive oil and vinegar with that lil crispy breadstick. This was paired with Movia's Sauvignon of Brda, Slovenia ‘08. I know, Slovenia? I wondered this too, but actually the vineyard is in far Northeast Italy and straddles both Italy and Slovenia half and half, so the theme to the wine at Genoa continues to stay within Italy and France for all purposes. This course broke up the richness between the Primi and Secondi cleverly.

The main event, Secondi. As the mains they were both a little disappointing. For the omnivore, this was Rombo alla padella– pan seared halibut with coastal chanterelles, corn pudding, summer beans and hazelnut brown butter paired with La Viarte's Ribolla Gialla, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy ‘09 a more acidic crispy white profile. The halibut had great texture from the pan searing, and I had to keep smearing it with the corn pudding or carefully distributing the chantarelles to add flavor to that texture.

For the vegetarian, this was Risotto di zucca – roasted summer squash, goat cheese stuffed tempura battered and fried squash blossoms, burrata, porcinis with rosemary and thyme, paired with a slightly sweeter Domaine de la Pépière “Clos du Briords”, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, France ‘09. This dish as a whole was extremely rich. Perhaps the wine pairings should have been reversed- with all the cheese already present with the burrata and the goat cheese the dish needed more dry and crispness to cut through and go with contrast instead of compliment.

Dolci (which was fine) and a disappointing Formaggi – I can put together a better cheese plate then this, and I understand serving cheese at room temperature but if it's a summer day of close to 90, maybe not quite at room temperature would be a good idea as that is too warm for cheese to hold its form. Except for the blue cheese, not surprising the other two started to blend in flavor so I smeared honey on one and the pepper on the other just to help the oozy cheese down.  I was very very sorry I had not ordered a dolci.

There is no dessert wine pairing with this last course, but since the dessert/cheese course (printed separately then the dinner ourses) also has the various after dinner drinks printed on the other side, and the order for the fifth course was taken with the original dinner, we were not offered a chance to consider more then coffee. At least we went with French press coffee, though it was served after we were already done with this course, the service hiccup of the night. They really should have asked us about our liquid of choice before the plates.

Last sweet bites with the check- the chocolate ganache, the taste of white cake- at least finished up the meal on a better note from that last course.

The atmosphere was lovely, but it just didn't carry through the whole way. IMHO although the food was good (especially the gazpacho and our pastas were excellent), there are many options in Portland at close cost. With prix fixe meals, diners suspend their control of the dining experience to the kitchen, expecting the kitchen to make it better then they can ordering a la carte both in terms of how the flavors blossom over the courses while each course is also individually providing an important part of the story. Indeed progression of courses was very smooth, and the timing never seemed slow (from the 6:30pm amuse bouche after our 6pm seating to the 8:30pm sweet bites with the check), but the the acts at the end seemed to just not be as thought out, like they got worn out from the earlier half already.

Overall I walked out thinking that it was good, but didn't feel special enough given the initial promise. Genoa's strongest point is its gentle atmosphere and polished service- you come here first for that . The food stands up just enough to match but not impress enough so that you are memorably transported instead of nicely sated at the end of the show. They change their story monthly, but with so many choices for dining, I'm not sure when I'll be back- it will really depend on carefully reading the menu offerings and not on reputation alone.

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