Our usual troop of Portland Food Adventurers swelled into a full-fledged expedition to Imperial. Fifty-four strong, we were led by Chris Angelus into the august company of Chef Vitaly Paley, Executive Chef Benjamin Bettinger, Kimberly Paley and their Imperial staff.
Our adventure started at Portland Penny Diner, a space so new that the walls have yet to be decorated beyond wallpaper. I got the chance to read the menu and get excited about visiting — often — when I come downtown for walks on the weekend. The sandwiches, breakfast fare and housemade sodas looked great.
The expeditioners settled around the diner tables and bar and were treated to a craft cocktail from Brendan Wise. The cocktail had a base of radish sorbet, watermelon, cucumber and Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, clean and refreshing. It would be a great substitute for gin and tonic for any imperialist.
The appetizers were samplers from Chef Paley’s Iron Chef Radish victory, achieved with Benjamin Bettinger as his sous chef. I was quick to snag the radish on rye toast with smoked salmon, butter and dill. What’s not to love in that appetizer? Next was a spoonful of Daikon radish salad with Albacore tuna, microgreens and caviar, fit for any imperial commander. The third appetizer hailed back to the Raj with a fritter of watermelon and radish and a cool raita to dip it in.
Chris rallied us into formation and we trekked a short distance through lobby of the Hotel Lucia and into the banquet space. We each found our assigned spot and I was surrounded by newbies. While I’ve made several friends through my many adventures with PFA, it’s always fun to meet new people. The tables were narrow enough to be able to converse across them as well as with the folks to your left and right. We usually dine in the restaurants we visit, but Imperial is typically sold out each night.
Chris introduced Vitaly Paley and he spoke about the concept of Imperial and Portland Penny Diner. The name for Imperial comes from the building, which houses Hotel Lucia as well. He wants the Imperial to follow in the footsteps of Oregon’s own James Beard, creating and executing masterful Pacific Northwest cuisine. The kitchen features a wood fire grill and rotisserie.
The wines for the evening were provided by Grochau Cellars, sourced from many areas of Oregon and Washington. As a Northwest oenophile, I was pleased with the wines. Grochau aims for wines that have a generous hit of fruit, but also a solid backbone of acid and tannin to pair well with food.
I was impressed throughout the evening with the efficiency of the kitchen and servers. The timing was perfect to allow us to enjoy the plates, clear them away, and have the next course coming before we grew impatient. If you want to plan an upscale banquet, this is the place! Kimberly Paley herself came around to provide one last sip of each wine before the next course.
Usually we get tasting-menu sized portions of each dish, but at Imperial we got what appeared to be full servings. I didn’t end up over-full, but the gals around me worried they would.
The soup course was one of my favorites, the winter squash bisque. I took a class at Sur la Table with Chef Paley and watched him make it, and was able to recreate most of it myself at home. Check out his cookbook for the recipe. It’s a wonderful, comforting soup and tonight it was topped with a relish of pear, fennel and chestnut. I love it, although I would likely grab a roll to go with it if I could. This was accompanied by a refreshing 2011 Guild Lot #6 Pinot Gris/Riesling blend.
Next was a kale and raw vegetable salad with goat cheese dressing and sunflower seed brittle. Radish reappeared as thin strips on top of the kale. The combo of the pickled carrot, crisp kale, savory dressing, and sweet brittle was fun and tasty. The fresh salad also made a great contrast with the soup. I’m not usually a fan of rose, but I enjoyed the 2011 Grochau Cellars Rose of Pinot Noir.
The third course of Dungeness crab risotto with meyer lemon and sea urchin is the my definition of great risotto. I’ve had smaller samples before at food events, and now I put on blinders and savored each bite. Chef Paley is a master at seasoning. There are no flashy, bold spices in this dish. Instead, each bite is perfectly seasoned. I loved the spoonfuls that had no crab. The spoonfuls with crab were spectacular, tasting the sweet essence of crab, and the sea urchin was also excellent. The wine was a 2011 Grochau Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Blanc.
By this point, I was completely satisfied with the appetizers and meal. I would happily have the soup, salad and risotto every day the rest of my life. But wait, there’s more!
I’m not a big fan of salmon or fish in general, so I wouldn’t have ordered the Grilled Steelhead if left to myself. But it was a beautifully grilled fish and the accompaniments were fun: roasted Brussels sprouts, shaved red onion and orange with harissa. These played well with the 2009 Grochau Cellars Cuvee des Amis Pinot Noir. Grochau Cellars
The final savory dish is classic Benjamin Bettinger: grilled pork cheeks with sausage, spaetzle, Aquavit mustard and garnish of what I presumed were crispy pigs ear strips. Each element was tasty on its own, and the mustard really added a dimension. This is one I would happily order again. I enjoyed the 2009 Grochau Cellars Rogue Valley Syrah with it.
Dessert is sometimes the weakest link at a tasting-menu dinner. Instead, Chef Paley deserves his Imperial crown for this Iron Chef Radish dessert. The radish tart tatin not only used radish in place of, say, apples or pears as the sweet component, but also used radish greens with mint in the syrup drizzle, and radish brittle. It had a pastry base and creme fraiche on the side. It was just the right amount of sweet. Radish flavor came through each element. I would have thought that wouldn’t be delicious, but it was. The dessert was inventive, refreshing, and a great cap on the magnificent dinner.
We salute Imperial and our troop of adventurers will happily partake of the certificates we got to visit some of Chef Paley’s favorite places. These include Wildwood, Grilled Cheese Grill and Autentica. Oh, the places we will go!
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