Spring time is officially here in Portland (despite today’s gray and cloudy skies, the calendar officially turned the spring corner on Saturday) and there’s really no better place in Portland to celebrate the warm weather’s arrival than at Departure.
True, the restaurant isn’t located in Northwest Portland but it’s good enough to venture out of the Northwest corridor to head east into downtown for the night.
Even on a rainy night, Departure, Portland’s newest high-end restaurant and bar, feels luscious. Known for its great view of our City of Roses and balconies that beg for summer’s arrival, Departure is quickly becoming less up-and-coming and more of a quintessential icon for high class dining.
Last month Departure, located on the 15th floor of The Nines Hotel on the corner of SW 5th and Morrison, pushed out a late-night menu that lists a duo of the restaurant’s best sellers with brand new plates. As with the rest of the menu, the Japanese-influenced bites suggest a move toward bite-sized packages of clean yet complex and complementary flavors.
Dim Sum made its way around the floor first, offering, like most restaurant starter plates, bite sized pockets of freshly fried goodness. Shrimp Har Gau wraps Hawaiian king prawn with so-fresh-they’re spicy scallions, salty pork fat, sesame oil and soy sauce within a lightly fried breading of panko bread crumbs that makes for a one-bite punch of sweet prawn and salty fat. The Waygu brisket is a smoky and tangy morsel of tender beef that falls apart with perfected tenderness with just one bite. The vegetable tempura came off as a culinary oxymoron; light yet heavy with a burst of hot, clean oil, showcasing the cooking expertise that head chef Jeremy Frice puts into most of his dishes.
That expertise, unfortunately, doesn’t follow through in Frice’s specially recommended Kobe beef meatballs with foie gras. What sounds like a foodie’s dream turns out to be a heavy mess of bland grease that makes waste of the tender love and care that goes into raising both Kobe beef and foie gras. Neither ingredient stands out; rather, the two riches cancel each other out in a richness that makes the two-bite meatball tough to finish. Perhaps some of the meatball’s richness could find its way into the fried tofu which offers a thirst quenching salty exterior but a tasteless, watery inside that comes across as boring and uninspired.
The menu really shines with the sushi, nagiri and, in completely opposite retrospect, wok fired dishes. The miso black cod, a winner on Frice’s recommended menu list, is eye-closing magnificent: a smoky exterior plays with the salty and crispy cod skin that lays on top a buttery slice of beautiful cod. The maguro karai honey roll is full with a hefty bite of deeply red maguro that tangos with a spicy sauce dashed with a hint of honey. The chicken oysters look scary to the unadventurous eye yet the dark, fatty meat prized to be the best part of the chicken is highlighted with peanuts, negi and chili oil in with enough bursts of comforting spice that even the most-serious of dieters will indulge in a night off.
Indulgence is tough to avoid once Departure’s drinks start pouring; while the menu listings can be iffy at times, the restaurant has its bar down to imbibing perfection. And it knows so, but not in an uppity snooty way. Rather, the restaurant’s pride in its bar shines not just by the fact that it and it alone houses the best sake in Portland but with each bartender’s knowledge and recommendations. Momokawa Pearl is served a box and offers a crisp palate cleanser sake that complements spicy bites with a cooling cleanse. I liked it best paired with the pickled kimchi because of the playful contrast between vinegary spice and dry fruit. For those who find sake too acidic or pucker-inducing, the Ichishima Silk Deluxe is an immediate kick of apple sparkle without the heavily carbonated head of champagne.
Sweet drink lovers will also love the My Shy Geisha cocktail which mixes G joy sake, Croft pink port, grapefruit and orange bitter. Those who prefer a tarter or spicier drink, rest assured you’re taken care of too; Departure knows and honors the gingery power of Cock and Bull ginger ale, showcasing the top notch ale in no fewer than three cocktails.
As expected, prices for the bites and drinks will run a socializing party of six about $25 a piece. Eat a mediocre-sized dinner before heading up the fifteen floors for Departure’s late night happy hour to save a bit.
Just leave room for that miso cod. You won’t be sorry.