In most ways, Passover is a great time to visit Portland. Empanada Boy and I get to have the seder with my family and visit his sister and her family. The one major downside is not being able to devote my usual time to sampling the new Portland restaurants on my list. This year, however, we arrived a few days before Passover, leaving space in the schedule for a few restaurant visits. We had a great dinner at Bar Avignon with EB’s family, including his parents, who were also visiting. On the Sunday before Passover, we celebrated Flava Flav’s birthday with a brunch at Simpatica Dining Hall, a locavore’s dream, housed in a simply furnished, softly-lit half-basement of a building in Southeast Portland that was once the grunge/alternative music venue La Luna.
Simpatica does catering and serves reservation-only prix fixe dinners on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays it serves a Northwest-inflected Southern-style brunch until 2 pm. On its website, Simpatica says it takes reservations for parties of eight or more, but they gave Flav a pretty hard time. She tried to make a reservation for 18 people at 10:30 am and was told 11:30 am. Later, the restaurant called back to make it 12:30 pm, and then it called a final time—mere days before the event—to change it to 1 pm. When we got there, we ended up having to wait for yet another 45 minutes. That part was pretty irksome, but we largely forgot our annoyance when the bloody Marys started to arrive. These were tall, spicy, thick drinks with a nice balance of alcohol to tomato juice. But the best part was the garnish, which consisted of beautiful homemade pickles— beet, olive, green bean, asparagus and carrot—on a skewer perched across the top of the glass. A few of Flav’s friends ordered garnishes without the drinks just to eat the pickles.
Feeling better with some pickles and alcohol in our stomachs, we waited for our meals to arrive. I ordered the hash with andouille sausage and ham hock (best to indulge all un-kosher urges before Passover arrives) made at the owners’ own charcuterie and butcher shop at the nearby Laurelhurst Market. Also in the hash were spinach, turnips, apples, fennel and caramelized onions. All came topped with two over-easy eggs. It was a hearty feast, juxtaposing spicy-fatty, smoky-fatty, earthy and sweet. Fried chicken and waffles with rhubarb syrup was the dish of choice for EB, Mango Mama and a number of others at the table. It was a bit more savory and complex than the traditional greasy fried chicken (good) and Bisquick waffle (too sweet) version of this dish we tried when we lived up in Harlem—an overall improvement, in my opinion. The chicken was succulent beneath its crispy skin, and that tangy sweet-sour rhubarb syrup kept the whole thing from tipping into bready overdrive.
Speaking of bready overdrive, the same potential danger was lurking for the pork schnitzel with polenta cake, which Flav ordered. The excellent buttery polenta and the pancetta, nettles, persillade and over-easy eggs that came with it were only able to cut this starchy effect to some degree. The dish still came out tasting a little on the heavy side— not that there were actually any dishes I would call light. The fried chicken with biscuits and country gravy, which another one of Flav’s friends ordered (but which I couldn’t reach my fork far enough down the table to sample) may have been the most egregiously weighty dish. But then, I am never a huge fan of gravy after the second or third bite. In general, the carb-heavy aspects of the menu—which also featured chicken-fried bison topped with country gravy—didn’t bother me as much as they might have because I knew Passover was just around the corner.
Indeed, the food was sufficiently delicious, despite it all, that I ate every last bite of my dish and a few bites off other peoples’ plates. Simpatica Dining Hall turned out to be just the right place to celebrate Flav’s birthday and also overdo it just enough to not mind being deprived of non-matzah grains for at least a few days.
Simpatica Dining Hall
828 SE Ash Street
Portland, OR 97214