Saturday, November 28, 2009

Portobello Vegan Trattoria

We did not meet a vegan in Portland that didn’t recommend this restaurant, so we were happy to have made our reservations a month in advance. As we’d heard, residing on an unassuming corner across the street from a bodega, Portobello takes over when Cellar Door coffee closes in the evenings.

On initial glance the lackadaisical transformational effort comes across as quaint, but we were immediately disappointed at the severe lack of warmth in our greeting. A small restaurant gaining a following should really back it up with personality from the get go. At very least, they need to do better than “Do you have a reservation?” as the first and only words spoken from hostess duty. But, the small "dining room" was completely filled with reserved tables, so we took that as an extremely promising sign.

Once seated, we weren’t surprised to find ourselves looking at a menu full of delicious choices. Our host, now the waitress, was quiet and unsmiling. We had hoped she’d offer some enthusiasm and/or insight to help us with our decisions, but she merely stood before us with her pencil poised over her order book. So, we ordered some wine to start, along with an appetizer to share. We were disappointed by the bitterness of the wine. While we saw another table collectively give theirs back, we merely asked for a glass of ice for ours. The waitress returned with a jar containing 3 crumbs of ice cubes and flatly asked if that was enough; it was almost as if she was trying to be unhelpful, or worse: antagonistic. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have generously brought a glassful of ice to the table than to make such an insultingly chintzy offering of frozen water? On the second try we received about ten cubes.

Our appetizer was sliced bread served with olive oil. We found it more than a little unusual to have to order bread and olive oil as an appetizer in an Italian restaurant rather than have it served gratis, but it was delicious nonetheless. The bread was fresh and crispy (although not even close to focaccia, as it’s listed), and served with very nice olive oil sprinkled with coarse sea salt.

For dinner we chose to share three options:

spaghetti with meatballs: The meatballs were the most delicious, vegetably meatball substitutes I've ever had. Not at all meaty tasting, they were the perfect texture and consistency and were nicely complimented by Portobello’s tasty, basily, tomato sauce.

tempeh hazelnut ravioli: adorable handmade raviolis filled with tempeh and sprinkled with hazelnuts and olive oil.

Best potato gnocchi ever: The most accurate description I can give of this dish is that it tasted like a cross between fresh pasta and the filling of a hush puppy from Gargiulo's (yes, I remember); to call this dish gnocchi is to grossly simply it-- by far our favorite choice of the evening.

When it came time for dessert we were tickled to find out that this “coffee shop by day” didn’t so much as offer decaf in the evenings. The irony notwithstanding (and unacknowledged by the possibly lobotomized waitress), we ordered two desserts to share. The chocolate hazelnut cannoli was a huge portion of two giant "cannolis", but extremely disappointing. The shell was a maple-flavored wafflecone-like cookie filled with room temperature chocolate mousse. The Tiramisu, however, was very rich, creamy, authentic and also generous in size; we could see why this is so popular.

A few times during the meal the chef made an appearance in the dining room. The first time everyone looked up excitedly from their tables in anticipation of his greeting, brimming over with their individual responses of certain accolades for the food. Unfortunately, not once did the chef acknowledge any of the patrons in the full dining room except for one couple at one table. He came out three times during the time we were there to gush over the same diners in a way that screamed, "You are the only people who interest me", and it was uncomfortable for everyone else. Surely he is much too busy to chit-chat with everyone, but a smile and a nod goes a long way. Clearly the hostess/waitstaff aren't the only people at Portobello who could use some training in the customer interaction department.

The fact is, I could return to a restaurant nightly on the basis of this caliber of gnocchi of alone. But customer service is very important to me and to come to a “nice” restaurant and not have any more conversation with the staff than if they were robots was more than a bit unsettling. I’d rather have mediocre food and great service; it's that important to the experience. But, in a vegan-friendly place like Portland, you don't have to compromise: you can get the whole package elsewhere.

I admire that the vegan community within Portland supports each other so adamantly, but there seemed to be different cliques that we, as tourists, weren't equipped to differentiate between. Certain vegan establishments that we were repeatedly recommended to were disappointing, and others that were dismissed by many vegans were surprisingly wonderful. With our New York accents, maybe we were simply not from the clique that is entitled to receive friendly service from Portobello? Final word: excellent food, mediocre atmosphere, abysmal service.

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