THERE HAS NEVER BEEN a more appropriate name for a restaurant than the one given to downtown boutique hotel the Nines' rooftop getaway, Departure. Taking the elevator up to the 15th floor is to leave Portland without actually leaving Portland; a contrived journey into the heart of moneyed elegance, savage design, and restaurant-group food concepts, for better or worse.
Stepping from the elevator, walls at odd angles and a bank of purple light cause immediate disorientation. The feeling deepens as you pass through a black, octagonal gangplank into the restaurant. The design here looks as if a Kandinsky-loving couturier of gay architects had refurbished a spaceship from Battlestar Galactica. It would all be too much spacey geometric chaos if texture and color weren't so adeptly juxtaposed. In one long hallway, a line of billowy curtains softens one wall, while the other is punctuated with large, dark, octagonal mirrors. The bar and main dining room glow white beyond an onyx entryway, while here and there blond wood accents soften the brash play of colors and angles.
Like a Vegas casino, the floor plan is designed to draw you in and make you stay. And Departure would be at home perched on top of a hotel on the Strip—or Sunset Boulevard or anywhere in Midtown Manhattan—where it would likely be lost in a multitude of glimmering night spots. But in Portland, Departure is unique, at least in terms of its aesthetic appeal.
It's pleasing to be seated on the west deck; the bustle of Pioneer Courthouse Square below, the oft-unrecognized architectural rhythm of the Fox Tower pulsing a few blocks away, and the arching silhouette of St. Johns Bridge lurking in the distance. A meal eaten here is improved simply by the view. But though there are some fine, measured options on Departure's menu of pan-Asian small plates, this cuisine is prepared better in more humble corners of the city.
What Departure does well, it does very well. A plate called "Calamari Tenpura" comes sans tentacles, squid bodies fried intact and stacked in a substantial tower on a bed of seaweed salad. The squid is tender with lush sesame tones that diffuse upward from the salad below.
Panko-crusted Kobe meatballs—all beef here is either Kobe or Wagyu—conceal a center of foie gras that bursts onto the tongue and melts slowly away.
Tori No Tatsuta Age is a deft play on fried chicken wings, with one of the wing bones snipped and removed before frying, allowing the ball of tender meat to slide from the remaining bone; the deep and toasty flavor nicely paired with a bright hint of diakon puree.
The Shoyu Truffle Butter Rice offers an honest serving of ultra-rich buttery rice and a variety of wild mushrooms, the flesh of which is so similar in some cases to the flavor and texture of lobster as to be completely startling.
But there are also epic failures on the menu. The Tonkotsu Ramen is nearly flavorless and dull. Kani Avocado Tobiko presents a halfhearted attempt at rolled sushi, rendering mentaiko caviar and fresh crab into a ho-hum rice-heavy disappointment. Shiu Mai pork dumplings present themselves as greasy and tough. And a BLT—cherry tomato wrapped in bacon on Bibb lettuce—is whimsical but remains ultimately an interesting trick with little interest beyond novelty.
The cocktails at Departure are well balanced and not overly sweet, but the price (up to $10 a drink) is anathema to intoxication. Which is a shame, because Departure serves Portland best as a place to imbue the spirit with swank, booze, and views, before or after a night's downtown entertainment.
The staff just does not seem cut out to offer truly adept dinner service, remaining inconsistent. One evening the food was perfectly expedited, while on another it piled up on our table all at once. On one evening the table service remained alert and present without being over-bearing, while on another we were frustratingly abandoned for 20 minutes while waiting for our final dish.
If you know what you want from Departure—an inexpensive beer with friends on one of the decks while munching a plate of calamari—it's likely to become a favored downtown stop. But for those looking for a dining experience to match some of Portland's less lofty but delicious downtown offerings, Departure will be a trip to a fantastic geometric nowhere.