HISTORICALLY this column has been dedicated to reviewing "new" restaurants (after giving them a three-month head start). What we haven't done is turn our critical eye on old favorites. Now, we will.
The city is riddled with legends, cult faves, and quirky hotspots that have withstood cycles of economic boom 'n' bust and shifting trends in cuisine. Some have a reputation for food, others just have a reputation, but all have survived by cultivating loyal clientele.
Nowhere is this truer than Le Bistro Montage. For nearly 18 years Montage has been on the top of many Portlander's "what-to-do-with-out-of-towners" list. Because of that, the cavernous Eastside restaurant beneath the Morrison Bridge is often a visitor's first experience with the city's restaurant scene. And what an experience it is: tin cans pounded into the floor, wrinkled paper menus, white linen tablecloths, servers sporting jackets with "love" on one shoulder and "hate" on the other, and the constant din of screaming waiters, screaming chefs, loud music, and patrons trying to talk over the aural assault. The wait. The dimness. The communal tables. And, oh yes, the food.
Since moving to Portland I've watched Montage change in small ways—adding lunch, brunch, the back bar, and accepting plastic. Still, it retains its charm... and its menu. Let's be frank and state up front that Montage is not known as a culinary powerhouse. However, considering the volume of people served every night, the cooks, with their front-row view of endless hordes waiting for a table, do an okay job with the Creole and Southern favorites.
I think most of Montage's pre-clubbing or post-party eaters—who're looking for a quick, cheap dinner—retreat to the backside of the menu and the comforting selection of macs. Once they've found one they like, the front of the menu with its dinner items and apps might as well not even exist. At least, that's how it worked for me.
Over several recent meals I did something I'd not done in years: I flipped the menu over. Luckily, things did not work out as poorly as I imagined. An appetizer of crawfish hushpuppies will certainly become a new standby for me. Just fishy enough, the fried corn balls had a nice sweetness that works with the accompanying spicy sauce, though I would have preferred them with a bit more crisp.
Alligator bites were another surprise. More tender than I would have thought given the notorious toughness of reptile meat, the fried bites have a mellow swampy funk similar to catfish and pair nicely with a tangy cocktail sauce.
One evening, I was quite taken with a pan-fried catfish special. Wonderfully prepared, the fish was tender, flaky, and very fresh with just the barest hint of the requisite catfish mud flavor. However, it was touch bland, which brought the whole dish down a peg. Blandness seems to have always been a problem at Montage, which is one of the reasons I avoid the étouffée. It'll also be why I avoid the fried chicken dinner in the future. The crust on the chicken didn't have quite the crunch I was looking for, but the meat was very tender and juicy. The mixed vegetables and greens were largely forgettable, and the garlic mashed potatoes, though tasty, were lukewarm by the time they arrived.
Back among the much-loved macs, things improve. A pesto mac with alligator was delicious, well seasoned, and wonderfully creamy. The alligator was a bit tougher here than in the appetizer, but still added much needed meaty contrast to the dish.
Then, a vision—the one dish I'd glanced at for years but had never ordered—widowed there at the bottom of the menu: green eggs and spam. How had I never experienced this? The dish is wanton culinary strangeness. It's the mélange every drunk would make if the spins didn't dampen their ability to wield a frying pan before passing out. Spam, eggs, pesto, and chicken gravy are wed into a mass of fatty goodness that rivals poutine in its ability to give sustenance, warmth, and some kind of anchor in times of inebriation. It is, in one word, delicious. And despite the whimsical "fuck you" attitude of the dish, it is also weirdly understated.
I realized, as I ate, that this dish encapsulates everything I love about Montage. It draws you in with its audacity, but manages to satisfy despite everything going on. It's comforting. It's strange. And it speaks to a certain Portland love of excess.
Despite anything I have to say about the place, Le Bistro Montage will continue to serve visitors, wide-eyed suburban kids, and Portlanders attached to the restaurant's mystique. Thank goodness. As a gateway into the totality of Portland's robust restaurant scene, sure, you could do better. But you probably wouldn't have half as much fun.