After my first dinner in the cavernous dining room of R. Palate, I wanted so badly to like the place. I wanted it to succeed despite the construction surrounding it at the end of SW 6th. I wanted it to be filled to capacity every night, drawing business from downtown rivals like Portland City Grill.
Maybe it was the ambitious menu, featuring French-inspired cuisine with adventurous flavor pairings like Medjool dates, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with hazelnuts and Oregon blue cheese. Maybe it was Executive Chef Rudy Garcia, who was personable, accommodating, and passionate about cooking.
But time and distance have a way of cooling impulsive desires. After my second meal at R. Palate, I lost faith. Where was the badly needed front-of-house staff? Why had Garcia, doing triple duty as chef, waiter, and bartender, not asked how I wanted my fillet prepared?
Chances are, you've never heard of R. Palate. After remaking a space formerly occupied by Big Town Hero, the restaurant has received little press. It might be that Garcia hasn't gone looking for publicity, preferring to quietly cultivate a small band of regulars who consider his space a hidden gem in the downtown scene.
I can see why they would. R. Palate is pleasantly laid back, with high ceilings and a lofted lounge area dwarfing the few tables and booths. A comfy bar area is set aside from the main dining room by a set of French doors. The walls are adorned with art (for sale, just add them to your bill). Add the fact that Garcia is a constant presence in the dining room and you have the makings of a gastronomic cult.
The problem is the food doesn't match the fervor of the fans, much less the passion of the chef. Consider my blindly prepared fillet: It was overly sauced with an admittedly tasty but overwhelming Cabernet Sauvignon reduction that seemed like it was meant to mask the steak. The blue cheese topping made it overly salty and the overall flavor profile lacked complexity. An appetizer of bacon-wrapped oysters seemed to be drowning in the lemon caper cream sauce. There just wasn't enough zest to make the dish dynamic. But it was certainly on the right track, with little bursts of vinegar from the occasional caper hinting at what might have been. An entrée of giant sea scallops had nice arugula and balsamic tones but was undone by chewy shellfish. It was as if Garcia was too distracted to focus the flavors of his creations.
Still, R. Palate does well in the downtown happy hour derby. Its extensive menu has good options like a spicy mac 'n' cheese with a nice Cajun heat that harmonizes with a buttery cream sauce. And the phyllo-dough wrapped duck confit, goat cheese, and wild mushroom beggar's purse is delightful, with brilliantly balanced, earthy flavors that move lightly across the tongue.
And this is where doubt creeps in. If Garcia can construct a morsel as charming as the beggar's purse, why aren't the rest of his offerings up to quality? My guess is he needs to keep his head in the kitchen. Maybe hire more staff?
In the end, R. Palate is an unknown restaurant with tremendous untapped potential. With very little work, it could become an excellent downtown dining destination.