NE 23rd & Fremont
When you see the sign for the Dining Room, you don't automatically think, "The best damn steak you've ever tasted." Rather, you might think, "Typical foodstuffs in an upscale environment; a good place to take my parents." Either way, you're right.
The Dining Room, recently inhabiting the space on Northeast Fremont that used to be Marco's, is a pricier, fancier upgrade. The tables don white tablecloths, the interior hosts an abundance of dark wood, and the waitstaff are formal but friendly (there is a sexy French bartender whose accent alone is worth a martini). Calling the Dining Room classy is warranted by the interiors and entrée prices, but it is not pretentious. It's a warm, pleasant, neighborhood dining experience, and unlike plenty of "nice" Portland restaurants, isn't pretending to be anything more. Meaning: there is no valet parking.
Good lunch and dinner entrées include the Dungeness Crab Macaroni and Cheese ($8.75 lunch/$14.75 dinner) and the Rigatoni with Sage Sausage and Pesto Cream ($6.75 lunch/$11.75 dinner). Both dishes are deliciously creamy, with a healthy dose of seafood and meat; but for my taste, could be spiked with a stronger flavor, whether it be a sharper cheddar or a richer pesto. The salads, however, raise the bar. The Caesar is daring, with a strong anchovy flavor and topped with slivers of dried bacon. Excellent, but only for the anchovy lover. The Mixed Green salad is utterly perfect, modestly dressed, topped with sweet roasted walnuts and romano. The subtle flavors mix together beautifully.
But as I may have mentioned, the true gem of the Dining Room's menu is the steak. Formally named the "Oregon Organic Flat Iron Steak with Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes," this dish should be officially renamed, "The Most Luscious Meal You'll Ever Eat." The cut of beef actually called "flat iron"--as I have found out through a little research--is a shoulder cut gaining popularity in restaurants, and considered by many to be the finest and most tender piece of beef available. Who knew? Anyhow, the restaurant recommends that you order the steak medium rare, and you should believe them. The preparation of the beef is perfect, the center of each slice a deep red with a fresh flavor that could make even the most devoted forgo the A-1. In fact, with the rich cheese sauce running off the heap of gorgonzola-laced potatoes, to use steak sauce would only disrupt the pungent, harmonious wonderland of your plate. Granted, you will be forking over $18.75 for steak, potatoes, and braised greens, but you will not regret it. Oh, the Pot Roast is quite tasty as well, but I don't know why you'd be ordering something so proletarian when you could have something so divine.
In short, the Dining Room delivers beyond expectations. While the menu is stocked with standards--fish, lamb, pasta, salads--the chef goes out of his way to evolve typical meals into something thrilling. You could blow $60 on dinner without missing a beat, but you won't feel guilty about it--or worse, wish you had just thrown $50 into the sewer and gone to Wendy's. Instead, you'll feel utterly gratified.