THE GILT CLUB has had a quiet reputation as one of the better places in Portland to find decent dinner options after midnight. While not necessarily a foodie destination, the service industry discount, a full menu served until 2 am every night, and thoughtful cocktails have traditionally drawn a food-savvy downtown crowd.
Last July, the hiring of a new executive chef, Chris Carriker, set off a PR blitz that caught my attention. In one mailing I received, a photo of a rolling pin-wielding Carriker, in full kitchen garb, chasing a herd of sheep through a field was juxtaposed beside an image of the classy Gilt Club dining room. The caption? From farm... to table. Okay. I'll bite.
Carriker has had five months in the Gilt Club kitchen, so I'll assume that any revisions in the menu have been fully implemented. His focus is on seasonal dishes divvied up among small plates, which can be mixed and matched at a diner's leisure. You can fill your table with a variety of charcuterie and bite-sized goodies, or design a dining experience of several courses that leads toward an entrée, portioned small or big according to your preference.
There are interesting options on the menu. Some are downright charming. For instance, the appetizer of elk tartare that is essentially an excellent burger. Here we have a beefy, lean, elk tartare—just slightly warm and well seasoned—that has the lushness and freshness of a quality rare burger. Beside it, grilled bread acting as de facto bun. A small, minimally dressed salad, a bit of mustard on the side, and crisp duck-fat french fries complete the experience.
Another charming option from the apps list are the ricotta fritters. The fine dining answer to fried mozzarella sticks are expertly prepared, and it's difficult to imagine how one gets ricotta to behave this way. The experience is like biting into a perfectly toasted marshmallow—thinly crisped on the outside and oozy within—the difference being the savor and slightly grainy texture of the ricotta. The little ricotta balls have just enough structural integrity to hold shape while being dragged through an accompanying chili sauce, which adds needed zing to the muted ricotta cheese.
Moving from appetizers to small plates and charcuterie, the main difference is price—small plates go for $5 each or three for $13. Look to these items for late-night snacking.
The house-made rabbit and pork mortadella is a tasty, sophisticated version of its bologna cousin. The wild mushroom bruschetta is far too tame—I shoved the mushroom mixture aside so the crostini could be used as an additional vessel for the killer chicken liver mousse. The mousse is notable because it demonstrates Carriker is not afraid to use bitter flavor to balance or add interest to a dish.
You find a hint of that bitterness in an entrée of grilled sturgeon on top of pastrami hash. The bitterness cuts the fat and salt of the hash very nicely, without being overwhelming. Unfortunately, in its totality, the dish doesn't really make sense. Here we have a fine, tender, well-prepared sturgeon steak—it's tasty on its own, but not being aided or augmented in any way by a perfectly reasonable pastrami hash.
Other entrées are better. The chitarra pasta is dreamy. Everything is working in this dish: spice from red chili flakes, depth from roasted mushrooms, and sweetness from bright little corn kernels. Adding a "two-hour egg" gives the whole thing richness. "Like our version of carbonara," the server informed me.
Also among the entrées is the Gilt Club's actual burger. Usually made with black truffle and duck-fat roasted onions, mine had plenty of the truffle but completely lacked onion. Some bitterness from leafy greens was apparent, but I was sorry to miss the onion. I'd passed on the option to stuff the burger with brisket and foie. Yes, brisket and foie gras... stuffed in a burger, which just sounded like overkill. Even for me.
Setting aside the fact that food has trouble reaching the table in a timely manner—a problem with expediting, or in one case a server with plate in hand chatting casually with the kitchen staff before delivering the dish to the table—things at the Gilt Club are going swimmingly. When you take the Gilt Club's Anne Rice meets Donna Reed atmosphere as read, the addition of Carriker's expertise should serve mostly to fill the high-backed red-leather banquettes with more foodies snapping surreptitious camera phone pics well past midnight. I assume that's what the restaurant is looking for. After all, what self-respecting foodie wouldn't want to eat such decent food from a chef who chases sheep with a rolling pin?