Remember when hotel restaurants used to be nondescript places wedged into big buildings and seemingly their sole purpose was to capture the spending dollars of hotel guests?
Used to be, when I’d be sent on business trips, the last place I’d think to eat would be at my hotel (except the time I was put up at Auberge De Soleil for a week, and that hotel food was over-the-top amazing).
Imperial Restaurant is proof that this old way of thinking of hotel restaurants no longer holds true, and that big production hotel restaurant dining can be every bit as satisfying as some of those 18-seat restaurants that are near impossible to get into (and you can’t hear what anyone is saying inside if you did).
If in fact today I was on one of those all-expense trips and I was staying at the Hotel Lucia (with Imperial on the first floor), I might just find it hard to leave the building.
Imperial Restaurant is killing it right now.
Sure, I’d read some rave reviews (and it won Williamette Week’s Restaurant of the Year this past October), but it still was off my radar being in the heart of downtown. With so many marvelous distractions in SE, N and NE Portland commanding my attention of late, downtown restaurants weren’t getting a lot of my love.
Most Portlanders know the venerable Vitaly Paley (of eponymous restaurant fame) is the owner/founder of Imperial, but not everyone knows that Doug Adams is at the helm here and he is a talent to watch.
Barely thirty, Doug’s already created buzz of his own; he’s worked with some of the great talent in town and he’s already won a local Wild about Game food competition and was a finalist in the cut-throat reality show Bravo’s Top Chef.
Someone had recently recommended it to me, so Imperial Restaurant came to my mind when my mother-in-law was in town this past week.
(photo courtesy Williamette Week, taken by Christopher Onstott)
We needed somewhere with excellent food, preferably with good lighting and not too boisterous — and a place that would take reservations. In this town of line-‘er-up waits, noisy bars and small rooms with limited seating (or outrageously long lag time for reservations), this combination was no small feat.
Imperial got our vote – and the incredibly helpful staff promised us a great table.
Can you believe Ruth is going to be 92 this week?
It’s ridiculous how great she looks and how young she acts. Even more importantly to me, however, is that she loves to eat out and so we ordered pretty much everything that looked good on the menu.
First off, we three adults all ordered a craft cocktail.
Mine was called New Money, and it featured Bulleit Bourbon, Nardini Armaro and smoked vermouth along with multiple bitters, and it was sensational.
I love a great bourbon cocktail — especially when it’s made with primo ingredients and has one tennis ball-sized ice cube in it.
I can now understand why Thrillist names Imperial as one of the 33 most important bars in the country.
Next up, here’s a look at the dinner menu.
So many great things to choose from, so many hard decisions ahead.
Our amazing Portland Poke came up first and it turned out to be perhaps the best poke version I’ve ever had (including the twenty different versions I’ve had in Maui).
Look at that glistening raw tuna, as bright as jewels, tarted up with serrano, ponzu and hazelnuts.
Then there was the Kale and Vegetable Salad.
It had shaved raw carrots, watermelon radishes, a sunflower seed brittle and a creamy goat cheese dressing.
Again, Yum Central.
As delightful as these two were, however, perhaps more impressive was the Pan-Roasted Cauliflower with Crispy Brussels Sprouts, Hummus, Cara Cara Oranges and Harissa.
Where to begin?
The cauliflower was tender and slightly smoky and the set-up invited you to drag a floret through a sublimely creamy hummus. Mix it up and then go for one of those charred brussels sprouts, and then top that bite off with the sweet-tart punch of orange segments and pomegranate. Repeat.
It was outrageously ambitious and yet wholly successful.
It’s how I imagine Ottolenghi’s food to taste (anyone out there been to one of his restaurants?).
At this point, I could tell you quite a bit about the Tails and Trotters Bacon Chop or the house-made fresh Carbonara with thick-cup bacon and a poached duck yolk…
but I’m not going to.
Do you know why?
Because not one more word should be spent on anything but the main reason why you should go to Imperial.
Their Fried Chicken.
As in, perhaps one of the best you will EVER have — and this is coming from someone who has chicken grease running through her veins.
Supposedly it’s also Doug Adams favorite food on earth, and it’s no wonder.
It’s a show-stopper.
Two giant pieces of boneless chicken are brought to the table on a warm cast-iron skillet alongside a petite pitcher of Bee Local honey and a tiny dropper bottle of barrel-aged hot sauce.
The whole lot is then placed on a beautiful piece of cut wood — happily elevating it off the table and bringing it that much closer to your drooling pie-hole.
The waiter explained we should drizzle the honey over the craggy surface of the chicken and add hot sauce to our liking.
House-made pickles and sliced onion are there if you want a briny/piquant counter-point.
Even Oliver, reticent to interfere with such obvious fried perfection, acceded that the sweetness of the honey and the spike of hot sauce made a fantastic thing even better.
And Ruth, who’s been eating out for the better part of a century (and goes to restaurants in Los Angeles three times weekly), proclaimed it the best fried chicken she’s ever had.
It really was that good — and I can’t wait to go back to Imperial and nab some of it off the Happy Hour menu (there just $8).
Alongside the chicken we enjoyed an order of their fries and a side of their Ember Roasted Potatoes.
And a platter of the homemade Parker House rolls.
A generous brush of butter ensured a crisp exterior and a warm, fluffy interior was improved upon with a swipe of the whipped butter and Jacobsen salt served alongside.
Most mortals –and sensible people– would have stopped there but no.
As I always say, what’s full have to do with anything?
I, not my stomach, run this ship, and I will do as I please.
Turns out that pastry chef Danielle Bailey ensures that desserts are just as memorable as the savory dishes.
Behold the chocolate cream pie — as good as any I’ve had in this town (including those at restaurants and carts with pie in their name).
Beautiful crust, velvety rich interior and a tart, seedless raspberry side (and the pate de fruit garnish was a particularly nice touch).
And then we had this.
Here’s our Peanut Brittle Sundae (complete with both caramel and chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cups and a naughty little chocolate fudge sauce).
It was so spot-on that we almost got into a shoving match when it came to sharing.
So there you have it.
Imperial has it all.
A first-class cocktail menu. Amazing food — including a fried chicken that I will be daydreaming about for weeks. Fantastic service– best I’ve had for months. And you’ve got reservations — and valet– awaiting you.
So Ruth, thanks so much for coming and treating us so well.
Happy 92nd, dear.
And Imperial, I’ll be back.
Is tomorrow too soon?