Truth be told, when I first arrived in front of the Nines Hotel above which Departure Restaurant is housed (or hidden, as the case may be), I walked past it three times before confirming the ambiguous-looking address with someone next door. Sure enough, I had arrived. And I was excited. At the time of my December visit, Top Chef Boston was halfway through the season and it looked like frontrunner Gregory Gourdet was going to take the win. So, what does any sane food blogger do? Drag my family all the way to Portland to try his restaurant.
Sure, it took a bit of convincing. First, my parents, who are both very “epicurious” themselves, did not understand why I would want to try an Asian restaurant in Portland, particularly one with a non-Asian chef. And fusion at that! Their skepticism only grew when they came up the elevator and arrived in the purple mood lit spaceship that was Departure. I hoped for their sake that the food would change their mind. Thankfully, it did.
The vegetable dishes were the surprising table favourites of the night. The carrot and avocado salad with sourdough croutons ($8), like the Brussels Sprouts with chili and mint ($10), were both crisp and flavourful preparations of simple ingredients, and had the perfect texture. The Departure Wings ($11) would satisfy anyone’s late-night craving but are done with such grace that Audrey Hepburn could’ve eaten them in one of her movies.
While still good, I was slightly less wowed by the Japanese and Korean-inspired dishes. Our choices included the Beef Anago Tenderloin Roll ($16), the Bibimbap ($18), topped with koshihikari, Wagyu beef, kimchee, gochujang, and a sunny egg, and the Korean Rice Noodles ($14), tossed with beef, chili, broccoli and kimchee. These three dishes got a “not bad” shrug from my sisters, but we all acknowledged that there was a certain level of clarity that these dishes lacked (my words, not theirs, naturally). The Garlic Fried Rice ($8) and the Yakitori Chicken ($7) were nice compliments to the others, but not “must try” dishes, if you’re only going to order a few.
However, the two main protein dishes we chose off of Chef Gregory Gourdet’s “Recommendations” section of the menu were truly top-notch. The Crispy Pork Belly ($12) was fried in playful two-bite cubes, and cut with pickled cherries, ginger, pumpkin seeds for a nice acidic and textural contrast. The Miso Cod ($23), cooked with a bacon dashi, and served with sunchoke and takawan, was velvety smooth and entered my mouth like a soft little pillow.
It takes a lot for fusion food to get my family’s seal of approval. In particular, my dad is a traditionalist who values simplicity and authenticity at its finest. However, he loved the dishes overall and praised the menu for its innovative approach to the classics. Moreover, we all acknowledged that it was a great pan-Asian spectrum that would be accessible for most North Americans.
In fact, the food was so good that I almost gave the restaurant a perfect rating if it weren’t for the service. The host team was excellent, and I don’t want them to get lumped into the same category as the wait staff. But we were served by a waitress and waiter (who will remain unnamed) who looked like they would’ve rather literally been anywhere else. Our dishes were “kind of” explained to us, but there was no rhyme or reason in the order that they were brought out, or placed on the table. Our water glasses were frequently empty, and they didn’t stop for a minute longer for us to ask any questions. The only smile I got from her was the (ironic) happy face that she left on our bill when it came time to tip.
Final Note: Despite the service, this is a great restaurant. In fact, it’s a perfect date restaurant. Not only will you impress them with your pan-Asian culinary knowledge, but it’s trendy without being douchey, and the food is somehow still reasonably priced. And the view is spectacular. Even though Chef Gregory didn’t win in the end, he’s got a winning formula and I can’t wait to see what else he does with his career.
Getting There: 525 SW Morrison St, Portland, OR (Conveniently located right downtown near a tram stop or drive there and park conveniently on the street or at the Macy’s nearby).