How to do Romance like an Adult: The College Kid Edition, by Tia Lattanzio
I didn’t grow up on shiny cutlery and foie gras. Instead, I gulped down burnt steaks, wilted salad and off brand soda.. It wasn’t until I was able to strike out on own and make my own food decisions that I discovered the world of fine cuisine. That being said, I’m no expert in the arts of fancy food eating customs. Being a broke college student I am, however, an expert in creating romance. I know exactly how much candle lighting is flattering, how silent it can be before it gets weird, and how to make the night fun and amorous enough despite the lackluster meal of what is almost invariably some kind of noodle dish. So when I gave myself the task of reviewing Paley’s Place, rated one of Portland’s top romantic restaurants and the city’s restaurant of the year in 2014, I knew I was up to the task.
A soothing atmosphere, non intrusive service, and the warm light of a few candles dancing on the walls and illuminating the face of your loved one aren’t what makes a romantic evening shine. It’s about treating them to a night out, making them feel cherished and sharing a special moment together. It’s about all that, yes, but it’s mostly about the food. At the end of the day, even the most perfect date could be stained by the $100 aftertaste of a overcooked steak and cheap wine. And while ambience, service, and setting can transform a dull night into a great one, the most successful restaurants use all of these tools in harmony with the meal to create a truly magical, romantic experience. Paley’s Place in Portland, Oregon is one such a restaurant.
First impressions really do count, and Paley’s does not disappoint. My date, Tyler, and I were running late for our 7:45 reservation (I would recommend making a reservation; it can get full fast on any given weeknight). When I called ahead to let them know, I was pleasantly shocked by how understanding the man I spoke to was. The same man was there when we arrived (only 20 minutes late thanks to Tyler’s crazy driving abilities) and recognized me from our conversation earlier. He took our jackets, and escorted us through the elegantly restyled Victorian home that makes up the cozy, unique setting of the restaurant. Being a restaurant in Portland, I expected it to look like the rest of the city: edgy, chic, everything made of steel. But at Paley’s, it’s like being at home. Walking up to the front door is like walking up to an actual home, one where you know you’ll be treated like family. It’s romantic atmosphere is built on the coziness of being welcomed as if dining with a friend.
When we reached our patiently waiting table, we were asked if the location was adequate, or if we wanted to move to a different spot. “Perhaps the front room, it’s usually a bit quieter in there if you’re looking for something more romantic?” We politely declined -we’re not quiet people and being mushy isn’t exactly our forte. That is part of what makes Paley’s so special. It caters to all types of people. The quiet and sweetly romantic type, and the type of people that Tyler and I are – the not so discreet but still deeply in love couple who want to experience good service and atmosphere on date night. All of this is satisfied at Paley’s, where the romantic atmosphere is built on soft candle lighting and service that carries you through and enhances the whole experience. My chair was pulled out for me as I sat, and sparkling water was poured into crystal clear glasses as our host ensured us that our server would be with us momentarily, and left us to peruse the menu. That is the kind of service to expect at Paley’s: personable and inviting, something that is hard to find at even the most lauded establishments.
We were given a comfortable amount of time and space to look over the variety of dishes and tastings, so that when our server arrived to take our appetizer orders there was no rush to decide. Throughout our meal the service was similar: non intrusive with perfectly spaced, only necessary interruptions, which gave ample time to talk in the warm room lit exclusively by candles and, of course, enjoy the food. Although the space between interruptions was often comfortable, it was at times too much. You can only look at your date for so long with nothing to do or eat before conversation becomes strained and your stomach starts to protest.
Our meal began with a lovely amuse bouche, a fine pairing of small cubed beets, rosemary, and vinegar. It’s earthy sweet tang was a wonderful taste bud wake up call in preparation for the meal to follow, beginning with the first course bread and cheese. That was my first hint that head chef Paley Vitaly, chef and owner of Paley’s Place, had crafted this menu with the whole experience in mind, from the first bite to the last. The cheese plate had the perfect ratio of cheeses, from soft brie to hard gouda, so that it curbed the voracious appetites of my date and I just long enough to wait for our main courses- Trout a la Plancha for me, and Wagyu beef for Tyler- which arrived with perfect timing.
If I were blindfolded, I would not have known better than to say that the ocean had been perfumed with oranges and served to me in a bowl. The delicate pink skin of the fish – lightly browned and crisp on top- rested above a bright mandarin sauce and was hugged by a rich fennel gratin. It was almost too pretty to eat, and I took way too many poorly lit photos trying to capture its essence. Eventually my grumbling stomach won, and I cut into the tender fish to find it expertly cooked to medium. I tried every component of the dish on its own first: a sampling of the trout, a scrape of citrusy sauce, a nibble of fennel. Each was rich in flavor and complex, but were put to shame by the flavor of everything put together. I constructed the perfect bite. A piece of fennel followed by a thick flake of fish all swiped through the mandarin sauce. The deep undertones of the fennel complimented the tanginess of the mandarin sauce, which both helped to liven to already succulent trout. It was clear that the dish had been crafted with care, thought out to the smallest detail.
Not so unfortunately (and perhaps a little planned), I didn’t have to part with my fish to allow Tyler a taste, seeing as he’s allergic to fish. That didn’t stop me from eyeing his dish, with only a hint of curious envy, as I watched his eyes widen at the first taste of his meal. The smoky, homey scent of the beef and oxtail hit my nose. “Sharing is caring,” I reminded him. He rolled his eyes and reluctantly gave me a slice of beef. The beef was buttery soft, and as soon as I placed it in my mouth the flavor of the meat popped on my tongue. It was lightly seasoned so that the beauty of the Wagyu beef was able to shine through. The rich, deeply developed flavor of the meat was was only enhanced by the braised oxtail jus it was marinating in on the plate, and the oxtail itself was everything you’d expect from braised meat, and more. Tender and juicy, it burst with flavor that can only come from slow cooking, love, and appreciation for food.
Needless to say, the dishes didn’t last long, and every possible bit of delicious food was scraped from the plate. We were left alone for quite some time to simmer with full bellies in the candle light and chat about the meal we just devoured before our server came to offer us the dessert menu. “We are out of our profiteroles tonight, I’m very sorry for that! They sold out quickly today.” My heart sank slightly, as I had been looking forward to tasting the crisp puffs with coffee and rum soaked bananas, but my second choice was still available and it was a darn good runner up. Not five minutes after we ordered the warm souffle cake with honey ice cream did it arrive in all of its chocolatey glory. I could only wait long enough to snap a poorly lit photo before I plunged my spoon into the soft souffle. Immediately, a wave of warm, fudgy chocolate sauce flowed from the shell of dense cake. It spilled into the small pool of melted ice cream that was beginning to saturate the souffle, and I did not hesitate to scoop it up and shovel it into my mouth. The honey flavor of the ice cream was so pure, yet not too overpowering, so that it only added to the flavor warm, gooey cake, which was dense -but not too rich- and tasted so strongly of chocolate that it lingered on my tongue well after the dessert was finished. I have a raging sweet tooth so I absolutely adored this dessert, although Tyler mentioned that it was a bit too sweet.
Overall, the menu at Paley’s Place was diverse and delectable. If you’re planning on coming to Paley’s, be prepared for the richness of the food you will be presented. It will be delicious, but very intensely flavored and may run the risk of becoming too much if you indulge in the tasting menu, or order a three course meal and don’t pair your selections accordingly. Don’t order a super rich entree if you plan on ordering the souffle cake at the end, as you might run the risk of being overwhelmed by the heaviness of the meal. However, many of the entrees are offered in half or full sizes, which is something I really appreciated. It lends more flexibility to try a wider selection of choices from the menu.
Everything at Paley’s is thought out to the letter, and it shows. The components of the menu all work wonderfully together, with each dish being a beautiful marriage of flavors and techniques from appetizer to dessert. The staff are all knowledgeable of the menu, more than willing to answer any questions they might be presented, and know how to give space to couples trying to enjoy their night together. Design wise, the stylists had comfortability and warmth in mind. The tables are spaced so that no one person is too close to another, but close enough to create a cozy, nicely volumed dining space perfect for intimate conversation.
If you want to create a long lasting memory with someone you care about, Paley’s Place should be at the top of your venue list. The well trained and personable staff, warm and inviting ambiance, and, of course, delicious food you can bond over are sure to help build a loving, memorable experience.
1204 NW 21st Ave, Portland, OR 97209
Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 pm
Friday & Saturday 5-11 pm
Sunday 5-10 pm