(early february. number 58.)
I had clicked off my bedside lamp and was watching the streetlight shine through the slit in the curtains.
Then it came to me, this idea of performing a cover version of a restaurant I've never been to.
I clicked the lamp back on, pulled the extra pillow behind my back, and got the book off the bedside stack again. It would have to, somehow, be like the best covers albums– something akin to Cat Power's The Covers Record or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Ask Forgiveness. We too ask forgiveness rather than permission...
Russell Norman opened a restaurant called POLPO in London in 2009, after much research and deliberation. It is inspired by back-alley wine bars (called bacari) in Venice. On the night of February 7th, 2015, Secret Restaurant Portland performed POLPO, and by extension performed a Venetian bacari.
Mr. Norman wrote a cookbook, one of the greatest cookbooks– sharing the home versions of these classic, classy, yet humble recipes. He is a visionary, and everyone reading this should know he is to credit for this food. Seek out his book! I am an active cookbook reader, but had never before felt the desire to present a whole evening of anyone else's recipes, at home or for Secret Restaurant. Yet something about POLPO: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) compelled me on a deeper level. I needed to exercise my love for this book, or it wouldn't be real, or something.
This sleepless night happened many months before the dinner. At the time of the idea, I'd only seen the bare, ripped out interior of the future expansion for Mother Foucault's Bookshop. I imagined what the place would look like, then imagined the little tumblers of wine and plates of crostini.
As a practice round, during the holiday season, we roasted chestnuts on the street and sold cake, coffee, and wine inside the bookstore. After that, Craig Florence, the owner and proprietor, was all for the "Venice thing." His trust, savvy, and support of me and my projects is boundlessly appreciated.
I don't know how he managed to materialize out of thin air an incredible live piano player, a stellar bartender, a connection with a wholesale wine distributor, not to mention how he managed to create a space that looks and feels as if your grandfather could have visited it, overseas, in his youth; but Craig is not a man to wonder about. You just trust, laugh at, and love him.
We sold tickets, in advance, cash only (to barely break even, in case anyone is wondering), at the bookstore. This prompted several guests to have their first visit to this magical space, and I hope compelled them to become new frequent customers of the shop.
When arriving on the night of, they showed their ticket, were handed a Campari spritz, then mingled and settled. Courses came out on platters, in waves. Wine flowed, the piano played, the voices bounced off the books.
The signature drink of Venetian bacari is a Campari or Aperol spritz, a light ruby drink both refreshing and intriguing. There is lots of debate is whether the spritz is best made with Campari or Aperol (Mr. Norman likes both. My tastes lean towards Campari, so that's what we used), is made with sparkling water + white wine or sparkling wine, lemon or orange, and whether or not is has an olive.
For simplicity/my tastes sake we used Campari + sparkling wine for the strongest drink possible, with a lemon slice and a small green olive.
Obtained through this wine distributor Craig had recently met, a mere two days before the event. There was a chianti, some Veneto made by a female winemaker, a sparkling white; we hardly remember. It was delicious. We drank nearly 3 cases (no joke).
Usually Secret Restaurant Portland is some form of the one to five course meal. This time, guests had their plates at the table and were served (or served themselves) from platters brought around the bookstore. These came out in nuanced small "waves" of service, so rather than calling them courses, they are here noted as "wave"s.
Sardele in saor crostini
The first dish in the book. My own desire to make this dish, but kind of needing to serve it to several in order to justify the time and expense, perhaps also served as original inspiration for the dinner. This is what Mr. Norman describes as the quintessential bacari dish. You sweat loads of onions in olive oil until they are starting to color here and there, then let stand to room temperature. After that, you pour white wine vinegar (we used an entire bottle) over the onions, then add raisins (we used golden) and toasted pine nuts (Sofie's mom had bought me an insane jumbo bag of pine nuts for Christmas. Had to spread the wealth.) Meanwhile, you clean and gut fresh sardines (ours were Oregon caught, from Newman's Fish Co.), bread them lightly, pan fry, and cool to room temperature. Then you layer the fish with the onions, raisins, and pine nuts, and let soak for a day or two. The fish absorbs the vinegar, creating an unctuous, sweet, sour, extremely complex end result. You eat it at room temperature on grilled bread. It was worth every minute.
Rocket & walnut pesto crostini
Super simple: arugula, highest quality Chandler walnuts from California*, parmesan, black pepper, salt (we snuck in some from this stash of black truffle salt we made back in the day; Lucas bought some salt from Ben Jacobson of Jacobson Salt before it really existed; he was just doing a stand at City Market, and then made truffle salt with Oregon black truffles; we've kept it as a secret weapon for years).
Baccala mantecato crostini
What Mr. Norman describes as his "holy grail" of Venetian dishes. Salt cod, poached in milk with white onion, black peppercorns, and garlic. Pounded to a paste in a mortar and pestle with some of the cooking liquid and lots of olive oil, infused with garlic (special reserve, super delicious and pungent S.G. garlic).
Grilled fennel & white anchovy skewers
A common selection of dishes in bacari are small skewered or stacked selections of vegetables, meats, cheeses. This is the one in the Polpo book that spoke most to me and was the most appropriate for the current season. The fennel was sliced, dressed with olive oil and lemon, baked until tender, then charred slightly under the broiler. It is served skewered with dill fronds and white marinated anchovies. Particularly delicious with the Spritz.
Goat's cheese, roasted grape & walnut bruschette
Ciabatta, made especially for us at Trifecta tavern/bakery (they are around the corner, a lovely restaurant with bakery counter; normally don't do ciabatta) by Matt. Goat cheese, thyme, roasted red grapes with black pepper, and a drizzle of turkish honey.
Super simple- mozzarella, pecorino, parmesan, thinly sliced red onion, black pepper.
Stracchino, potato, and rosemary pizzeta
We couldn't actually find stracchino, which is an italian soft cow's milk cheese Russell Norman likens to "squeeze cheese." I made an approximation of this with Gina Marie's cream cheese (the BEST cream cheese, made by New Jersey italians) and good tellegio from Italy. Gold potatoes, some mozzarella, parmesan, and rosemary (S.G.). Topped with flaky sea salt.
Warm octopus salad
The signature dish, the insalata di polpo, exists in several incarnations, but the recipe in the book is an exquisitely simple one. We cooked two Octopus in a large pot with two onions, lots of celery, parsley stocks, and bay leaves. The octopus is removed and chopped into bite sized piece. Simple red potatoes and octopus are tossed with parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, raw garlic, and chilli flakes. The recipe has you heat it in the microwave for 30 seconds before serving. Mr. Norman has an amusing piece about how he really doesn't endorse microwaves, but the Venetian grandmother who taught him to make the salad insists that the gentle warm at the end is essential. Lucas, always one for acquiring gear, bought a heat lamp, which we set up over the two large dishes of salad.
Note: the best version of this salad to be found in town is very different; at Luce, where the octopus is grilled, and the salad contains fennel, celery, and olives in addition to the potatoes.
Fennel, french bean, curly endive, & cobnut salad
Delightfully simple. Curly endive, blanched green beans, and whole hazelnuts (the recommended substitute for cobnuts. Filberts, Oregon's hazelnut, is the closest thing to cobnuts available in the US- as noted even in the recipe book). Fennel boomerangs that have hung out in a lemon bath for a while. A dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, and black pepper. All about the cool and crisp crunch of the green beans and fennel, the fatty full flavor of the filberts, and the bitter crunch of the endive. A salad that sort of takes care of itself in every mouthful.
Pear, gorgonzola, & chicory salad
Beautiful Oregon concord pears, frisseé (S.G.- yes! what a mild winter! it is still alive!) , dragon tongue radicchio (S.G.- this too!),
Blood orange Campari cake
A mountain of blood orange, zested and juiced. The zest into the cake, the juice reduced to a syrup with a little Campari for depth of color and complexity. This moist, luscious cake also has almond meal and semolina flour. Sofie and Holly executed this one beautifully.
Saffron pears with ciambella
Bosc pears, chosen for their size, warm color, and firmness. We found a mysterious, large stash of saffron in my kitchen. Perhaps a gift from a silent culinary fairy? Wanting to celebrate and go big, we used it here. The poaching liquid was white wine, sugar, water, and saffron. Simple as that.
Ciamballa is a not particularly sweat cake/cookie thing somewhere between biscotti and crumb cake. Lots of lemon zest. Beautiful texture.
Coffee: Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Konga from Water Avenue
Water Avenue nearly always has this or at least a similar lot of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. The beans are quite small, extremely washed, and difficult to grind with my iron hand grinder at home. The flavor is always ecstatically floral and citrusy and perfect. This night was no exception. We made several french press pots' worth and poured it into these exquisite cup and saucer sets from a now-defunct Northwest airline Craig had somehow acquired, sometime. As always, thanks Aaron Baker for the selection!
* Thanks to Kerry Perry, our friend Erin's mom, for supplying all the exquisite walnuts by shelling them and sending them up from California.
A quick, Antonioni film reel of black and white photographs –
A full, movie-ending credits roll is necessary this time. It really couldn't have happened without these fine folks.
Matthew Crane (at Trifecta)
Craig Florence (host)
Prep of the space:
Two young folks visiting town and helping Craig with cataloguing, recently having spent time at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris.
Lastly, I must say, Peter Schweitzer, our photographer, has outdone himself. This completed post has more photographs than any previous meal we've documented, and I had to cut 2/3 of them. His work is astoundingly good. Thank you, Peter!