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Musings by Leah Jorgensen

Imagination at Aquariva

I have to say that I’ve been to many amazing restaurants in Portland, but lately there has been – dare I say it – a little bit of a lack of imagination in the presentation of food.   Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of uber fantastic flavors to still savor in the  city of Roses, beer and bridges.  I’m not complaining. 

But, when you do stumble into a restaurant moment and find yourself delighted with unexpected platings of visually pleasing food, well, it just turns things up a notch.

Like, for instance, when I recently joined friends in the culinary world for dinner at Aquariva Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar on the waterfront.  This place has some of the most stunning views of the Willamette River and it’s dripping with east coast elegance.  It’s the perfect place to sip on happy hour cocktails after work.  It would be even better if happy hour participants would step it up a bit and get a little bit more dressed up than the typical, traditional Portland casual.  This place is a throwback to the Georgetown waterfront in Washington, DC.  I think this should be the “it” place for summer cocktails after work.

After enjoying some Prosecco with my dinner compadres in the bar area, we were invited to check out Executive Chef Andy Arndt’s boxed and potted garden outside of the restaurant, where he is cultivating a variety of herbs, snap peas, tomatoes and other veggies.

We started off with a bottle of Brooks Amycas 2006 white wine, a blend of 22% Pinot Gris, 37% Pinot Blanc, 21% Riesling, 18% Gewurztraminer and 2% Muscat.  The wine had a summery fragrant bouquet of orange blossom, lime, jasmine, perfume and honey.  It’s a crisp, dry wine with bright acidity, hints of tangerines, lime and honey, with a richness in the finish.  Good astringency – biting in that it makes your mouth water for food.  So, on to the first course.

Chef Arndt brought us out a variety of dishes to sample – all light blends of seasonal food including mixed spring greens with red onion and cracklings (fried pig ears). 

I couldn’t try the other dishes, as I am gluten free.  I didn’t want to make a fuss, but, Chef surprised me with a delicious presentation of cauliflower soup with almonds, onions, garlic and creme – perfectly topped with paprika, olive oil and arugula.

For my main course, I ordered the Sweet Briar Farms Pork Osso Buco with hazelnut polenta and cracklings (pigs ears), normally dusted with sugar-flour, but, since I’m gluten-free, the flour was cancelled. This wasn’t your typical Italian style Osso Buco, but, with fresh cilantro topping this dish, it was more like a traditional clay pot of Vietnamese cuisine. It was even presented in a cast iron pot – loved the presentation!  Plus, it was a perfect combination of savory-sweet.  The sweet pork meat melted off the shank.  The polenta was rich and buttery.  It was ridiculously good!

We ordered a bottle of the Lemelson Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir Thea’s Selection (Carlton, OR).  What a perfect pairing!  Vibrant cherries and violets, very balanced with mouth-watering acidity, hints of graham cracker and cherry pie.

Finally, Chef brought out dessert platters to share.  I skipped the glutenous selections and was quite content with bites of a rich, flourless chocolate cake and, my favorite – the strawberries and cream. 

I was pleasantly surprised by Chef’s inventive menu and beautiful, imaginative presentation.  He spent a good bit of time with us, engaging us with musings about his garden and kitchen.  There’s nothing pretentious about this talented fellow, and he was more than accommodating toward my food restriction (gluten). 

I can’t wait to come back and feast this summer in a sundress, after cocktails overlooking the Willamette.  Now that’s something to look forward to!

 Aquariva Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar {0470 Southwest Hamilton Court, Portland/on the waterfront}

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