Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Impressions: SubRosa

2601 SE Clinton St
Portland, OR 97202(503) 233-1955
(all photos by Adam Lindsley except where noted)

Sometimes it's hard to be mean. For whatever reason, I felt no qualms about being ruthlessly blunt about the mediocre pizza at Tom Douglas's Serious Pie in Seattle. Domino's...well, they're just asking for it. But a place like SubRosa, a local favorite which isn't a franchise and isn't run by a celebrity chef, is not my ideal recipient of scathe.
Unfortunately, the food absolutely deserves it.
(Photo: kirkdeford.com)
The restaurant itself is adorable, situated on that quaintest of intersections in the Clinton neighborhood. The space is small, but doesn't feel overly cramped, and the large windows offer a great view to the bite-sized commercial district, a stone's throw from Broder and Savoy. Service is also very attentive and willing to work to please you. One of my dining companions cannot eat gluten, so our waiter provided her the meatball sub minus the bread (or the spaghetti and meatballs minus the spaghetti, if you will). The chef even came out from the kitchen to ask her if she'd care for some mushrooms and spinach with the dish, which I thought was very thoughtful. This isn't a place that just cranks out food to get your money out of your pocket as quickly as possible, and they proved it to us tonight many times over.
But that's where my praises must come to an end. We ordered three pizzas this evening, and all three would leave my party shaking its collective head. We really wanted to like this place. But we couldn't.
First pie was the "Margherita" ($16, quotations mine). Now, in order for a pizza to be called a Margherita, it must consist of no more than the crust, a sauce of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, and olive oil (and maybe a sprinkling of oregano, though some Italians will beg to differ). SubRosa's Margherita, on the other hand, consisted of crust, sliced roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, parmesan, and fresh herbs (which was just chopped parsley). The menu says it's "olive oil infused," but I don't really know what that means. There was olive oil on it, though, so maybe they mean it infuses in the oven?
The pizza reminded me somewhat of the pies at the aforementioned Serious Pie: oval-shaped instead of round, cut into strips instead of wedges (except at the corners), with an enormous, puffy cornicione (outer crust). And like the Margherita at Serious Pie, this pizza was very, very bland.
Every component of the pie is culpable for this crime. The crust is bready with a dense crumb, lacking in salt and character. The roma tomatoes, subbing for the sauce that should be on this pie, had a hint of sweetness which became utterly lost when eaten with the mass of bread beneath them. The mozzarella may as well not have been there at all for how undetectable it was. Same goes for the parmesan. The sprinkling of parsley provided a nice green color and zero flavor. Basil this is not.
After the miserable Margherita, I had high hopes for the Chicago ($18). The red sauce that should have been on the previous pizza made an appearance here, along with mushrooms, caramelized onions, and sausage. Sounds good, doesn't it? I thought so, too. Then I tried it. How is it possible for a pizza to have those toppings and be completely flavorless? SubRosa has found a way.
I can say with conviction that this was the blandest tomato sauce I've ever eaten on a pizza. Even crappy, overseasoned "pizza parlor" pizzas have more flavor than what SubRosa served us. This was echoed in the marinara sauce that accompanied my friend's meatballs: a thick liquid, nothing more. I don't know enough about mushrooms to say whether these were canned or not, but they tasted like air. The sausage was sliced and looked like it had some nice seasonings within the casing, but after tasting it you could have told me it was tofu and I would have absolutely believed you. The onions were pleasantly sweet and caramelized perfectly to the point that they melted on the tongue. They were the one saving grace of this pizza, but they weren't enough to counter everything else working against them.
The final pie of the evening probably had the most flavor of the three, but even that was more muted than I ever would have guessed, given the ingredients involved. The Spinach, Bacon, & Blue Cheese ($18), in addition to those three enticing elements, comes with roasted garlic cloves on an olive oil base. Again, that sounds pretty great, right? Yet once more, I was left perplexed. How can you have bacon, blue cheese, and roasted garlic cloves on a pizza and have it turn out to be anything but delicious, or at the very least a noticeable presence in the mouth? No flavor whatsoever could be wrought from this spinach or bacon. I could taste the very mild blue cheese in certain bites, but it was absent from many others (as one of my dining companions confirmed). The roasted garlic had a wonderful texture--like the caramelized onions, it literally melted in your mouth--but it was like someone had come along with a syringe and drew out all that distinctive flavor like blood from a vein. Try to ward off a vampire with this stuff and you'll end up with two holes in your neck.
None of us could be bothered to finish the pizza, so we ordered dessert: butterscotch pudding and a coffee ice cream cake. The butterscotch pudding was far and away the most flavorful thing I had eaten all night, and was made even better by a sprinkling of salt to counter the intense sweetness of the butterscotch. It was served with some crumbly pecan cookies that were impossible not to dunk in the pudding. The cake reminded me of the rest of the meal: boring and restrained to a fault.
The big problem at SubRosa is a deplorable lack of salt. How deplorable? I actually had to apply a liberal dusting of salt to all of my final slices to bring out any flavor at all. That's how badly in need of seasoning this food is; it's like it's being sabotaged before it even leaves the kitchen. I wanted to pick up the salt shaker and march it back there so I could familiarize the chef with it.
As I said at the beginning of this write-up, I wanted to like SubRosa, and I don't mean to sound overly vicious, but there's no way I would ever return here based on this meal. There are too many good places to get pizza in Portland to spend your money on it here. And spend you will: these are not cheap pizzas, and they're greatly overcharging for them. Every chef can have a bad night. I recognize that. I hope they learn to season their food. A little salt never hurt anybody. No salt hurts everybody.


  1. scathe (sk)
    tr.v. scathed, scath·ing, scathes
    1. To harm or injure, especially by fire.
    2. To criticize or denounce severely; excoriate.
    Harm or injury,

    I have been to SubRosa and enjoyed it. Maybe the chef and you were both having a bad day.

  2. For the record, I was speaking only in verbal terms! I'm a lover, not a fighter. Unless you talk in movie theater. Then I'll lose it.

    If anyone was having a bad day on this particular visit, it certainly wasn't me. I was with my favorite group of friends, and we were all having a great evening drinking beer and wine, until the food arrived.

    With the exception of the pudding, everything we tried was colossally bland. Even the meatballs, mushrooms, and spinach my gluten-free-eating friend ordered. Just not good food by any standard. As with all restaurants, chefs sometimes have an off night, and I always plan to go back and try a place I disliked again to see if it was a one-off or a true problem in the kitchen. If the next meal I have at SubRosa is good, I will certainly mention it in this write-up (which is an Impression, not a full Review, as I don't write those unless I've eaten almost everything on the menu).

    But it really bugs me that SubRosa charges so much for their pizzas. Why would I spend $16 on their Margherita (which isn't even a Margherita at all) when I can go spend $12 on a fantastic one at Firehouse?

  3. I agree with the author, the pizza here is just plain awful by any standard. As upscale pizza, it is inedible and disgusting.