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.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Impressions: The New Domino's

"Sweet Moses, what did I eat?"

As my neighbors and I gathered two Sundays ago to watch the infuriating series finale of ABC's Lost (which proved once and for all that not only have the writers been flying by the seat of their pants since Season 1, but that they've been making it up as they went along from episode to episode), we put into action a plan long in the making:

We would finally try the newly revamped Domino's.

You lose.

As previously reported, Domino's recently gave their "pizza" an overhaul from the bottom up, redesigning their crust, devising a new sauce recipe, and using real cheese instead of, well, whatever godforsaken substance was on their pizzas before.

I was never a fan of the old Domino's. To me they were always the absolute bottom of the barrel when it came to chain pizza, far, far below Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Round Table...all of 'em. So the idea of a Domino's pizza that didn't taste like the original was one I could certainly back. That is, until I tried it.

Somehow--I don't know how they did it--but somehow they managed to create a product that is even worse than the garbage they were originally shilling, a pizza so unfathomably awful that it defies the rational mind and enters Caligula-like levels of sadism.

There it is. Waiting to consume your soul.

Let's start with the Pepperoni and Olive pizza, the memory of which makes me queasy to this day. As soon as I opened the box I knew something was off. Something smelled...fishy. Literally fishy, as in fish. After my first bite, I realized what it was: the olives. Now, I don't know what these olives had been sitting in, how they were processed and packaged, or what they tasted like off the tree, but these were, bar none, the worst I had ever eaten. I suppose I shouldn't pluralize it: I had one of these nasty little black rings and immediately spat it back out, then proceeded to pick off the rest from my slice. It tasted like a cross between an anchovy and bile, and that's no exaggeration.

The egregious "olives." Like tiny portals to Hell.

I don't have enough experience with the old Domino's to tell you if the cheese and sauce were much different than their previous iterations, but I will say that they were forgettable. I didn't taste any red pepper flakes in the sauce, and the cheese was rubbery, as expected. The crust, on the other hand...now that was obviously a new concoction.

Just look at the grease on this thing. Bring a sponge.

My memory of the old Domino's crust consists of a single word: cardboard. The new Domino's crust can be described with just two more: salty, garlicky cardboard. The crust is basted with some kind of garlic butter and sprinkled with herbs that leave your fingertips greasy and smelly. It is a sodium explosion.

As a kid (or an adult, hey, no one's judging here), did you ever eat a bag of pretzels, then upend the empty bag so that all the salt poured into your mouth? Remember how much your tongue hurt afterward? Well, that was my mouth's reaction to just a few bites of this crust. Pain. Eating pizza shouldn't be painful. Domino's says otherwise.

So much grease it's spilling into the box.

I won't mention the Hawaiian except to say it too boasted eminently forgettable toppings on a salt-and-garlic-infused disc. We'd be back to 49 states if the actual Hawaiians caught wind of this atrocity.

Anyone up for some Ultimate Frisbee?

Never in my life would I have guessed Domino's could actually make their pizza worse, but they have succeeded admirably. A half hour after eating just two slices left me feeling as though I had swallowed a brick that was now snugly lodged somewhere in my large intestine. I implore you, from the bottom of my heart, never to order this abomination Domino's deigns to call pizza, for I would not wish it upon my worst enemy. If you're jonesing for some fake pizza, buy some Lil' Caesar's, Pizza Hut, Godfather's, even frozen pizza, anything but this. Their pizza boxes should come with giant green Mr. Yuk stickers on them.

You have been warned.