Have you ever fallen asleep in class? If not, now's your chance! That's the gist of the tagline of this quirky hotel just outside of downtown Portland, and it suits them well. It's housed in a converted school building that was built in 1916 and closed in the 1970s. It was fully renovated by the McMenamin's operation in the 90s or thereabouts, and includes not just 32 rooms - converted from former classrooms - but no fewer than five bars, a restaurant with a huge outdoor courtyard, a soaking pool, brewery and movie theater. There are no TVs in the rooms but you'll never miss them - you'll be too busy drinking their house-brewed beer and distilled spirits in the pubs, playing pool or shuffleboard in the Boiler Room bar, soaking up the sun in the courtyard, taking in the two nightly movies - or paddling around in the salt water soaking pool.
The above photo is of our room - complete with the classroom cloakroom lining one wall. Looking all that long row of hooks took me right back to Marcy Elementary. The rooms are comfortable and spacious, but free of bells and whistles - I had to ask for a hair dryer at the front desk. It did have beautiful high windows, a king size bed and a bathroom with shower stall though - not bad at all for $140. per night. It was also right across the hall from the restaurant, making for an easy stroll to breakfast (and back from the bar at closing time.)
The buildings are arranged around a huge garden courtyard. It's empty here because it was about 100 degrees at the time - but on most summer days it would be perfectly comfortable. In the winter I bet that giant fireplace puts out some heat.
The front desk is in the original school office through the archway, complete with lift up countertop. I'm pretty sure there was no refrigerator full of beer in there though when the elementary schoolers were running around.
Two of the five onsite bars, the Honors Bar and the Detention (cigar) bar are tiny, housed in what look like supply closets. We spent most of our time in the Boiler Room bar, playing pool and shuffleboard and sipping the house-brewed Hammerhead Red Ale and cocktails made with Penney's Gin and citrus juices.
The Courtyard is the only restaurant on site, and also houses a copper lined bar. To be polite, the food is not a draw at McMenamins. They have a good hummus plate with warm pita bread, and the tater tots with peppercorn ranch are shamelessly irresistible, but the menu sticks to fry cook fare - burgers, quesadillas, a few salads, etc. Luckily, two of Portland's best restaurants are within an easy walk...
On our first night, we ventured into the warm evening to walk five blocks or so to DOC, a tiny gem of a restaurant on the same 30th street corridor as Beast, and owned by the same group. (We went to Beast the following night, so both of our dinners in Portland were - somewhat ironically - eaten on the same block.)
The menu is influenced more by seasonal and regional ingredients than a strict Italian theme, which was just fine with us. Wanting to try as much of it as possible, we opted to both order the 5 course tasting menu ($50.) when our server told us they would bring us each something different. In essence, we received a 10 course tasting menu for two, for $100. James also order the wine pairings, and I opted for a cocktail followed by a glass of white (and a taste of each of his pairings, of course.)
This bread and olive plate was the first thing to arrive at the table. You know that saying that you can tell how good a restaurant is by it's bread? It worked here. It was ethereally light and airy inside but with the perfect amount of chew and crispness in the crust. A great foil to the grassy, rich olives.
My first course was a tongue salad with beets and horseradish creme fraiche. The photo doesn't do it justice - it was savory, spicy and rich - and the tongue was as thinly shaved as the greens. It almost belonged on a gourmet Jewish deli menu - a borscht salad. (How about that for a restaurant idea? Nouveau Jewish Deli...)
James received clams with spicy chorizo - a dish that surprised us since it was not on the menu. These were sweet, garlicky and spicy and gave us something to mop up with the bread.
I really wish I had thought to write the wine pairings down, because many of them were unusual. What surprised us most about this place was the incredible service and serious approach to food and wine, it seemed out of sync in a way with the tiny size and informal atmosphere - it made the place a gem, vs. a nice little spot for a bite and a glass of wine.
We had another course in here, a gnocchi for James and a risotto for me. These were the weakest dishes, which is interesting because they sounded the best to me on the menu. The gnocchi was served with slivered snap peas and carrots, and the risotto with morels and peas. The risotto was not risotto, it was simply rice - and the gnocchi was a little over cooked. We were able to push this around on our plates and out of our memory once the next course arrived though...
The salmon dish, pictured above, made up for everything. The crispy skinned filet was propped on a small grilled romaine heart, with sauteed chanterelles and a lemon mousseline cream. The cream complimented the romaine and the salmon just perfectly. The flavors were reminiscent of a Caesar salad - with the seafood, lemon and romaine, but so much better. The cream was really unusual - the tiniest bit sweet, just to eliminate any bitterness, and rich but silken and light. It was simple but just different enough to be genius.
James received the pork, which they informed us was slaughtered the day before. It was very simply served with apricots and pole beans. It was nice, but the meat could have been more tender and a sauce would not have hurt. It was about this time that the mosquitos started in on us. We went from swatting a few every so often to "Oh my God we're being eaten alive!" in the space of a few minutes.
Dessert arrived soon after - a cherry almond crostata with creme fraiche, and a sliver of rich chocolate cake with coffee ice cream. With this I ordered a pot of coffee - which they made in a vacuum pot, a glass contraption that looks like a chemistry set, using Stumptown beans. I could tell when he was done and had poured the cup that he was just daring me to ask for cream. I tasted it to see if it was needed, and it was perfect. In fact, if it weren't such an ordeal, I'd consider buying one to use at home. We finished off the meal with a sip of grappa as an aperitif.
After a much-needed post-prandial constitutional through the tree-lined streets of Concordia, we whiled away the rest of the evening (and an hour or two of the next morning) playing tabletop shuffleboard and pool in the hotel's Boiler Room bar.
I don't know if I can speak for James, but it was the best date I've been on in a long, long time!
McMenamin's Kennedy School
5736 Northeast 33rd Avenue
Portland, OR 97211
5519 Northeast 30th Avenue
Portland, OR 97211