Being blindfolded, stuffed into my own car, and driven to dinner isn’t a common occurrence for me on a Monday night. However, as a surprise, my partner promptly kidnapped me and took me to one of our favorite restaurants in the city. This journey turned out to be a long and involved process with many hoops to jump through before we actually arrived at our destination. First was a car trip downtown with many unnecessary turns in an effort to successfully confuse me. The second, and by far most terrifying, was being guided through the city center during rush hour traffic. Still blindfolded. Guided might be a stretch of the word. Dragged could be a better one. I expressed about as much cooperation as a frightened horse, enduring several people laughing at us as I stumbled across the sidewalk. Third, and finally, was making it past the concierges at the front desk who I’m sure had confused looks on their faces as I was led into an elevator and propelled to the top floor of the Nines Hotel. The grand reveal was worth all the trouble, though. As soon as I saw the dimly-lit and purple spaceship-esque entryway to Departure, I knew I was in for a fantastic evening of food. We were escorted to our table right by one of the windows overlooking the city. It’s pretty easy to lose yourself when eating here due to the incredible atmosphere, especially if you’re eating outside on one of the patios. Just as a tip, Departure is one of the best places for a date in the city if you’re willing to spend a little money. Even if you’re not terribly adventurous with food, the experience of sipping a well made drink on a rooftop is a good enough reason to go.
About that well made drink; Departure has a pretty impressive bar. The drinks are just as creative as the food on the menu, complete with a wide selection of house infused spirits and bitters. I’ve had a lot of them, but I have to say that my favorite one is the Tasho Macho. Made with chili infused vodka, ginger beer, bright citrus and muddled with Thai basil, it’s a complicated and herby drink that is pleasantly warm from the chili. It opens up your taste buds and readies your palate for the exciting meal with a spicy hum. Another outstanding cocktail that I had this particular time around was a drink called The Ro Season. I’m a big fan of tea, so this drink was a home-fun for me. Its made with black tea infused vodka, green tea, cranberry juice, and some St. Germain elderflower liqueur. Tart, earthy, and not too sweet. But enough about drinks, its time to move on to the main event: the food.
Gregory Gourdet’s kitchen is a place that likes to play with food. Drawing inspiration from all over Asia, you’ll find everything from street food made to order to courses that have been cooking all night before ending up on your plate. The menu suggests a family style, dim sum, share everything that you order kind of experience, which is my favorite way to eat out. Lots of little dishes full of surprises. Going with other people is recommended so you can have more flavors to experience. Also, they have a separate and extensive vegan menu, not to mention ample gluten free recommendations. The staff at Departure is friendly, efficient, and very well informed. Be sure to let them know that you’ve come for the food and ask them what they like. Trust them. I’ve always been surprised by recommendations even when I’ve been skeptical of a flavor combination or convinced that a course might be ordinary. I’ve always been proven wrong.
We ordered a lot of food. 8 courses in all. We could have ordered less and still been very full, but we weren’t able to help ourselves. We started with street food and worked our way up to elegant meat courses. First out the gate was some pork shu mai. Shu mai are little steamed open faced dumplings that are very common in Chinese dim sum. These were spicy and tender with micro dollops of spicy chinese mustard that provided the perfect amount of tang that the rich dumplings needed.
Second was the third best dish of the night. Recommended by the staff, we had the Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese rice flour pancake that is loaded with savory morsels like meat and vegetables and usually served with a sweet soy based sauce and mayonnaise. In Japan, especially Osaka, going out for Okonomiyaki is like going out for pizza. This particular one had bits of pork belly, shrimp, and scallop and was topped with the traditional sauces along with some bonito flakes and dried seaweed. This is something I liked so much that I’m going to try to make at home in the future. Being inspired like this is one of the main reasons I eat out; to learn something new.
Next we ordered a smoked salmon roll with asparagus tempura. The tasty roll was topped with a little black sesame puree and some dill. It was a nice contrast to the previous savory and smoky dish by being fresh and earthy.
Following that, we started to get more bold. I ordered a beautiful steak tartare tossed in chili oil served with a small salad of asian pear and micro greens, all topped with a quail egg yolk and served with house made black sesame chips. It was a fun take on the French classic by elaborating on the freshness of the steak and the egg, but also new by highlighting sweetness from the pear and spiciness from the chili.
Next was the second best dish of the evening: grilled chicken adobo served with charred onions, house made taro chips, red chili, and two sauces: a soy vinegar reduction and a creamy kuri squash. This was a staff recommendation and while I trusted them and ordered it, it was one of the things on the menu that I thought would be a little more on the ordinary side. Instead, I was blown away by it. The chicken was cooked perfectly, the sauces were sweet and provided a great opposite texture to the crunchy outside of the chicken and the taro chips. I used my thumb to collect the remains of the sauce before the clean white plate was taken back to the kitchen. Again, I reiterate; trust your servers.
The final savory course was the best of the night, but we knew it would be. It’s our favorite thing on the menu. I’m pretty sure that everyone remembers the first time they try an exemplary pork belly dish, and I know I’ll always remember this one. At Departure, they take a long strip of fatty pork belly and cook it sous vide (a water bath that has it’s temperature painstakingly controlled) overnight to the point where it’s essentially bacon butter. This is seared off in a pan and covered in a sticky sweet reduction sauce made of pickled cherries, candied ginger, and pumpkin seeds which is then garnished with some fresh cilantro. This is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. It melts in your mouth and the sweetness of the sauce (almost like a glaze) counteracts the fat perfectly. The best part of the sauce for me is the pumpkin seeds, providing a beautiful nutty finish to the otherwise sweet and fruity beginning. This dish sends me reeling. Every bite makes everything else on my mind vanish for a few seconds, shutting everything else down but my taste buds. Complex, fatty, salty, sweet tunnel vision.
Dessert was delicious. A chocolate, curry, and peanut butter mousse bar with mango sorbet was one and a kulfi made out of pistachios accompanied by kumquat preserves, garam masala, and olive oil was the other. Both were well balanced and not too sweet. I’ve also had a passionfruit crisp with basil ice cream here before which was stellar.
I’d recommend this restaurant to anyone wanting an amazing food experience in Portland. Since it’s a little more on the expensive side, it’s a place to go for more of a special occasion, although their happy hour is definitely reasonable.
This is a place I greatly enjoy eating and learning from, and that’s about as much I can ask from any chef or restaurant.