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At its core, Caiola’s is a neighborhood restaurant, but it’s also so much more than a convenient haunt for West Enders who have dined at this establishment regularly since it opened in 2005.
Considering the peripatetic tastes of Portlanders in general and the greater dining public in particular, there are reasons why Caiola’s continues to bob brightly in such a magnanimous food universe.
Chef and co-owner Abby Harmon has a fine local pedigree earned during her long tenure at Street & Co.
When she left to open her own place with co-owner Lisa Vaccaro, local food mavens cast an arched brow or two, thinking how could she do such a thing?
Having her own restaurant has allowed Harmon to cook as she pleases, igniting a culinary brigade of fire and light that has kept her in fine fettle ever since. Her food is big and bold — inspired comfort food that’s done with style and creativity.
As Harmon fans, however, many of us also wondered if she’d forsake some of her signature dishes created at her alma mater, particularly those savory bread puddings that used to appear on the menu regularly.
Though the menu at Caiola’s is tweaked daily, you’ll often find the lobster or crab pudding first course in various guises. But there’s also so much more that strikes a resplendent chord: the polenta fries, the Caesar salad with fried spicy oysters, and one of the best hamburgers in town served with Abby’s inimitable tater tots.
No matter the devise of a particular ingredient, Abby’s deft style preserves its essential flavors. So much so that I often wonder, for instance, how she makes something as mundane as broccoli taste so good?
In that regard, Harmon loves her vegetables and is known to offer two or three such sides to accompany an entrée. A tableau of glazed carrots, potato gratin and sautéed broccoli speaks loud and clear in the Harmon vernacular.
I’ve been a regular at Caiola’s since day one, but realized I hadn’t been there in months. Besides anticipating a good meal I was also looking forward to getting my favorite cocktail — a vodka gimlet — because it’s made just right there.
The menu offers so many options that sometimes it’s hard to select from the list where every dish is a contender. Some of the appetizer choices that evening were mussels with saffron cream, peas and spinach or fennel dusted sardines with aioli, olives and oranges.
As a starter my dinner mate chose the corn and potato chowder with bacon and scallions. The soup was at once hearty and rich while still maintaining an intense corn flavor.
My first course of chicken liver pate with grilled onion jam and warm Gorgonzola date and port reduction was, in a word, delicious. Served with ample crostini on which to spread the pate, I relished its rich savory flavors.
Choosing a main course had lots of options too. Eggplant stuffed with mutton? Grilled Cornish hen with lemon, thyme and creamy white beans and roasted vegetables? Hangar steak or house-made cannelloni?
I was in the mood for chicken so I ordered the chicken taleggio with mushrooms, lemon, roasted potatoes and broccolini.
My friend had the bluefish with a caper white wine sauce and cracked wheat and tomato salad.
Bluefish is an acquired taste for many. I love the fish, which is not native to our waters and appears infrequently on local menus. I would have ordered it had my dinner mate not chosen it first. It was beautifully prepared — the sauce harmonizing with the assertive flavors of the fish.
My chicken dish was another successful entree — full of zesty components and just enough vigor from the taleggio cheese complementing the capers, olives, mushrooms, potatoes, and lemon.
We didn’t order dessert but instead felt full and satisfied by a great meal. Like catching up with an old friend it was nice to be coddled and tended to so well at Caiola’s.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.