Lentement at Navarre
"We started with a vision of creating a convivial atmosphere where people can be real," says John Taboada, owner and chef at Navarre in southeast Portland, Oregon. Named after a small area in Gascony near the Pyrenees in France, Navarre has garnered a bit of a cult following in town. Promoting a European style of tapas bars and enoteche, the word is out that you can find extraordinarily tasty pan-Mediterranean plates paired with wonderful wines by the glass — all in a convivial, light atmosphere. John has created a focal point for warm gatherings of friends and co-workers who want to enjoy il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).
"At a typical restaurant, the meal has a common progression: appetizers or a salad followed by a main course, dessert, and perhaps an after-dinner coffee. It’s tough for friends to join you at dinner if they’re not there from the start," says John. "At Navarre, we want people to be able to come and go seamlessly, allowing their friends to join in the meal whenever they wish. We think of it as eating laterally." Indeed, Navarre’s menu is structured as a checklist of selections from simple appetizers to more complex European regional dishes. Akin to a sushi ordering sheet, you’re presented with a rich selection of small and large plates to choose from, including a half dozen nightly specials as well. Just check off the items on the menu sheet (or write in a special) and hand it to your server. You’re handed a fresh menu list to use again on your progression through an unlimited number of courses, or even backtrack if you find an item you adore.
Navarre’s unique style lets you go regional in your dining. John explains: "If you’re a fan of French food you can dine French: select the cabbage gratin (see John’s recipe below), the radishes and butter, or the country pork paté. The table next to you might be enjoying Spanish cuisine with a terrine of ham, potato and cheese, or oysters and chorizo. Fans of Italy can select boar stew with chocolate, grilled flank steak, or a special polenta dish. We even offer quintessential American dishes like Tennessee barbeque ribs and corned beef. It’s totally up to the table to choose where they wish to dine that evening."
Navarre is by no means a vegetarian restaurant, but John lights up when we talk produce — and it’s easy to understand why after you’ve experienced the intensity of flavor in his cabbage gratin or braised greens. "We’re fanatical about sourcing fresh in-season produce," says John. "It’s all about eating in tune with the seasons. We’ve partnered with Laura Masterson at 47th Avenue Farms and virtually all of our produce comes from their local Community Sustainable Agriculture farm. Each week they bring us the in-season harvest and we adapt our menu accordingly." In the spirit of the Slow Food movement, John and Laura’s partnership is beneficial for everyone: Laura has a guaranteed market for her produce, John gets the best local in-season vegetables, and Navarre customers experience the most flavorful and healthful dishes around.
The thoughtful wine list is organized by terroir, from north to south. You’ll find wines from Oregon, Spain, Italy, France and even a unique wine from Mexico (and you thought that Fountains of Wayne song about Mexican Wine was a joke). "We offer 60 wines by the glass, 1/4 carafe, 1/2 carafe and by the bottle," notes John. "We don’t want to limit people in their choices. You can select a wine for pairing with the menu items as you see fit. And if you’re not sure what to select, you can experiment by trying several wines in progression. It’s a great opportunity to play with different wines you may be unfamiliar with." For those looking for a helpful hint, John’s staff can offer thoughtful suggestions on wine pairing.
Complimenting the easygoing staff and atmosphere is a minimalist space with a modern industrial feel, but with tables and seating arranging to heighten intimacy. It’s the perfect place to while away the hours over warm conversation, exceptional food and wines that surprise and delight.
Finding Navarre. Navarre serves dinner nightly from 5:30 until 11:00. You’ll find them at 10 NE 28th, right off Burnside in Portland, Oregon (+1.503.232.3555). Navarre doesn’t take reservations, so you may want to drop in a bit early or plan to take a glass of wine at the bar until your table is ready — patience that will be well rewarded. Recommended parking is behind the restaurant in the Wild Oats Market parking lot. For the latest goings-on at Navarre, check out their blog here.
Recipe: John Taboada’s Cabbage Gratin
John Taboada’s superb Cabbage Gratin is one of his signature dishes. Teresa and I adore it. Pair it with a simply roasted bird or grilled flank steak. Serves 8 people.
|2||firm green cabbages||2||tablespoons butter, melted|
|3/4||cup heavy cream||salt and freshly ground pepper|
|2||cups cantal, gruyere or
parmigiano cheese, grated
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
- Core and quarter the cabbage and blanch briefly in boiling salted water. Drain the blanched cabbage quarters, then remove the white leaves and set them aside on a plate.
- In a bowl large enough to hold the grated cheese, mix the cheese and the heavy cream, reserving about 3 tablespoons of the cream for later. Add salt to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon) and a liberal grinding of fresh black pepper.
- Place a layer of cabbage leaves to the bottom of a 10" x 10" oven-proof baking dish, covering it completely. Add a layer of the cheese and cream mixture on top of the leaves. Repeat this process until the baking dish is filled with the layered cabbage and cheese mixture. You should have from 4 to 8 layers in the dish. Finish the top layer with cabbage leaves and cover it with the remaining cream and melted butter.
- Bake the gratin for 45 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the top of the gratin is browned. Once browned, remove the gratin from the oven and let set for 10 minutes, then serve.
Wine Pairing. The gratin dish is wonderfully rich and will want a bright, somewhat tannic wine like the Molino di Grace Chianti Classico 2004, or pair it with its close Sangiovese cousin, Vino Nobile, from the hill town of Montepulciano. I like the Avignonesi Vino Nobile 2006 as a good match for this dish and John’s wild boar dish.
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