Gratin and Glücklich Endes at Grüner

I went out of town for the holidays, so sis Michelle and I celebrated a belated Christmas dinner at Grüner last week.

fakie2Since all that was in the little robin-egg blue Christmas box that her boyfriend Brian gave her for Christmas were diamond earrings, I thought I’d give her a big ‘ol cubic zir diamond ring to help her feel better. She thought this was funny. Sort of.

She gave me a bottle of a wine I have thought about at least 2 zillion times since I had it at The French Laundry this past summer, a 2006 Hubert Lamy Puligny-Montrachet Les Tremblots, a truly lovely minerally white burgundy produced in Saint-Aubin. Carly Laws, Olympic Provision’s marvelous wine director/sommelier, tracked it down. Carly is now one of my favorite people.

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In case you can’t keep up with all the new restaurant openings that are so NOT helping me achieve my goal of “Shrink My Back End in 2010″ (I like my resolutions to rhyme), Grüner, which opened in late December, is the latest restaurant from Chef Chris Israel (Saucebox, Zefiro, 23 Hoyt). Occupying a snazzy but cozy space downtown at SW 12th and Alder, it’s serving Alpine-inspired cuisine (Alpine meaning that it has roots and influences from Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Romania) with a Pacific Northwest bent.

Grüner’s menu wasn’t what I expected. For some reason, maybe due to the sleek design and decor and Chris Israel’s pedigree, I didn’t expect it to be so approachable or affordable. With the exception of the cheese and charcuterie plates, nothing ascends above $10 on the first two thirds of the menu. Our first two dishes, off the “snacks” section, were the rich duck liver mousse and pickled shallot canapes and a creamy Liptauer cheese spread served with radishes and celery, each $5.

grunermousse

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The creamy, buttery Liptauer spread was surprisingly light, and contrasted nicely with the crisply fresh vegetables. I’m probably not the best judge of the mousse, frankly, poultry liver mousse isn’t on my list of love-to-eats but Michelle wanted it and I caved in exchange for ordering the juniper-cured salmon, which she was ambivalent about. Our meals are filled with these kinds of negotiations. Thankfully, we’d agreed on sparkling wine, a refreshing Bott Geyl Cremant ($35/bottle) that nicely cut the richness of both plates.

The juniper-cured salmon was splayed on the plate and garnished with a little salad of julienned apples and kohlrabi tossed in a mild horseradish cream with mizuna greens and slivered gherkins and topped with a bit of dill ($10). It was a flavorful, simple prelude to the comfort food deliciousness to come–the Mushroom Gratin.

grunersalmon

grunergratin

This dish consisted of a medley of wild mushrooms in a creamy thyme-inflected creme fraiche sauce, which was then smothered in a healthy coat of crunchy breadcrumbs that tasted strongly of caraway seed. This dish was divine, and got its fair share of covetous sideways glances from our neighbors. I can’t be 100% sure, as someone has nicked the office copy of Portland Monthly, but I think I saw an article in there about Grüner, with the recipe included. Still, I’m not even sure you could make this at home for the diminutive price tag of $8.

Next, we ordered the Grüner Salad ($9), which has everything in it but the küchenspüle. Lettuces, carrot, fennel, cucumber, sunchokes, celery, sprouts, sharp little pretzel croutons, a smattering of sunflower seeds and and my favorite addition–thin slices of canvas-worthy, peppermint-striped Chiogga beet. Beautiful.

grunersalad

Finally, we had the buckwheat spätzle with rabbit and wild mushrooms ($17) in the same thyme-y creme fraiche sauce that blessed the mushroom gratin. Quite honestly, the spätzle, while having the advantage of sharing the bowl with tender chunks of rabbit, tasted so similar to the delicious aforementioned mushroom gratin, I’d advise against ordering them both in one meal.

grunerspatzle

We were quite full at this point. Michelle was content to sit and stare at her new ring as it caught the light for the rest of the night rather than concentrating on what to order for dessert, but fortunately our mind was made up for us when Clyde Common/Olympic Provisions Fearless Leader Nate Tilden and his wife Jane, who were sitting across the room with Jane’s parents, graciously sent over a piece of chocolate-poppy seed torte with creme chantilly.

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It was, as they say in Alpine-land, a glücklich ende to a favorable first impression meal.