It’s Cool To Eat At School

Sometimes, by booking services with novices, you can get steeply discounted haircuts, eyebrow waxes, massages, brake jobs, and gallbladder surgery. Fine dining is no exception—if you reserve a table at a culinary school restaurant, you can often enjoy lavish multi-course meals for the cost of a glass of wine at a nearby bistro.

sharpextThat said, like student-administered haircuts and amateur gallbladder surgery, not all culinary school restaurant meals are created equal and can sometimes prove quite painful. Recently opened Sharp Restaurant, which offers the public a glimpse into the stylings of the Art Institute of Portland’s International Culinary School, is a risk that pays off with an excellent meal and an excellent value–$12 for an upscale three-course lunch in a white tablecloth setting.

With its minimalist-chic good looks, the sleek little 34-seat dining room is virtually indistinguishable from the spendy eateries that populate the nearby Pearl District—soaring front windows face the tree-lined North Park Blocks, flooding the room with natural light, sharply-creased white tablecloths are precisely set, and overhead track lighting glows softly over walls largely bereft of adornment, save for two muted wall hangings.

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The menu reads beautifully, with a compact but well-rounded selection and a commitment to seasonally-influenced cuisine and local sourcing–much of the produce used is obtained through the Portland Farmers Market. The meal starts with a delicate gelée-centric amuse bouche–on our first visit a beautiful two-toned beet cucumber gelée shared a clamshell with a single shucked clam over cucumber “linguine”, and on the second visit a quivering cube of cucumber gelée lie next to two criss-crossed slices of ginger-cured Oregon albacore belly atop microgreens, and a tiny coil of cucumber linguine.

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Our first course was the “Tiger eats Lamb,” a tender steamed bun filled with braised lamb belly, peanuts, pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and scallions, next to bright green ringlets of jalapeño, should you desire a bit more heat.

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We also sampled the Salad Lyonnaise, a classic mix of frilly frisée supporting a warm poached egg and big meaty bacon lardons, and the beautiful kamut and quinoa salad with radicchio, dried figs, pumpkin seeds and slices of fresh ripe pear on top. Slivers of preserved lemon added a puckery pinch to the mild mixture of grains and chicory.

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One of the options for your main course is the Mixed Grill, a meaty spread that tests the student’s budding skills at cooking beast and fowl–a slender section of tender medium-rare Adobo-marinated brisket rests next to half a lemon-marinated quail, with a small rosemary lamb chop bringing up the rear. A leaf of melt-in-your-mouth grilled kale serves as a dropcloth for a hockey-puck sized disk of grilled polenta, and a small dish of ruddy, fragrant Chimichurri Rojo is served alongside, for dipping.

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We had the fish dish both visits, the first time, a sizeable piece of creamy pan-seared halibut was the centerpiece, surrounded by clams and merguez sausage and dabbed with a garlicky feta rouille. The second time, the dish was made with ling cod nestled in a savory confit of onions, celery and garlic. The sauce lingering in the bottom of the bowl was spooned up with enthusiasm. The fish in both dishes was superb, not surprising considering the school sources all of their fish through Newman’s. The remaining entrees were a Bucatini alla Puttanesca made with San Marzano tomatoes, and a Moroccan cauliflower tagine with cilantro-mint couscous.

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Desserts are created and plated with a delicate touch—a rich dark chocolate pot de crème comes with two tiny melt-in-your-mouth hazelnut shortbread cookies while the trio of sorbets—lemon buttermilk, pear and coconut on our first round, lemon buttermilk, passion fruit and cranberry on the second round–are heavenly. I love sorbet that essentially evaporates on your tongue, leaving a whisper of intense flavor in lieu of a sugary tongue slick, and these sorbets do just that. The lemon buttermilk is dreamy stuff, I’ve been thinking about it all week and was dying to rendezvous with it again yesterday. The passion fruit was also divine, more tart than sweet and deeply flavorful.

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The beverage list is brief but sourced with a very sharp eye, there is Caffé Vita coffee ($1), a trio of Steven Smith’s gorgeous teas served either hot or iced ($1), Hot Lips sodas ($2.50), and a housemade hibiscus Agua Fresca ($2).

The servers are students in training too, and the service is touchingly earnest, with the occasional fumble that’s simply par for the $12 course. The students rotate positions at the restaurant as part of their curriculum, so the fellow who was our apron-wrapped server last week greeted us at the front of the house clad in a natty suit this week. They are in capable hands–kitchen operations are helmed by multi-talented industry veteran and Chef Instructor David McIntyre, also a leader in the local food policy community, while Management Instructor Liz Davis, a general manager at Nostrana, oversees the front of the house operations. The school’s Culinary Arts Department Director, Ken Rubin–a chef, cooking instructor, former food editor and restaurant critic, and IACP board member–was dining nearby on our last visit, keeping a close eye on things.

To make reservations, you have to email AipdSharpRestaurant@aii.edu, but honestly I have yet to get a confirmation going that route, you can either call the school’s main line at 503.228.6528 to try and confirm, or just walk in. Lunch is currently served Thursdays and Fridays from 12:45 to 2:30 pm.

For only having been open four weeks, we were very impressed with how smoothly everything flowed at Sharp, and with the quality and timing of the meal. Sure, you’re taking a risk letting a novice cut your hair, pluck your eyebrows, and cook your lunch, but Sharp is likely the safest $12 three-course culinary gamble you’ll take. It’s cool to eat at school.

34 NW 8th Ave. Portland * www.artinstitutes.edu/portland * 503.228.6528 * Thu, Fri 12:45-2:30pm * Visa, MC accepted