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Outliers reviewed in The Portland Phoenix

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

By BRIAN DUFF

To call something an outlier defines its achievement in relation to the average. This is often foolhardy, since the average is hard to beat in the long run. Average is not a statistic, or even really a concept. It is more like a force, something akin to gravity, whose constant presence and pull dominates our lives. The law of regression toward the mean dictates that nothing remarkable can endure. Some statisticians prefer to look at the median rather than the mean, because the average is too responsive to outliers. Yes, average responds to outliers: so that it can grab them and ensnare them in its relentless tug.

So if we are impressed by many aspects of Outliers, the new West End restaurant, its name reminds us that we should appreciate it now, before the inevitable decline. Will its striking décor become familiar and banal? Will its clever bathroom appointments lose their charm? Will its refreshingly terse menu begin to seem annoyingly laconic? Will its interesting and well-executed dishes become expected and well-executed? Certainly. It's unavoidable. It's nice of them to point it out.

For now the décor really is something — both inside and out, since a nice little patio looks over the Fore River, and some great design work has been done inside. Behind the bar is a lovely wall of rippling ceramic; over a long grey-leather bench is some sweeping wooden modernism. Between the walls the room exudes a warmed-up industrial minimalism, with textured mats and hand-made plates on metal tables.

And the menu really is minimalist, with entrees labeled only "duck," "chicken breast," and the like. Is a nice departure from the trend toward ingredient-genealogies on menus, but excluding details about sides, sauces, and preparation does require many questions to your server. Which is not bad, since they are nice chatters, but one imagines on a busy night it slows things down considerably.

The menu leans slightly toward seafood, which might be expected from a chef who cut his teeth at Street and Co. Malcolm Gladwell suggests becoming a true outlier in any field requires 10,000 hours of practice, and cranking out the fish at S&C is the best way to get it. The calamari appetizer had a nice smokiness from the grill, accentuated by the bitter of grilled radicchio. The flesh had the right texture — tender enough though with a good chew to it — but too much internal sliminess had been left behind in the cleaning. A thin bright-green sauce, made with garlic and tarragon it seemed, ringed the plate.

The calamari was also served with a pile of tender and vinegary diced beets. That same strong balsamic flavor animated an entrée of halibut — perfectly seared and moist. It was served with great summer tomatoes, a quinoa salad, and uncommonly light and tender collard greens, spotted with sea beans. Overall, it was a dish that had a summer lightness along with some interesting sour complexity.

The grilled duck breast entrée veered more in the direction of fall/winter comfort food. Cranberries were scattered over the duck, and spotted the terrific cauliflower mash beneath. Sautéed chard had a bacony richness, and an even more bacon-rich duck confit was mixed in among the fingerling potatoes.

Cocktails, including the Crusta, a sort of dressed up whiskey sour with tang on the rim, and the Harbor View, a bit like a gingery mojito, were quite nice without getting too showy. That also described a dessert of bread pudding made with sour cherries and chocolate, served in a huge portion.

So Outliers offers much to like. But perhaps it is better not to think of Outliers as an outlier, especially in a city with so many very good restaurants. To love it too much would set us up for disappointment down the road. Everything regresses: Federer's forehand will lose its startling snap, your mutual fund will fall behind the index, the spouse you adore will someday be just tolerable. We know it will happen, but the decline is still painful to watch. Let's hope that Outliers holds it off for a long time to come, but in the meantime perhaps we should think of it as simply well above average.

 

Programming by Neil Arnold / Design by Jason Spooner

Neil Arnold - www.neilarnold.com