Restaurant of the year?

There’s a lot of hubbub surrounding this newfangled Italian restaurant called Renata. The Oregonian dubbed it the “hottest” restaurant in Portland, and that’s a pretty bold statement because not a lot of places have ever achieved stardom in just a few short months after its opening.

Obviously, I had very high expectations when I tried this place, hoping that the multiple dollar signs I saw on the menu attested to bold yet elegant Italian cooking. And overall, I’d say that Renata deemed itself able to hold their own with the best of them.

This restaurant clearly aimed to provide hospitable service–I could tell that the staff were eager and intent about making every customer feel welcome. Our party waited around a little because we had arrived earlier than our reservation time, and staff members passing by offered a warm “hello” and a smile despite the fact that they were scurrying around like rabbits trying to keep their dignity. They set our table with no haphazard clatterings of silverware and plates; everything was meticulously placed. Our server didn’t balk when asked about the best wines. Sparkling water was free of charge.

I had anticipated Renata being exquisitely upscale, but it was actually very comfortable and rustic. Like a chic vineyard party. Fine dining in a casual yet vibrant setting. The ambiance buzzed with excitement, as if everyone seated had the same almost-tangible eagerness to taste Renata’s famous wood-fired pizzas and savory pastas.

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We began the meal with two light starters, Pane and Formaggio AHD (an assortment of breads and a cheese board). Three yeasty kinds of bread were heaped in a bowl–a crusty pugliese, a brioche-like tomato panettone, and a wondrously soft olive focaccia. We smeared honey-cultured butter topped with sea salt and raw bee pollen, tart raspberry jam, and porcini mushroom olive oil on our bread, devouring warm pieces. The butter had a uniquely sweet flavor, balanced out with the smatterings of salt. It was a rather acquired taste, but I warmed up to it. Then we moved on to the cheese board, which showcased three different cheeses, including one from Renata’s next-door neighbor, Ancient Heritage Dairy. Two hard and sharp-flavored cheeses, one crumblier than the other, were served along with a delectably creamy Brie. Little crostinis studded with nuts and dried fruit as well as housemade granola adorned the board, and smears of raspberry jam were the finishing touches.

So with my appetite amped up, I later attacked a scrumptious prime rib ravioli with gusto. Rich, flavorful prime rib meat minced and cooked to a smooth tenderness were tucked inside square pasta pockets and surrounded by islands of a hearty herb sauce. Shreds of horseradish sprinkled on top along with crispy, deliciously charred bits of kale. I think I even detected a kick of wasabi spice in the dish, which was a nice touch because it gave the food a spicy flair. This dish was polished off fairly quickly.

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I also tried a couple bites of the chicken fettucine and the seared salmon. Renata doesn’t mess around with the fettucine–hunks of smoked chicken made the flavors so much richer and heartier than other fettucines I’ve eaten. The salmon was literally melt-in-your-mouth, seared to a flaky tenderness. This dish comes highly recommended.

None of us had room for dessert, but Renata gave a little amuse-bouche after the meal–tiny chocolate chip cookies spread with a vanilla whey on top. The vanilla whey was rather peculiar…but it was still very gracious of them.

The menu also changes frequently, so always expect something different if you go! Honestly, I can’t say if Renata is truly the restaurant of the year. Le Pigeon, the cramped but classy French restaurant, used to hold the number one spot, but I have yet to try it and compare these two restaurants for myself. Nevertheless, my dining experience at Renata shone and hopefully I can come back soon!

Website: http://www.renatapdx.com/

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