Lee Posey’s Chocolate Souffle at Nel Centro

Image: Mike Thelin

Those unlucky enough to have visited the former Days Inn restaurant and bar would never recognize its latest incarnation. Veteran restaurateur David Machado, along with the Hotel Modera and Holst Architecture, have transformed the former dingy Days Inn eatery into a showcase dining room. From the dramatic views of downtown looking north through giant floor-to-ceiling windows, to vistas of the award-winning hotel courtyard to the south, Nel Centro has street-level views unmatched by any other restaurant in downtown Portland. What’s more, the food’s not bad either.

It’s exactly the type of fare you’d expect from Machado, whose offerings are known to be both approachable for everyday folk and intriguing enough to pique the interest of more serious foodies. This is no small feat. Standouts included the braised beef daube with olives and fingerling potatoes, the Ligurian seafood stew, and the chocolate souffle, the creation of longtime Pearl Bakery-ite Lee Posey, Nel Centro’s pastry chef.

While it’s way too early to make an assessment (Nel Centro hasn’t even opened to the public yet), it seems that Machado could be poised for yet another home run despite the foul economy. Machado, who also owns East Side restaurants Lauro and Vindalho, has a bit of a reputation for beating the odds and staying slightly ahead of the curve.

When he opened Lauro in 2003, some detractors called him crazy to debut an upscale neighborhood restaurant at SE 34th and Division. Machado, who had been the executive chef and creative force behind then-landmark downtown restaurants Pazzo, Red Star, and Southpark, was among Portland’s preeminent West Side chefs. And though there are plenty now, at that time chef-inspired, neighborhood-oriented East Side dining rooms were seen as risky ventures.

The critics were wrong.

Lauro was named Willamette Week‘s Restaurant of the Year in 2004, and just six years later, Division Street is home to some of the most worthy destinations for food and drink in the city. Within a mile from Lauro are Pok Pok, Nuestra Cucina, Bar Avignon, Little T American Baker, Broder, Vindalho, Victory, Savoy, and several other restaurants. While it wouldn’t be fair to give Machado all of the credit for the East Side restaurant explosion, he is almost universally thought of as its early pioneer.

And so with Nel Centro, Machado is landing an upscale yet affordable restaurant in a part of town dominated by increasingly popular midcentury architecture, a huge daytime working population, corporate expense accounts, and a growing university of nearly 30,000 students. By September of this year, the brand-new MAX Green Line will stop directly in front of the doors to Nel Centro’s corner dining room.

Plus, there’s the emotional appeal. “It’s great to have a Machado restaurant back on the West Side,” said Portland architect Rick Potestio, who was among the eager crowd of diners Monday night. Also in the mix were chef Cory Schreiber, wine expert Cole Danhauer, and scores of other folks welcoming Machado back to the Willamette’s western shore.

Will Nel Centro succeed? Machado’s proven record of success and the excitement of the community are certainly on his side.

See for yourself when Nel Centro (1408 SW Sixth Ave) at the Hotel Modera opens to the public on Wednesday.