THE FOOD It’s difficult to pinpoint where Carlyle’s loyalties lie when it comes to cuisine. At the core, however, most of its dishes are inspired by French technique, Italian rusticity, and American innovation—a combination that’s become quite common in Portland restaurants but is rarely executed with as much precision as it is at Carlyle.
Here, each combination contains one or two delightfully surprising elements, ones that chef Jake Martin doesn’t choose for the sake of gimmickry, but rather to elevate the main ingredient. A roasted fillet of Alaskan halibut set atop a tender summer-bean ragout might sound boring, but when paired with the saltiness and the smokiness of shredded, braised ham hock and the sweet earthiness of a sweet basil jus, it’s elevated to a kind of delicate and refined surf-and-turf. A single square of velvety ravioli filled with liquefied summer corn and drizzled with a tart saba (a sweet and thick wine vinegar that hails from Italy) provides just the right amount of piquancy needed to cut through the richness of seared Sonoma foie gras.
But when it comes to classic dishes like risotto, Martin doesn’t mess with what he knows has worked for centuries: Made with Carnaroli rice, which contains more starch than other risotto rice varieties, Martin’s rendition is flavored with large chunks of sweet lobster and a concentrated lobster broth; a decadent goat-cheese butter is folded in at the end. It’s simple, as risotto always should be, but the flavors are undeniably extravagant.
THE CHEF When it comes to the brains behind Carlyle’s kitchen, the restaurant has gone through a bit of an identity crisis since owner Bruce Goldberg opened it in 2003. Indeed, three head chefs have passed through its doors, and while each continued to elevate Carlyle’s menu, what ended up on the table often suffered from a lack of soulful execution and consistency. That is, until September, when chef Jake Martin took over, fresh from his post as chef de cuisine at Seattle’s lauded Veil restaurant. Before that, he teamed with Ethan Stowell at Union and with Maria Hines at Tilth—both Seattle restaurants that, were they located here in Portland, would certainly appear in our list of favorites. At Carlyle, Martin matches the modern, sparse atmosphere of the dining room with his delicately plated works of minimalist culinary art. But when it comes to the flavors on the plate, Martin achieves flavors and textures that are not only sensual but downright elegant in their restraint.
THE ATMOSPHERE Walk in around 5 o’clock and there’ll likely be a dozen folks sitting at the classy bar—all of them staring right at you. Don’t take it personally. Carlyle happens to be located in the oddly quiet no-man’s land that lies just underneath i-405, northwest of the Pearl District, and its regular patrons are often curious as to how you might have stumbled onto the place. While the bar exudes an upscale happy-hour charm, the dining room is slightly stiffer. That’s not a bad thing. But compared to all the exposed wooden beams and rough-hewn Douglas fir tables gracing just about every other restaurant in town, Carlyle’s rectilinear dining room, with its polished marble floors, may feel to some diners quite modern in its formality. As far as we’re concerned, Portland could use a little more of that kind of refinement.
THE SERVICE Carlyle is one of the few restaurants in Portland with true professional servers, as opposed to employees who consider waiting tables merely a way to fund their rock-band fantasies. In the details: black pants, button-up shirts, and crisp aprons. In their demeanor: cordial and helpful, but not overwhelmingly so. They are articulate about the caramelized summer squash tortellini you’re about to order without waxing overly poetic.