reviewed October 2000 for Willamette Week

The man wore a suit, and it was a nice enough suit, the same traditionally conservative cut you see pouring from downtown office buildings every day at five. He said, “This is my second time here today,” and, “I was talking to Bruce earlier,” and “The Ceasar salad is just like at Zefiro.” But he still didn’t get in.

It was 8 o’clock on Friday night and the place to be was Bluehour. If you’ve been under a rock for the last six months, you might have missed some of the press about Bluehour. You might not know that it’s Bruce Carey’s new restaurant, the one he’s worked on since he shocked local diners by closing Zefiro last spring, or that it’s in Weiden and Kennedy’s new Pearl District headquarters, or that the sleek modern interior cost a million bucks.

But everyone else knows it, and they all want in. Which is why I was standing outside in a small crowd, listening to the man dropping names to get past the doorman. Carey, who said earlier he wanted Bluehour to be a “swank dining room,” is wisely limiting the number of people allowed inside. Those with reservations, natch, and a few more in the bar. But fun-loving citizens of Cocktail Nation, no matter how well-dressed and primed with new economy dollars, won’t find a party here

You really do want to get in, though. Because the important thing about Bluehour is not the Italian fabric in the space-defining curtains or the ambient house music or the modern cool of the leather Bellini chairs or the house martini flavored with homemade plum liqueur. It’s the food.

Barely six weeks from opening and the kitchen is putting out plate after plate of incredible food. Meltingly perfect scallops, a crisp golden sear across their tops and bottoms but opalescent and nearly raw inside, appeared with a smoky wrapper of bacon and a creamy dab of pureed celery root dotted with capers. Fresh strozzapretti, the twisted, rope-like “priest strangler” pasta, were tossed with dark filaments of sauteed radicchio and creamy gorgonzola, just enough to let the strong flavors share the spotlight with the semolina noodles.

Peppery arugula and shards of Parmigiano Regianno topped a plate of carpaccio, the thin slices of raw beef overlapped like deep red shingles and drizzled with a bit of lemon aoili. I liked the New York steak, dry-aged for 72 days and served with crispy, garlic-spiked French fries, better than anything I’ve eaten in Portland’s red meat palaces. Surrounded by a dark mahogany pool of bordelaise sauce and sprinkled with pearly nuggets of rich beef marrow, the fork-tender grilled steak was like sex on a plate.

Kenny Giambalvo, Carey’s partner and chef, definitely ups the ante with the offerings at Bluehour. The menu’s roots spring from southern France and Italy, but calling the food “Mediterranean” is too limiting. Giambalvo’s training and experience are evident in Continental touches like the oysters poached in a dry vermouth nage, a classic French stock flavored with aromatic vegetables and herbs. Rigatoni al’amatriciana, pasta served with pancetta, onions, and tomato “angered” with a healthy dose of red pepper, comes from his Italian heritage.

The salmon tartar, however, is strictly West Coast. Deeply orange fish and creamy green avocado, flavored with shallots, capers, Dijon mustard, and olive oil, are diced and formed into discs that look like hockey pucks made from bright little gems. They’re served icebox cold with a tangle of chive salad and crispy deep-fried potato wafers. You might never want to cook our favorite fish again, at least until your first bite of salmon “Terrence Brennan,” a filet with a horseradish crusted developed with the chef-owner of Manhattan’s Picholine when they worked together years ago.

Salmon isn’t the only fish that’s treated so well. Halibut, too often dried out and flavorless, arrived perfectly moist under a light blanket of golden breadcrumbs. If you’re particularly fortunate, you’ll come into Bluehour on the same day that a load of fresh Oregon sardines have made the journey across the Coast Range in the back seat of a fisherman’s Cadillac. I did, and the chubby little fish, normally tossed back into the ocean by the salmon trawlers, were boned, butterflied, grilled, and delicious. I loved the salt cod, cooked in milk and blended smooth with olive oil, garlic, and a touch of cream much like the traditional brandade de morue of Provence, but here gratineed and served with shallot-studded flatbread crisps.

Of course, there are things you could quibble over. The paillard of chicken—a skinned and boned, pounded thin, perfectly grilled, and served with fried sage leaves, roasted shiitake caps, and rounds of polenta—came with a quantity of lemon sage butter that the fat-phobic might find excessive. A club sandwich served at lunch contained lobster, roasted tomatoes, and bacon between thin slices of toasted, house-baked brioche, and the lobster seemed to get lost behind the smoky bacon (here’s a suggestion: just make a simple lobster salad sandwich instead). Risotto nero, black as night, with slices of tenderly chewy cuttlefish and the indescribably subtle flavor of squid ink heightened by the sharp tang of lemon, lacked the quality they call in the Veneto “all’onda,” the wave that shimmers across a plate of not-too-dry, not-too-wet risotto. But it was still one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

And then there’s dessert. Carey brought Mandy Groom from Zefiro, and she’s making such sweet finishers as Granny Smith apple pie, French chocolate pudding, and Bergamot creme brulee. I loved a dense, moist almond poundcake with a ginger-flavored poached pear, sliced Black Mission figs, and a dollop of mascarpone cream. One night pedestals of housemade petit fours went by in an endless parade, and I was tempted, but couldn’t resist sensuously rich Explorateur cheese, an ivory-colored triple cream served with toasted walnuts and small, dark Champagne grapes that were like sweet caviar on a stem.

Ten years ago Zefiro changed Portlanders’ dining experience. At Bluehour, Carey and Giambalvo take the same impeccable sense of design and uncompromising drive for excellence in the kitchen to another level, but the eventual impact on the city’s restaurant culture doesn’t matter. This is what does: Bluehour is for people who want something really good to eat.