EXPERIMENT GONE RIGHT
The Painted Lady continues its winter series focused on discovery
By Ossie Bladine
Allan Routt, head chef and co-owner of The Painted Lady in Newberg, wants to one day play a soundtrack in the dining room that coordinates with the series of that night’s courses — an idea he’s had for some time.
“I want to figure out the musical aspect,” he says. “And I think it’s still possible. But things along those lines I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate.”
While that idea remains on the drawing board, Routt and staff, this winter, are rolling out 15 new unique dining experiences as part of their fifth Experimental Dinner Series, Dec. 5–March 25, inside the Victorian home turned renowned restaurant experience in downtown Newberg.
Routt, originally from Virginia, and his wife, Jessica Bagley, who grew up in Medford, renovated the home and opened the restaurant in 2005. Its accolades include Forbes Four-Star and AAA Four-Diamond ratings (the only restaurant in Oregon to earn the latter), and James Beard Foundation semifinalist for best chef and outstanding service in America. The couple added Storr’s Smokehouse on Newberg’s main street to its undertakings in 2014.
Back when Yamhill County’s tourism shoulder-season was much thinner, The Painted Lady team spent its winter Wednesdays doing the culinary equivalent of a private jazz or bluegrass jam session. They’d riff off ideas, experiment with new cultural cuisines or innovative processes and, along the way, create new dishes for the upcoming year. Eventually, they decided to open up the experience to friends and patrons.
The themes vary from regional-specific world fare to artistic inspiration, to whatever “fleeting moment” that can be jotted down with a Sharpie and eventually turn into an improvisational evening where neither the cooks, the servers nor the guests know exactly what is going to happen.
Sometimes, Routt takes the opportunity to force himself to learn more about a culture’s cuisine. Such is the case with the Kuril Islands, the inspiration for one of this season’s themed experimental nights. The volcanic archipelago that separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean is partially claimed by both Russia and Japan.
“Once a season I always gravitate toward Japanese cuisine in some form or another,” Routt says. “Some things about the culture really fascinate me. And the cuisine is part of it.”
He describes the Kuril Islands as an atypical culture compared to what most people think of that region. “So I wanted to learn more about it,” Routt says. “I’m an inquisitive kind of person.”
Other nights are meant to be more of a challenge than an exploration: a challenge for Routt, his team and, perhaps, even the guests. Such may be the case of this season’s “Controversial Cuisine” night, which he currently described as “very, very open ended. ... Some things are taboo; some things are looked down upon for some reason. I’ll explore those kinds of things more as the date gets closer.”
Routt says his background is more improvisational, culinary-wise, which The Painted Lady doesn’t lend itself to as much. The restaurant is known as much for its customer service — carried out as a production where structure and manners are integral — as it is for its food.
“We want the structure with the sommelier; we want the structure with the servers. There has to be a dynamic of structure versus creativity,” he explains.
However, the Experimental Series offers a bit of a reprieve.
“It’s not more informal; it’s just checking formality. Sometimes, it will be extremely checking formality, and seeing what we like about formality,” Routt says, adding that it’s important to always question what they do and how they do it. “We know we like what we’re doing; but at the same time, in all aspects, is there a way we can be doing it differently?”
Are there cases when the experimentation goes awry?
“The funny thing is, I kind of have a governor on myself, so I’m too cautious to push it to the point to where it could be a total disaster,” Routt says. “I would like to be able to push myself a little further.” That, or perhaps he and staff are just too skilled to ever let an idea fail.
The chef/owner’s favorite experimental night so far began with a discussion about how the pleats on a chef’s toque represent how many ways someone can cook an egg. They eventually derived — and pulled off — a totally unique way.
“We put all of these different components of chicken soup in the bottom of the bowl, dry, and then we hollowed out an egg, and we made a chicken consommé — a really clear broth. And we used it to fill the egg, and then reseal the egg; then we could hold them hot. Then, the server would come over to the table, crack the egg and the chicken soup would go into the bowl. And people we were like, ‘how did you do that?’ It was really cool. But it was labor intensive. And I don’t know if I would do it again.”
One night this season, Routt will offer guests a road map to recreate the evening for their own friends. All attendees of the “Dinner Party” night will go home with all the information — from shopping to recipes — to host the party at home.
“I’m not great at writing recipes, or conveying that kind of information,” he says, “but it will force me to try to learn that skill. And I think that is going to be kind of neat.”
As for advice to home cooks looking to expand meals at home, Routt’s first piece of advice is to travel. There’s nothing better than learning how cultures can use the same ingredient in various ways, he says.
Also, “Don’t worry too much about what’s on the paper; make mistakes,” he says. “You’re going to eat it. It’s going to be fine. It’s not such a permanent thing.”
For further details on the Experimental Series or regular dining at The Painted Lady, call 503-538-3850 or visit www.thepaintedladyrestaurant.com.