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Bread & Brew: Genoa spices up history with new mix

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - New chef Jake Martin has enhanced Genoas menu, which includes a salmon crudo dish. Genoa opened in 1971, but went through an ownership change in 2010.Venerable is one thing. Exciting is another. They don’t often go together, but Genoa, right now, is both.

The newest chef to occupy the long-running kitchen is Jake Martin, who has found creative ways to invigorate Genoa’s elaborate prix fixe menu. He previously worked at Carlyle and Fenouil, where I enjoyed his cooking, but he really impressed me at Central, a dark little bar whose limitations didn’t stop him from serving unexpectedly excellent dishes.

Genoa is a much grander stage — a place where expectations run high.

Truffles launch the meal. They’re the opulent, nose-filling, dominating force in a shot glass of cool, buttery potato and leek soup. It’s a fitting start: simple and straightforward, with an intensity that comes across as luxurious rather than rustic.

If there’s a little bit of kitchen trickery here, it’s based in nature rather than in a lab. A strange, startlingly yellow orb was the yolk of a duck egg, cooked so slowly that it seemed to be condensed without losing volume: a self-contained sauce with only one ingredient. It was a brilliant match for spears of new spring asparagus.

All the richness from king salmon came from the salmon itself, fatty and raw, arranged in a pink disk to contrast with piquant baby leeks and pickled spring onions. A pop of saline came from dollops of orange salmon roe.

Plates have visual punch, with food arranged in bright, modern, minimalistic designs. But it’s not just about looks. The vivid dots and splashes of color are also vivid dots and splashes of flavor.

Thin, flat pasta, green with nettles, was tangled up with salty shredded ham. For contrast, there was a bitter tinge from foraged salad greens. It was a pasta course that did what pasta courses are supposed to do — a starchy bridge, a setup for the meal to follow. It also was one of the stronger links between what’s happening at Genoa, the restaurant, and what happens in Genoa, the city.

Gnudi were less interesting. Made with yogurt, they were rather tasteless little dumplings with a sour tang that begged for something rich. Small, salty black olives weren’t quite the thing, and neither were baby artichoke hearts, although they were fine in their own right.

With seasonings kept to a minimum, blander items fell short. Potatoes, for instance, were pared into tender cylinders that didn’t have much kick, even when colored black with squid ink. They were part of a salad of tiny chilled mussels and crunchy chips of dehydrated chorizo.

But strawberries sprang to life in another salad that alternated early red strawberries with lightly pickled green strawberries, arranged between little pillows of soft cheese. Decorated with small flowers and mild herbs, it was an expression of time and place.

So was lamb with garlic and spring onions. Tasting it, I thought that every lamb I’ve ever had before was over-salted, and that the salt had been masking some crucial layer of flavor. A rosy jam of San Marzano tomatoes provided just the right level of sugar and acidity.

Morels were the highlight of a chicken entrée, scattered around the plate and also mixed with dark meat to create a rich stuffing for the juicy white bird. Buttery asparagus rounded out the plate, which was, again, simple and yet indulgent.

It’s all consumed at a stately pace, in a room that is dimly lit and peaceful. Its greatest luxury is the wide spaces between the tables; loud music isn’t necessary to drown out your neighbors’ conversations.

You order dessert at the start of the meal, which seems odd: it’s the rare moment when you don’t feel that the whole establishment rotates around you. Still, I was able to successfully predict that I would eventually be in the mood for chocolate. A plate of chocolate confections in various textures was good, but not memorable. A semifreddo was more in tune with the rest of the meal: the slowly melting cream tasted purely of cream. Slices of strawberry stood alone on one side, sweetened rhubarb on another, concise and delicious.

Genoa has come a long way since opening in 1971 and going through a change of ownership in 2010. Originally focused on textbook northern Italian cuisine, it’s now Italian in a much more abstract sense. It remains a high point in the Portland dining landscape.

5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday, 2832 S.E. Belmont St. 503-238-1464, http://www.genoarestaurant.com, prix fixe $65

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