Bread & Brew: At ilani, steaks high, fish jumping
Itching to gamble? Skip Vegas for a casino experience close to home. The 2-year-old ilani, a casino and resort in Ridgefield, Washington, is an easy ride up Interstate 5.
Once there, off exit 16, you'll spot the casino set back from a shockingly-big-by-Portland standards parking lot. The casino itself is arranged inside a large, circular room. A bar, aptly named 360 Bar, is the heart of this shiny universe, where 2,500 slot machines zing and burble inside a 100,000-square-foot space.
Pronounced "Ay-lah-nay," ilani is the Cowlitz Indian word for "sing."
It has several eateries, but ilani's two main restaurants, Michael Jordan's Steak House and Line & Lure, serve hundreds of revelers who dine, then flock to concerts at Cowlitz Ballroom and Muze, the casino's music venues. Creedence Clearwater Revisited and Cole Swindell recently played Cowlitz Ballroom.
But Portlanders can sidestep the slots and live music in favor of the food alone. Arrive in jeans with an empty stomach.
The Michael Jordan's Steak House holds center court. A branded restaurant named after No. 23 and the six-time NBA champ, it has a front bar that sports a curved wine cork wall and a swinging atmosphere in which the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are played. Vintage photos of MJ's glory days create a lively tribute to the man behind the brand. A locked glass cabinet stores the engraved steak knives that belong to the restaurant's regulars.
Cory Chunn is Michael Jordan's new executive chef. He joined the team in February 2019 after a long stint opening and running a series of Punch Bowl Social restaurants in different states.
Raised in coastal Delaware, Chunn landed his first food service gig spinning cotton candy for vacationers at age 9. Today it's fair to say that Chunn is obsessed with meat.
"This steak is a Michael Jordan staple," he says, laying one of MJ's favorites before us. Intimidated, we took a small bite and ... mercy. "Yes, it's a really awesome cut. It's got a little bit of funk, but not so much that it's overpowering, and it's got just the right amount of dry-aging."
Michael Jordan's Steak House serves all grass-finished beef, Chunn says, because "we like to have that fat and natural beef flavor." This particular steak is served with an assertive veal stock demi-glace of balsamic and ginger.
A steak's thickness and juiciness? Personal taste. But steak nerds know to visit Michael Jordan's for the prime rib. Only 1% of beef in America is considered prime, and MJ's comes from Linz Farms, a renowned Midwest purveyor that produces its own Angus beef cattle. Michael Jordan's also brings A5 Wagyu to the table. It's one of the few places in the Northwest where people can experience it.
"Quality is what we're after here," Chunn says. "Some places are about price point, and that's fine, but we're about the steak."
From the 32-ounce Tomahawk steak to a 20-ounce bone-in New York, Chunn's menu pick is the Delmonico steak, also MJ's favorite. "It's a 45-day aged steak with great flavor," he says.
On Tomahawk Tuesdays a three-course steak dinner is served for $99. Also relatable here is a steak sandwich served with thick-cut fries.
Meat's the medium for this chef.
"What I love about meat is all the different effects," he says. "It can be prepared with charcoal, gas, or the high-heat broilers we use here. We cook it from the top down in ovens set to 800-to-900 degrees."
It's a good thing you wore stretchy jeans when a whopping 23-layer chocolate cake arrives with a thud tableside. This mega-slice rests on its side and is spread with cream. Decadent and rich, it can Uber back to Portland in the front seat by itself, and will last for days.
Line & Lure is the light and breezy seafood restaurant located right next door to Michael Jordan's Steak House. Capiz shell chandeliers shimmer over the entrance, and the place has a fresh, beachy vibe. Over there is the biggest boil pot this side of the Columbia.
"The boil is really at the heart of it," says General Manager Nick Chester. "We have live lobsters; we have Manila clams. We have people who really know fish tell us it's the freshest and best fish they've ever had."
Chef Ryan Ziegler is busy turning out bronzed rockfish tacos with chimichurri sauce and slaw, and bacon-wrapped scallops prepared on a cedar plank.
Ziegler reels 'em in with weekend seafood brunches ($38). From 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, he and the crew oversee a crepe and omelet station piled high with local oysters on the half shell, peel-and-eat shrimp and sushi, all anchored by local Dungeness crab legs.
"The Dungeness crab is really a home run," says Ziegler, who fishes at Garibaldi on the Oregon coast with his brother. Don't miss the traditional eggs Benedict or the steelhead Wellington.
Both restaurants are catching on with locals who have had few options until now.
"We're bringing people in from La Center and surrounding communities, and it's really caught on," Chester says. Providing locals with a place to go that doesn't involve Portland is key.
Both Michael Jordan's and Line & Lure have private dining rooms for special events, outdoor seating with firepits, and views of Mount St. Helens.
"There's local demand for good restaurants and this community knows food prepared well," Chester says, adding that many people from nearby Woodland, Longview and Warrenton are hunters and fishermen.
"What we do here is an elevated point of view, but you can show up in jeans," Chester says.
Naturally, both restaurants wouldn't mind expanding beyond that 20-mile radius to attract more Portlanders. A hotel will help, and it's in the plans.
"Once that hotel is built it changes the game," says Brian Napiany, Michael Jordan's Steak House general manager. "We're not there yet, but it's in the plans."
In the meantime, he urges Portlanders to make the easy drive, less than an hour from the city center. He should know it's easy. He commutes from Tigard every day.
For more: www.ilaniresort.com.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.