Meh-diterranean Cruise

A star chef's Israeli-inspired dining room needs more heart and soul. (Great fries, though!)

By Karen Brooks November 20, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Ray's dishes, from lavash, green falafel, and beet hummus to cabbage and braised octopus

Jenn Louis always has a great story: tales from her grandma’s Polish-Jewish dinner table, her pasta-making missions in Italy, her quest to learn drums at age 39. She often shares these savory crumbs with diners at her Israeli-riffing restaurant, Ray, which rose last spring a mere week after her farm-to-table Lincoln, in the same space, shuttered after nine years. No matter the concept, Louis—petite and wispy-haired, her face framed by rocker-nerd glasses—is the star of this North Williams show: a celebrity cook with big-name chef pals around the country, a powerhouse New York PR firm, and well-researched cookbooks. There’s always a project afoot. Dropping by my table recently, she divulged plans to commune with sesame seeds in their most exalted home of Ethiopia (who knew?), to better appreciate tahini—the manna of Israel.

Now, that’s a culinary ride I want to be on—a plunge into adventure, passion, and scholarly digressions, with Louis as guide. Alas, Ray’s food, from the bland Sephardic chicken to the faint hummus (with some gems in between), is a one-note echo of Louis’s memorable journeys. Over four visits, expectations rarely matched reality; the kitchen wobbled from dishes that range from interesting to stingy or forgettable.

Case in point: Ray’s “chocolate cake with tahini and za’atar brittle.” Having spied this dessert on the online menu, I fasted an entire day, envisioning a sky-high wedge of chocolate goodness, charging to the table under a sesame frosting cloud, a shard of spice-zinged brittle planted on top like a victory flag. What actually arrived: a small oblong of something rich and dense (fudge?), draped in thin tahini sauce, crop-dusted in specks of brittle. Was it bad? No. But was it cake, with all the emotional generosity that word implies? No. Only one flavor lingered: the ineffable pang of disconnect.

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The dining room

A similar bait-and-switch runs through various departments. Carrot hummus sounds intriguing but tastes nowhere, with nary a bright, sweet, or rooty vibration; the tame braised lamb ladled on top doesn’t help. The promised tahini notes in a White Russian-esque cocktail are MIA. Meanwhile, entrées flub: shakshuka smolders with requisite heat, but you sense the kitchen counts every slice of merguez sausage (one bite per person). Yemenite braised chicken is pale and wan, in a Dickensian-orphanage-thin broth. The double-lamb-pattied shawarma burger is Ray’s low point: a bland-on-squish experience with a slippery texture that ricochets off your teeth. (Where the shawarma comes in is anyone’s guess.)

Promising ideas hide among the small plates and vegetable dishes, though prices can add up quickly. A curl of braised octopus rests on a nifty pile of crisp, sumac-laced onions. Tangy labneh, sided by pillowy, spot-on lavash bread, is swooped up with fried green beans and plums. One night’s cabbage strutted out like Madonna, dripping butter-sauced sexiness, orange notes, and a coat of char. This is all good, but cabbage, yogurt cheese, and a tentacle (at $34 total) are unlikely to fuel cravings and desires—the elemental forces that drive us back to the table.

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Dates arrive stuffed with almonds or as a mojito garnish. Ray’s most satifying dish? Wildly spiced shawarma fries.

In today’s crowded food scene, value, experience, and fun factor count, big time. Ray, tight and mannered, has none of these in spades, and it’s not helped by a room little changed from its last concept. Although friendly and thoroughly unpretentious, it’s never transportive. Ray feels like Lincoln’s cousin after a year on the kibbutz.   

The brightest ray of hope? Shawarma fries, boldly sizzled with jalapeños and whole garlic—skins and all—then spiced to a heady fragrance; good enough to shovel straight into your mouth, singed fingers be damned. The dish is everything you wish Ray could be: alive, gutsy, and addictive. Currently, it lives as a detour; a side dish. Imagine if it were Ray’s road map.

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