Posted on August 2, 2012
by Joe Ricchio
Specialization: Worldly variations of comfort food
What to drink: Bright, high-acidity whites from Italy or Austria
What to order: Wild Boar Rendang served over coconut rice
Ambiance: Cozy, relaxed neighborhood haunt
Price average: Plates average $4 for small plates and $25 for entrees
Hours of operation: Tues-Thurs from 5:30-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat from 5:30-10:00 p.m.
Since it's inception in late 2010, Figa has garnered a sturdy following of regulars by offering globally influenced cuisine presented in an inviting, unpretentious setting. Though small, the fact that they don't take reservations makes it a great choice on an evening when you find yourself wandering about Portland's East End. This is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant, with subtle wood furnishings accentuated by vibrant bursts of color, a bustling open kitchen, and kitchen towels masquerading as napkins.
On a recent visit, I locate a suitable perch at the bar, and, after perusing the various chalkboards displaying drink specials, settle on a large bottle of strong, slightly bitter Dragonslayer Stout from Syracuse. Chef and owner Lee Farrington has put a tremendous amount of care into the small yet concise wine and beer list, thoughtfully selecting bottles that make sense alongside her confidently seasoned food. There is no set formula, with obscure Greek varietals effortlessly co-mingling with those as seemingly mundane as California Chardonnay.
Farrington's menu is broken down into four categories, with most entrees available in a smaller "taste" format. I decide to work my way through a bit of everything, beginning with the Shrimp Patia, an Indian-style preparation that has been simmered in a smoky, roasted tomato gravy with warm spices. It is served atop warm corn blini, and pairs particularly well with the flavor profile of the stout. Sev—thin strands of deep-fried chickpea flour dough—are employed in a different dish as a crust for seared sea scallops, which have been cooked to perfection. A refreshing jicama and apple slaw, dotted with fried chickpeas, imparts a pleasing crunchy element.
Shortly after finishing my scallops, I am presented with a trio of dishes served on a platter. Working my way from the left, I start with a forkful of tender, flaky Salmon Tandoori, rubbed with Indian spices and resting in a small pool of citrus yogurt sauce. The accompanying fruit chutney has a sweetness and consistency reminiscent of an Italian mostarda. I move on to Wild Boar Rendang, an Indonesian-style curry that could be considered one of Farrington's specialties. Slowly braised in coconut milk and spices until the meat is nearly falling apart, it is dense and satisfying—and chilies packs quite the punch. I finish with a single, pan-fried spicy tofu cake, glazed with orange juice and soy sauce, and housemade kimchee, containing an abundance of carrots that add a touch of sweetness.
There are few things that I enjoy more than a simple plate of earthy, lightly sautéed mushrooms, especially on a damp, rainy day. In fact, I believe that one can judge a restaurant as a whole by the manner in which its chef prepares this dish, as it requires enough confidence in the quality of the ingredient to let it speak almost entirely for itself.
At least this is the conclusion I have arrive at after sampling an assortment of wild foraged Pioppini, Maitake, and King Oyster mushrooms at Figa. I move on to Socca, a thin, unleavened pancake made from chickpea flour. This is slightly crispy and delicious on its own, and is further heightened by charred tomatoes, onions, and peppers, as well as salty, tangy crumbled feta. My enthusiasm for this dish prompts my server, Edna, to respond, "Yeah, we love chickpeas here," leading me to declare that "Lee has a way with pancakes, and that is a good thing to have a way with."
I am able muster up the space for one last savory offering: pan-seared duck breast garnished with what is basically a romesco sauce that has been deconstructed into a salsa fresca of sorts. The acidity in the salsa provides the perfect foil for the richness of the duck confit and asparagus hash, riddled with small cubes of nicely browned home fries. Once again, the level of seasoning is spot-on.
Because I can justify damn near anything, I order both the delicate ginger crème Brulee, to "soothe the stomach," and the outrageously decadent chocolate pot de crème, "to negate the soothing." Both are delicious, and I am successful in each endeavor on my agenda. Just as I begin to wrap things up, the restaurant starts to fill up with hungry, like-minded patrons, as would be predicted on any other rainy Wednesday night.
249 Congress St. | Portland | 207.518.9400 | figarestaurant.com