Halfway through my first visit to Portland Meatball Co., I finally got my timing right. By ducking my head precisely every 2 1/2 minutes, I could dodge the rotating green lasers beaming a planetarium-worthy representation of the galaxy across the ceiling – and more to the point, directly into my eyeballs. It gave the meal a certain tidal rhythm though, one that repeated for nearly an hour: Eat a little. Chat. Duck.
On my second visit, I chose a better seat in a different lemon-yellow booth in the kitschy, completely empty dining room. As we finished our retro cocktails – a lemon pear cooler ($9) that tasted like spiked canned fruit cocktail syrup, and a bracing, bitter Negroni ($8.50) – one of my guests touched my jacket and said, “Look, you’ve got dots of green light crawling up your blazer towards your …” Out of habit, I ducked.
Although you might never guess it, judging by the laser light show and the eclectic, country antique store decor, Portland Meatball Company is a new sibling of the chic and polished Timber Steakhouse next door. Both are owned and managed by Noah and Dan Talmatch, and both share an executive chef, Christian Bassett, who has split his time between the two businesses since the newer restaurant opened in October.
“Noah used to say there was no good meatball restaurant around, so we took the idea and ran with it. Our theme is American traditional cuisine with some ethnic background to it, and at a budget price.” Bassett said. In practice, that translates to a menu whose regional influences are largely Italian-American, with a rotating selection of dishes inspired by a broad range of cultures.
For better or worse, the kitchen is at its best when it sticks to classic Italian-American flavors. Case in point: the 3-ounce House Balls, made from house-ground beef, pork and veal, and seasoned with parsley and garlic. Each of the four times I tasted them, they were juicy and tender, whether served on their own as part of the 5-Ball Sampler ($12), or as part of another dish, like the classic meatball sub ($10.95), a hefty sandwich finished with melted mozzarella. Here, the meatballs were infused with tomato and garlic from a long simmer in Bassett’s sweet, homemade marinara.
In the Pasta & Balls ($16), the house meatballs were the best item on the plate – soft enough to yield with gentle pressure from a fork, but firm enough to provide some contrast in texture to the sticky, heavily oversauced spaghetti.
Unfortunately, the more adventurous meatballs seemed to get progressively worse as they drifted farther out of the orbit of the Italian-inspired house ball. A pure-beef, sun-dried tomato ball was perfectly pleasant, with a nutty richness from a pine nut pistou. And a Tex-Mex taco ball, another all-beef affair, was fragrant with lime zest and cumin, if perhaps a little tough.
Then, the chicken meatball, made from dark and white meat chicken, with an offensive, giblet-like odor and livery flavor that made it inedible, even if drowned in marinara or that evening’s gruel-like queso sauce. Or the duck meatball: a bland, dense, coral-colored sphere with what Bassett described as a “Korean flavor profile” of tamari, orange marmalade and cilantro. It wouldn’t have been out of place on a billiard table.
For the title of the worst ball of all, we had a draw. First was the Veggie Chick Pea. “Poor vegetarians,” said my dinner guest, as we broke through the ball’s sooty, black crust into a wet interior that brought to mind hummus-flavored baby food. Versus a surprise contender, brownie balls ($7.25) – an idea from the restaurant’s dishwasher – a greasy, structurally unstable chocolate dessert that was still frozen inside (despite an obvious attempt at a flash defrosting in the microwave), served bobbing in a harsh, acidic raspberry reduction.
“Did you enjoy it?” our server asked, with an apologetic shrug and a heartbreaking glance down at our practically untouched dessert bowl. It wasn’t her fault, so we lied and said we were full from the pizza we had eaten earlier.
While it’s true that we did order an outsized slice (a quarter of a 16-inch pizza) of duck prosciutto pizza ($9), I think she probably noticed that we left most of that, too. Flavors that might have balanced one another beautifully in a salad – soft goat cheese, thinly sliced cured duck, pine nuts and sweet-tart dried cranberries – were out of alignment and far too sweet on a pizza.
The crust didn’t help matters. On both this slice, as well as a meat sauce and meatball-based Lots of Balls pizza ($10) I sampled on another visit, the crust was doughy, with a floppy, rubbery texture reminiscent of refrigerated leftovers. With a deck oven cranked to 625 degrees Fahrenheit and a ceramic pizza stone, Portland Meatball Company has everything it needs to do better than pale, underbaked pies.
On the other hand, the kitchen managed to achieve great char on the zucchini and yellow squash in the couscous salad ($9.25), a bright, fresh-tasting layering of grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives, goat cheese and sliced white onion. A Mediterranean hodge-podge, it was a well-conceived dish full of plump (if sticky) balls of Israeli couscous that fit right in with the restaurant’s theme.
It was also the best of the three salads we tasted – certainly superior to the stingy rotisserie chicken salad ($9.75), with discs of canned black olives and insipid thousand island (not the bleu cheese dressing listed on the menu). Or the similarly skimpy dried blueberry salad ($9), missing any trace of the mozzarella advertised and doused in an industrial-strength balsamic vinaigrette.
The salads, like nearly everything I ate at Portland Meatball Company, seemed to have been rushed out of the kitchen, unexamined and, more importantly, untasted. Yet rather than focus on badly needed quality control for the restaurant’s few remaining customers, the kitchen staff wandered distractedly in and out of the desolate dining room throughout both of my visits, until inevitably declaring the restaurant closed more than an hour early.
Through it all, our first server remained hopeful and upbeat, despite signs of an unsatisfactory meal that even she could not ignore. “Next time, maybe try coming in a little earlier?” she proposed. Then, gesturing at our unfinished plates, she said, “I think it might be all about timing.” With that, she dislodged something in my memory. I looked up at the orbiting green constellations on the ceiling, and suddenly remembered: It was time to duck.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: