It was called, officially, Le Bistro Montage, although for decades most Portlanders have called it just Montage. And I write “was” because, as several news sources have reported today, as of today it is no longer. Lizzie Acker has a few details on The Oregonian/Oregon Live.
Montage, a sort-of Cajun joint tucked in a delicately fading old brick building below the east side of the Morrison Bridge, was one of those Portland places, a legend in the perpetual making, a place for hipsters and anti-hipsters and your country cousins in to see the town; a time-bending passageway from Old Portland to New. Late at night it howled, and when you went there it was often for two seemingly contradictory reasons: because it was familiar and comfortable and you knew what to expect; and because chances were better than fair something totally unanticipated might explode.
It also, for a while, served weekday lunches, and those days happened to coincide with the time that I was doing a stretch at The Oregonian writing a column called Day Time Diner, in which I explored the highs and lows of morning and midday dining in Portland, sometimes at high-end places but with the column’s affections definitely teetering toward the wayward attractions of the homely joint. Homely Montage was not, although its decorative brilliance was hardly of the Architectural Digest sort. A joint it definitely was – one of the city’s best, and one whose loss many people, old and young, are going to mourn.
Here, then, is my Day Shift Diner ode to the vagrant pleasures of Montage, as it ran in The Oregonian on May 5, 2006. Merci, Montage. May a jazz band march you to your grave.
DAY SHIFT DINER: Montage’s down-and-dandy lunch
On the third visit I broke down and ordered the fried Spam sandwich.
Surprisingly, it was pretty good: sliced thin and cooked crisp, a poor-man’s BLT cushioned by blankets of lettuce, red onion and tomato between pieces of toast.
More surprising still, I was sitting at the ancient gnarled counter of Le Bistro Montage in the naked light of day, which is a little like basking in the sun with the Vampire Lestat.
Daylight seems odd in this shadowed lair that squats beside the eastern pilings of the Morrison Bridge. Montage is a creature of the night fabled for its wee-hours gatherings of the city’s wild things. It’s the destination after your evening’s destination, the place you go to greet the midnight hour and chase it toward dawn.
But Montage is also open for lunch weekdays. Just when you’d think it ought to be sleeping off the night before, it sets a surprisingly alluring table: quiet and noisy and relaxed and jumping all at once, like the early minutes of a rehearsal when the band’s still goofing around.
Despite its late-night reputation, Montage sits squarely in quintessential Day Shift Diner territory. Bank in off MLK on Portland’s close-in Southeast side and you find yourself in a hidden cityscape of muscle and bone, a place of warehouses and rolled-up sleeves and rutted streets with railroad tracks. The neighborhood’s pretty much asleep at night when Montage rocks, but in the light of lunchtime it hums. A block away at City Liquidators, people are hanging out on the docks, ready to heft big things onto small pickup beds. Around the corner sags the sad ghost of the grocery emporium Corno’s, stripped bare of the cartoon fruits and vegetables that once frolicked around its roof. Here in this urban maze is where your food starts, or at least where it lands, before it’s redistributed across the city. Graziano Produce and its football-tough delivery trucks . . . Rinella Produce, a Gothic-lettered slogan painted in faded white across its old bricks: “The first fruits are the Lord’s.”
Inside Montage, loudspeakers blast out music of the headbanger persuasion, rocking the place like a curiously soothing gale storm. Wood as worn as a pensioners’ hotel is smartened up with crisp white linens. The long, pockmarked counter is half-hidden by bagged loaves of Portland French Bakery City Sour, a still life fit for a photo by Cartier-Bresson. There are those paintings: the huge funky Last Supper over to the side; the lurid fish and produce inside a giant frame of gilded oyster shells.
Someone orders a mussel shooter. “Hey, you guys! One mussel!” the waiter shouts to the kitchen, and the cooks, sporting more loop earrings than a craft booth at a Renaissance fair, chant back: “One mussel!”
As at night, lunch is not entirely, or even primarily, about the food. Some people hate Montage, for its blue-collar basics, its outsider swagger, its grit and its noise and the fact that its cooking has the subtlety of a mud-wrestling match on public-access TV. Other people love it for the same reasons. Commander’s Palace it ain’t. But the place has a pulse.
In addition to that surpassing Spam, my lunch counter has been set here recently with an industrial-strength mac ‘n’ cheese, a funky gumbo, some nicely spiced red beans and rice, a generous black-eyed pea salad with greens, tomatoes and onions, a poached-mussel shooter smothered in cocktail sauce, and a couple of gallons of coffee, which is not exactly Montage’s evening drink of choice. With a few po’ boys, jambalaya, catfish, gator meat and (only in the evening) the occasional frog’s leg dancing across your plate, the house cuisine is nominally Cajun, but it’s really just sturdy, down-home cooking. It’s nothing fancy, nothing restrained, big sharp hits of basic flavor, and at lunchtime prices that top 10 bucks only if you insist on throwing gator bites into your jambalaya.
A lot of these dishes arrive with a chunk of cornbread planted on the side, and although it’s the sweet variety, I squeeze a little honey on it from the plastic honey bear beside my plate, just because it’s there. My father, Georgia-born, claims that sweet cornbread is Northern cornbread, not Southern; in the South it’s savory and more elemental, a rough cake that tastes more intensely of corn. Myself, I take it whichever style it comes.
Which is a good way to approach Montage. Day or night.