A few months back, J took me to Hatfield's for a fantastic birthday dinner. When we were about to leave she told me she had one more gift. She presented me with an unsealed envelope. I opened it and found two photocopied menus from restaurants i had never heard of.
Me: "What do I do with these? We ordering delivery?"
J: "Pick one."
I looked closer at the info under the two restaurants and noticed that one was based in Seattle, the other one in Portland.
J: "They are both oyster restaurants. Choose one."
Me: "I think i'm going to have to go with Portland."
Why Portland? Maybe it's because of the strong influence of Indie music bands there? The large social movement of thirty-somethings escaping big urban monsters; seeking a new place to live and restart? The fine coffee, breweries and distilleries spread out all over the state? My coworker said, "If Silver Lake, Los Angeles was its own city, it would be like Portland."
But for whatever reason Portland is the way it is, it has claimed much attention in the culinary world in the last few years. I read a few articles recently in NY Times, GQ and Food & Wine... all had great things to say about the food of Portland.
And if that was not convincing enough to settle on Portland, I only needed to think about two gentleman in Portland that would ensure that Jeni and I ate well. These two guys are Ron of PDX Plate and Kevin of Guilty Carnivore. We have never met the Guilty Carnivore himself, but we DO know him through his 3+ years of writing. He is a man who loves to mix food and politics together and always seems to be in search of the ideal Vietnamese sandwich. And there's Ron, who some of you may know as SauceSupreme on Chowhound. An ex-Angeleno who moved to Portland for work and for the food. But his knowledge of food alone makes the "work" part a complete lie. After a few weeks of email correspondence with Ron, Kevin and another generous foodie by the name of Matt, we had the most important thing taken care of: the food itinerary. I have to say one of the best things about writing a food blog is having a connection to other bloggers anywhere in the world. And it is very likely they will do their best to make sure you enjoy your time.
Only $250 for a 2-hour flight to Portland, we arrived on an early Friday morning with nothing but duffle bags, hunger and sheer excitement. It was a different feeling entering a city much smaller in relation to New York or Chicago. But thanks to the internet, you can very much see what you're getting yourself into. We got out of the Portland airport (PDX) and hopped on a train into town.
As the train slowly slithered through the city, I could only think about one thing – green. Green as in true chlorophyll. I think the product designers of Glade bathroom spray cans based their artwork on the Portland scenery. I couldn't believe how green the trees and grass were and how clean and fresh the air felt. So THIS is what fresh air is SUPPOSED to feel like. Part of this is due to the bicycle as a common means for transportation. In LA, we have parking meters. In Portland, where there is a meter, there is a bike rack.
We got dumped off in the South West area of Portland - it's one of four quadrants in the city divided by a river and major bridge. Speaking of bridges, it IS known as Bridgetown – 12 to be exact! We stayed at the Ace Hotel franchise, which also has locations in Palm Springs, Seattle and New York. If Urban Outfitters were to have their own hotel, this would be it. It's a great combination of Pacific Northwest/wilderness chic and design. Not to mention very reasonable in price for a room that is decorated by individual artists.
We walked into the Ace and smiled upon seeing the lobby area with dark wood walls. A good 10-12 people sat on the couches and chairs reading their Mercury's and sipped quietly on what smelled like some of the best coffee ever. But I couldn't attest that as I don't drink much coffee – I prefer fun juice.
We checked in and J already knew what she wanted to do. That coffee we smelled earlier in the lobby was none other than Portland's favorite coffee shop, Stumptown Coffee Roasters. I put this next to Vietnamese iced coffee as my favorites. But for a coffee that was unaided by velvety condensed milk and a tiny drip press, this was some asskicking coffee. A few sips of this and I was awake. We sat over in the lobby, sipped on our asskicking coffee and people watched like the creepy tourists that we were.
Our stomach rumbles and I rub my hands together. Time to start Ron's food tour.
Portland is a big breakfast town. Ron said that even if you served the shittiest breakfasts, you'd still be doing okay because people will still eat it – something to that extent. That is how Norm's and Denny's has survived for so long. He sent us out to a place in the Southeast that serves breakfast Scandinavian style. Whatever that meant, I hope it tasted better than Ikea's breakfast and didn't require me to walk 1.8 miles through a showroom just to get to the exit.
And here we are at Broder, which is known for danish pancakes called Æbleskiver, pronounced 'eh-bleh-skee-vah'. I was lucky enough to find someone on Yelp who previously typed out that Æ letter.
What is an Æbleskiver? Think ball-shaped pancakes similar to a beignets and Japan's takoyaki. Its cooked in a pan with seven round grooves. Like takoyaki, once the lower hemisphere of the batter is cooked, it is then flipped over with a skewer/needle and naturally molded into a round ball. Topped with powdered sugar and a trio of dipping sauces that includes lemon cream, lingonberry jam and maple syrup.
We both enjoyed these as they were very light and tasty. If you're near Solvang, you can stop over at the Solvang Restaurant for some Æbleskiver as well.
I saw people at neighboring tables ordering eggs baked in square skillets. I love square things. So Scandinavian to shape food into squares and present them to you in a grid layout. I had the farmer's special which included smoked trout and shallots. I am now wearing a "#1 Scandinavian Smoked Trout Fan" shirt – that's how awesome it was.
And what is there not to like about potato latkes charred perfectly for toothsome texture. Served with walnut bread.
After breakfast we headed back to the hotel, but not before seeing a bartender extracting fresh juice from an old-school juicer through the window of a neighboring bar/restaurant. One of the things Ron mentioned was the prevalence of stellar cocktail lounges in Portland. I told them that while we enjoy places in LA like The Association, The Varnish and Rivera – $12-15 for a drink can do damage to a wallet. Enter Clyde Common for the $5 happy hour and regularly priced $8 drinks. He also mentioned that $9 is what the best bar in town will charge, so if a bar charges $9.01 – you'd better taste that extra penny. And Clyde Common did not FAIL with their drinks.
One thing you'll notice in Portland is that quite a few respectable bars/lounges will display their Bohemian Absinthe fountain. This seems to be the trend of late for a drink that was brought to attention by artists and writers – Van Gogh for example. If taken as a shot, you could find yourself feeling very ill in the style of too much Jagermeister or Ouzo. Used in moderation as an aromatic, your cocktail is taken to another level. Thanks to John, the wonderful bartender at Clyde Common, for the conversations and cocktails.
A few hours later, it was time for dinner. One of the restaurants that caught our eye was a place in the Northeast called Beast, headed by a female chef named Naomi Pomeroy. She was most recently nominated as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2009, along with the two guys from LA's Animal. We made reservations a month back.
Me: "I'd like to make a reservation at 7:30."
Beast: "We only do two seatings. 6 pm or 8:45 pm."
Me: "Okay 6 pm then."
Not knowing why they only had two seatings, I just went ahead and picked 6 pm. I looked on their site and realized that the menu was what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Chef Pomeroy quotes: "SUBSTITUTIONS POLITELY DECLINED."
Our cab dropped us off in front of the cozy and quaint restaurant named Beast. What we thought would be a very strict dinner all of a sudden made sense once we stepped foot inside the square dining area no larger than a deluxe living room. On the left was a table for 8 and on the right, a table for 12-16. And right in the center was a large counter top covered in plates. This was HER kitchen AND dining area. Awesome.
We took a seat and watched as Pomeroy's sous chef plated salads on the counter top. Pomeroy, in a black top and black pin-striped apron, walked around her kitchen gracefully. Jeni and I felt relaxed because there was absolutely no kitchen havoc. Quite notably, a huge difference between a male and female chef's kitchen. Working in a restaurant before, I knew how noisy and stressful it could get. These two chefs could have been walking barefooted on glass, stacked dishes on their head, two monkeys climbing on their backs and still serve food with a smile.
We really loved the idea of sitting with other guests, a style of cuisine that could only come from someone who loves her home as much as her food. Another thing we loved about Pomeroy's restaurant was the clear view of her cookbooks perching on shelves. Whether or not they are put to use or merely restaurant fodder, we assumed that she is a humble and homey cook, not afraid to experiment or refer to the books in a pinch. I highly doubt any egotistic chef would display books for guests to scrutinize their level of experience. We introduced ourselves and sat patiently for the meal to start. If you really want to know, she enjoys Joy of Cooking, Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe, Suzanne Goin's Sunday Supper at Lucques and Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking – all very solid cookbooks we could not live without.
And here's what Pomeroy served.
Chilled Fresh Shelled English Pea Soup
With english peas in season, you'll see this delicious ingredient everywhere. It's sweet, crunchy and can go well with salads, meats and of course soup. She pureed the peas with herbed creme fraiche/cream and served it quite cold. I really enjoyed this.
Spring Greens with Sauvignon Blanc Vinaigrette and Shaved Sheep's Milk Cheese
I loved the presentation of this – rustic and fresh. The shaving of cheese made it easier for it to melt on your tongue.
Shaved Fennel Salad & Charcuterie Plate
Wow. This plate had everything - variety, colors and pate-like objects. This was a fabulous carnival of hors d'oeurves. I think this is where Chef Pomeroy shines.
Steak Tartare & Quail Egg Toast - I read about this in a magazine and could not wait to try this out. A+ for the combination of two things I enjoy - quail eggs and steak tartare. I actually asked if I could 'buy' a few more of these but was POLITELY DECLINED. I had to try.
Pork Liver, Sour Cherry & Pistachio Pate - what I liked about this was not the usual mushiness of a pate. This was in fact more of a terrine/cake because I could taste all the texures. The pistachios still had a decent bite to it. Similar recipe found here.
Chicken Liver Mousse & Maple Candied Bacon - if I could eat this everyday I would. By far, the table's favorite on the charcuterie plate. The combination of creamy liver and candied bacon had a yin & yang relationship.
Foie Gras Bon Bon - our table considered this the 'dessert' of the charcuterie plate and it sure was. it was like a scoop of really savory buttery ice cream on top of shortbread.
Rabbit Saddles Stuffed with Brioche & Spring Vegetables and White Wine Braised Leeks with Prosecco Butter
Probably the best rabbit I have ever eaten. Flavorful seasoning on the skin, moist meat and crunchy vegetable filling. The leek was a bit strong on the wine but great in texture.
Selection of Steve's Cheese, Anise & Fleur de Sel Shortbread, Fruit & Hazelnuts
Whoever Steve is, nice job.
Whoever Steve is, nice job.
Brown Sugar & Cream Cheese Custard
What a great casual dinner this was. The food, the service and the fellow diners really helped us enjoy our first night in Portland. I would definitely come back and ask to put in a pre-order of those Quail Egg & Steak Tartare toasts.
Day one of four came to an end. We were too tired to go anywhere else and decided to call it night. Standing in the elevator, we noticed this sign. A simple reminder that because we would be eating a lot, we needed to do something about it or buy new jeans. To be continued...
And here's a mix that I made for the Portland trip. Enjoy!