Putting on the Pounds in Portland…..
|March 31, 2015||Posted by hog under Restaurant Reviews||
A rainy weekend in Portland, OR last weekend taught me a few things. When it rains in Portland you eat. Then it rains. Then you drink. Or eat. Or walk to another bar getting wet, without an umbrella Honestly, I believe I was the only umbrella-clad human for miles, I felt like I had discovered a brand new invention, never before discovered on the streets of Portland!
The last time I was in Portland was about 15 years ago and my memory of it was strictly flannel shirts and thick beards, some okay, not great, food and lots of pines. Now, the city is on fire! Still flannels and beards but now in thin men sporting Madewell, facial hair meticulously groomed. A little bit like Austin–its sister city– with the same fun-loving sensibility, bold strokes and self-proclaimed weirdness. (Although Austin’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird” I do prefer the Portland sticker “Keep Portland Beard.”
A stay downtown allows you many fine options to eat and drink all within walking distance to the rather citified square. And with many department stores and no sales tax, you can get in your share of trouble! We were taken by the negroni at Clyde Commons–a restaurant attached to the original Ace Hotel. At first, we were concerned that the edgy, slightly know-it-all bartender was steering us astray; he told us Antica, our favorite vermouth, tasted like tootsie rolls. But, then we learned otherwise. Even with a brew of Beefeaters, Carpano and bitters the one-month old, barrel-aged technique creates a negroni smooth as silk. (I wondered if I could try making one in a wine barrel in Napa? Hmm)
Off to the Irving Street Kitchen for dinner where chef Sara Shafer rules. The delicate hand that I remember Shafer for when she was at Anchor and Hope in San Francisco is still working for her, but this time at sister restaurant, Irving Street Kitchen, the ample portions and bold flavors take a front seat. Witness the Skuna Bay Salmon Gravlax, Sauce Gribiche, Cucumber Salad and Rye Crackers, smokey with strong flavors of rye and dill. Or the puzzle-like, Charcuterie platter with turkey, country pate, housemade pickles, housemade mustard with seeds that pop in your mouth, chicken liver pate and spicy sausage. Perfectly piquant! Sara’s light hand is still in full swing in the sublime flavors of the Slow Cooked Steelhead with Melted Leeks, Sorrel in a Lemongrass Broth. She just proves that elegance can share the limelight with powerful, and a steel-fisted lady she is.
Rolling out in the rain for breakfast, we were given a hot tip not to stand on line, but instead to go to the Pine State Biscuit outpost at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market near college campus. Good call. The market had gorgeous produce, enormous radishes the size of small apples, tremendous potatoes, arugula and nettles. Nettles are popular on many of the Portland menus, often used like a creamed spinach flavor touched by basil. The highlight of the Pine State Biscuit stuff-fest was its signature dish: The Reggie Deluxe!!
Think: one oversized, golden brown, buttermilk biscuit; a large piece of perfectly fried chicken filet; a gooey fried egg; two slices of bacon; a slice of cheddar cheese and the kicker: a blob of creamy, peppery gravy on top. Yes, I’m sure that gravy was made with a big fry-o-later’s worth of chicken fat and I’m still on the elliptical!! It was insane. A wet dream of a biscuit. We can fly home now, cargo.
But we don’t. We head to lunch at Pok Pok to see if all of the hype that Andy Ricker is the most famous Thai chef in the country–according to the James Beard Awards–makes any sense. Here’s our take. Pok Pok is for Thai what the Slanted Door, circa 1995 in the first location was to Vietnamese. Yes, Andy isn’t Thai, but he spent a lot of time backpacking through Thailand. The funny part is, his most famous dish is Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings which he learned from a friendly vendor named Ike. He had to learn from Ike because he couldn’t perfect the recipe himself. That says something right there, it takes a village, and street food still rules. But of all of the dishes we ordered, the chicken wings flew head and shoulders over all others.
Marinated, rice flour-coated, deep- fried and then tossed back into the fish sauce reduction they are gooey, chewy, crispy and juicy. And, they pair perfectly with the hand-crafted cocktails like the Yuzu-Honey Whiskey Hot Toddy, or the Rhubarb Blush. Smartly Pok Pok now has a Whiskey Lounge across the street, oh and both shops in Brooklyn too, because as the kind hostess said, soon there will be a Pok Pok in every city. We don’t doubt it.
Since Portland seems to be a highly ethnic melting pot, Balkan food, Portugese Food, fusion Asian food, and features permanent food trucks of every variety, we were also encouraged to go to the intentionally inauthentic, Smallwares. A red, black and red restaurant that exceeded in cuisine what it lacked in comfort, we truly enjoyed eating what has been coined “inauthentic Asian.” A Mapo Tofu made with custard instead of tofu really hit the spot and the nettle pancakes with fresh ricotta were a home run.
Last but least, do not leave Portland without stopping by The Kennedy School. A must visit 1919 school that has wisely turned the boiler room, detention room and conference room all into cozy little bars. Classrooms are hotel room and the warm soaking pool is where the action is. A one-of-a-kind, unusually loveable operation for sure, but then again, so is the town of Portland.