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Reporting Back: Best food of the best in Portland

m
mabaland Dec 28, 2007 02:31 PM

Here's the long-not-the-short-of-it report from our gastronomic week in Portland.

Dinner No. 1 -- Toro Bravo

Any place that has a half -hour wait on a Monday around 9pm is a good sign.  We loved the atmosphere and while we waited we had a lovely glass of dry white in the side lounge.  For dinner, we ended up not being able to have our own table so we shared with a huge party of twenty-somethings.  In the end we probably should have sat at the bar, which was our other option.  All in all our plates were good, but I wouldn't say fabulous.  We started with the anchovies and fennel which was paired with romanesco sauce.  Nice presentation but it was breaded, which I think loses some of the flavor, and I didn't feel the pairing with romanesco was anything special. It was delicious with the scallops, though. The salad dressing was fabulous and the pork was great. Our first waitress in the side lounge was fabulous, but our table waitress forgot what we ordered when we were asking for suggestions for that one last special plate to order. She hit us with the ol' “everything's good,” then suggested something we had already had. She also brought us someone else's dish once. The experience was a bit anti-climactic but we'd definitely try it again, and maybe order more meat dishes.

Late morning bev. No.1 – Extracto

We ended up never going to breakfast. After such succulent meals in the later evening we simply weren't hungry until lunchtime. We did do coffee each morning, and I hate to say it but we were a little disappointed with Stumptown. We are fans of Graffeo (when we get up to SF from Santa Cruz) and more regularly Peet's, which is so strong; maybe it has something to do with that. The Stumptown brewed at the Ace was really the worst we had in Portland. While we heard all about the Stumptown training, this guy must have flunked the class. We did buy a pound and have tried it at home. Good coffee, not great. We really did like the brew at Extracto in the NE, though, and walked there a few times from our hotel. The place had a good vibe. By the by, we loved the Courier coffee. We had it at Sel Gris on our last night and they brewed it up rich in a french press. Delicious. We were sorry not to get to some of the other recs – with a car, we might have. You have to leave something to come back for.

The Kennedy School was great, by the way. Very casual, friendly, and a great soaking pool. It's ideal for families with children. We got to see so many neighborhoods of Portland because by exclusively taking the bus, which we loved, we had to transfer so many times. We probably saved $50 a day instead of cabbing and we gladly put our saved nickels toward foie gras and sweetbreads. We left with a sense of the Portland vibe, one of our main goals.

Lunch No.1 -- Pok Pok.

We've been to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and brought back some of the best ingredients like Phu Quoc fish sauce, etc., and use them regularly. So let me just say that the food qualified as very authentic. Our server was fabulous and we ended up having one of the best meals in Portland. I don't usually drink whiskey, but how can one abstain when you're at the Whiskey Soda Lounge? I can still remember the taste of the Tamarind Whiskey Sour, as it lingered with me throughout the trip. DH had a 33, like we used to drink in SE Asia. The papaya salad took us back, the beef salad and its condiments we were fighting over, and we had to taste Ike's famous chicken wings which were delicious. I wanted to order everything on the menu, but I guess you have to leave something to come back for. Outstanding.

Dinner No.2 -- Le Pigeon

We had made reservations the prior week and had since been drooling over their adventurous menu. We had wine and shared the scallops with uni, I had the venison which was cooked perfectly rare, and DH had the veal. We loved the vibe and had unpretentious, great service and food. We ended up talking to the owner, who actually worked for a bit in Santa Cruz, where we live, after most diners had cleared out. Very nice guy. DH also bought an “In fois gras we trust” shirt, which he loves.

Late Morning Bev No.2 -- The Ace and Voodoo Doughnuts

Second morning we went to Voodoo Doughnuts to satisfy my DH's curiosity. Cool little hole in the wall. We got them to go and headed off to the Ace for the coffee, where we unwound and got cozy and warm. See our review of coffee above. Yeah, we knew Voodoo might not be the best doughnut in town, but DH was so excited it was definitely a destination for us. He agreed they weren't the end-all, but they did go down the hatch in no time.

Lunch and Happy Hour No.2 – Southpark Grill and Ten-01

Between lunch and happy hour we went to the Japanese Garden, one of our only sight-seeing destinations thanks to Leonardo, so we decided sampling oysters before and after might be a good call. The vibe at Southpark was a bit on the grand side, with a business crowd at lunch and its spacious, less-intimate space. It lacks character. That aside, the oysters were fabulous and the service was decent. We tasted all four kinds and had a nice glass of pinot gris to slurp them down with. After the Garden we headed straight to Ten-01 for the HH and JillO you're right, the $1 oysters are a steal. DH had a local beer and I a glass of white to slurp down more oysters with truffled french fries. We could have eaten baskets of those fries. Our server was great, too.

Dinner No. 3 – Biwa!

Throughout the week we were going back and forth between Paley's Place, Sel Gris, and Biwa. I'd made reservations the prior week at Sel Gris but the more we asked waiters about it, the more we heard that the kitchen hadn't worked everything out yet and the meals were still too “complicated.” The chef at Le Pigeon was going for his first time the same night we'd been there, our server at Ten-01 expressed these sentiments, and so did someone else we asked. We almost posted back here for a tie-breaker (we rely so much on you) but decided in the end to just do what we felt like. Perhaps it was the influence of the Japanese Garden, or perhaps it was because it was that week of freezing temperatures (thankfully no rain). Whatever it was, we both felt compelled to go to Biwa after you turned us back in that direction. It just sounded so tasty and the menu looked so tantalizing. I think the idea of savory pork belly, chicken hearts, and seaweed was what kept calling me back. To be brief, our evening at Biwa was outstanding. Our service was outstanding, the food was outstanding and so tasty (the fish was delectable and so tender and juicy), and the vibe was outstanding. I think because we get so into our food we end up meeting the restaurant chef/owners quite a bit, but we had a very long chat with the owner, who seemed to be genuinely modest and level-headed, at the end of our meal. We talked mostly about restaurants and he told us his younger sister came up with their logo. He gave DH a Biwa shirt. Keepsake No. 2! But I can't say enough about how proficient, genuine, and competent the staff was. By the way, of every restaurant we talked about, he HIGHLY recommends his neighborhood restaurant Cafe Castagna, just down from Sel Gris.

Late Morning Bev No. 3 – Boyd's

We were desperate and freezing in the Pearl and ran in for a coffee. The warmth felt great but the coffee was just OK. We figured it would be but needed it.

Lunch No.3 – Silk

After Pok Pok can you go anywhere else? We were on the verge of going to Park Kitchen, which we should have done in hindsight, as our meal at Silk was only OK. We knew before she opened her mouth our waitress was in a bad mood. We ordered three soups and the lotus root salad. The curries looked good, but we felt we needed a cleansing, steamy soup. I started with the appetizer soup, which was good – crab and asparagus – we sometimes make this at home. My spicy seafood soup was disappointing as the seafood was overcooked and the pounded squid hard, rubbery, inedible. The lotus root salad was tasty and DH liked (not loved) his beef Pho. In sum, it seemed fine but nothing special.

HH – Pour

We might have done Oregon Wines on Broadway, especially since it was their 'second Thursday' tasting evening, but we were closer to Pour and went in for a warm up so we could get to dinner on time. All the tables were full but luckily one opened up soon after we got all our coats, hats and gloves off. We only tasted Oregon wine and loved it. The vibe was sophisticated, friendly and groovy.

Dinner No.4 – our last, at Sel Gris

We heard from many 'hounds and, as we moved through our week, staff in the food industry in Portland weighing in on where we should dine on our last night. We were ruminating about doing Paley's Place over our Sel Gris reservation, so it was a big decision, one that we were tempted to post about. We hashed it out during the week with a waiter at Ten-01, Biwa and others about where to go, and the word on the street from people in the industry is that Sel Gris is still working out the kinks and the food is a little over complicated. We were starting to look for other choices and our expectations dropped a little. Finally we decided to stick to our original plan and headed to our reservation for two at the chef's table (it's just the bar that overlooks the kitchen) at Sel Gris. If it was bad, at least it would give us something to report about. We were hoping it had solved some of its earlier problems.

On our way, we were curious enough to stop at Cafe Castagna, the place Biwa recommends, and check out the menu. I must say the menu looks enticing and it was packed. But we kept on going, landed right at the chef's table and started with a nice glass of bubbly. The venison appetizer was perfectly done, and literally – cliche aside – melted in the mouth like butter. The executive chef duly noted our fascination with his preparation of sweetbreads -- sauteed and then served below a duck egg encased in pancake – and insisted we order it. We did, and quite enjoyed it, DH more so than I possibly due to the fact I prefer things a little less sweet, and the chef's preparation was a bit, well, sweet. We told our server we were in her hands, and asked for suggestions. After we ordered our entrees, we were discussing ordering a caesar salad which the chef overheard and suggested to our waitress she offer us a grilled escarole that wasn't on the menu (it is now). Relatively simple salad, chickpeas, preserved lemon, but absolutely perfectly conceived and pulled off. Fantastic smokey flavor. It didn't stay on the plate long.

For my entree, I went with the scallops, which were themselves excellent but I felt they were belittled by the fettucine, which didn't arrive with a perfectly emulsified cream sauce. DH had the "pork and beans" and devoured it.

Let's just say that overall we had a wonderful experience, which we must say in part had to do with sitting at the chef's table. We had a great view of the action in the kitchen and some fun interaction with the executive chef. Our server was also fantastic, patiently answering our obtuse food questions, and asking the chef when she didn't have an answer. Toward the end of the evening, the executive chef from Carlyle sat down at the bar next to us and chatted us up after ordering a gorgeous bottle of vintage champagne and raw foie gras, which he gave us a taste of, for him and the woman he was wooing. As the kitchen staff were preparing for the next day and slowly closing the kitchen, we watched as the executive chef and another kitchen hand made foie gras torchons as we sipped our dessert wine. The Carlyle chef gave us the blow by blow on the process. Fascinating stuff but scary to be reminded that foie gras is 85% fat! Anyway, the chef's table added a special facet to our dining experience.

Would the food have been so impressive at one of the tables on the floor? We'll never know, but we left wondering about it. Yes, a few of the dishes were a bit too intricate and appeared to try too hard, but others were fantastic. We were treated really well and had a really good time.

We were too packed for dessert but the chef put together a special cheese plate for us (cheese is my weakness), which he comped. He offered three: Humboldt Fog, a nutty sheep's milk cheese, and aged cheddar with dressed macro sprouts on top. It was a stunning finale. We loved the story behind the Courier coffee name as well as the french pressed-coffee, as we've mentioned, we savored before leaving.

And I lied. While we strictly took the bus everywhere, though tonight was an exception. The chef/owner insisted we take a cab that night as he lives near the Kennedy School. He called for us and escorted us outside to give the taxi driver directions. What chefs do that? Nice guy, really trying. We'll make it back to see how he does.

Last Morning – Back to Extracto

We had planned to go to the Tin Shed since it's walking distance from our hotel, but we just didn't have the time to do that and then catch the rail to PDX. I did manage to go for a brisk run, so I ran to Tin Shed and back through the parks and streets instead.

Final Note

I feel more at home in a city when I am familiar with its restaurants, even if I haven't eaten in them! We had fun walking by restaurants we'd heard of and investigated, even those we were told to avoid. Thanks for allowing us to get to know Portland.

Great time, priceless info from you all, we will be back. Happy New Year.

  1. e
    Epicurean Jan 10, 2008 04:10 PM

    Sorry, I missed the original post, but why was Hiroshi's ruled out from the onset?? Maybe not for non-sushi Japanese but the sushi both new-style and traditional is out of this world!

    I would also nominate Andina as an ethnic experience worth having....

    My problem last visit was Pok Pok....I had to repeat it twice on the same trip....

    thanks for the great posting!
    Cheers

    1. Freida Jan 3, 2008 12:34 PM

      What a great report. We're going to Portland for a weekend in February, and you've made our restaurant itinerary even more difficult to decide on!

      If you go back to Portland, will you repeat any of the restaurants you visited this time? Or would you want to try all new places? What would you like to have changed about your visit?

      2 Replies
      1. re: Freida
        m
        mabaland Jan 5, 2008 06:43 PM

        howdy freida. interesting question and a hard one to answer. if the return trip is a ways down the trail, say in a year or longer, we'd start here again and see what was new and what had changed at any of the places we ate at and/or considered. portland's a great food city, and it looks like new stuff is always popping up. that said, the wife and i agree that biwa and pok pok would be definite returns, as well as sel gris, as we want to see how that restaurant ages. we're pulling for them. wait! le pigeon, too, and maybe toro bravo. see, that's the problem. way too many places we liked. we'd probably head back to the 'hound and see where you all send us ...

        1. re: mabaland
          Freida Jan 7, 2008 12:37 PM

          Yep, I know what you mean. We were in Portland for the first time last July, and tried Pok Pok and Park Kitchen and the Veritable Quandary - all great fun. This time we'll be staying really close to Pok Pok, so I don't see how we can keep from going back, but I want to try all new places otherwise. I've been thinking Castagne and Toro Bravo, but you've got me looking harder at Sel Gris and Le Pigeon...

      2. l
        lebelage Dec 29, 2007 09:00 AM

        Thanks for the great report!

        So glad you loved Biwa. No sooner is my ramen bowl empty than I start thinking about when I can have it again.

        1 Reply
        1. re: lebelage
          l
          Leonardo Jan 2, 2008 09:16 PM

          Thanks for the report, and happy to hear of your great time, and that you took in the J-Garden and Pour. If more visitors posted such reports, more PDX inquiries would get a far more lively response.
          Glad to hear we were able to sway you to Biwa.

        2. k
          Kim D Dec 29, 2007 08:41 AM

          What a wonderfully detailed report; thank you! I particularly enjoyed reading about Biwa. It served as a reminder that simple, well-executed dishes will frequently outshine complicated preparations.

          1. JillO Dec 29, 2007 05:53 AM

            Thanks so much for reporting back! Glad you had a good time!

            1. SauceSupreme Dec 28, 2007 11:41 PM

              Glad you had a great time, and you're always welcome back.

              It would be highly unfair to compare Pok Pok to, well, anything, least of all Silk. I mean, Silk is fine for what it is, and its authenticity level takes a back seat due in part to the neighborhood it's in. But Pok Pok is a whole 'nother animal, and I always feel confident in sending people there who identify themselves as foodies.

              With regards to Stumptown, in my limited sample size it seemed the Skidmore location had more skilled baristas than the Ace location. I also find myself ordering Clover coffee there as opposed to espresso drinks. I say limited because I prefer World Cup.

              1. n
                Nettie Dec 28, 2007 08:39 PM

                Thanks for the report--it sounds like you had a great trip. We went to Sel Gris for the first time last night and I really enjoyed the grilled escarole salad (mine also had a smoked paprika vinaigrette).

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