Seven Days and Ten Stops of Pizza, Biscuits, Sandwiches, Cocoa, and Ice Cream in Portland
Again long winded. Again with the pictures incorporated in the Blog. Again with space dividers here for readability.
Transitioning from sweets (http://endoedibles.com/?p=5269) to savories (mostly,) eight additional stops in Portland ranging from 7am Ice Cream and 9am Biscuits to 1pm Foie Gras and 10pm Pizza would round out spots not quite fulfilling the criteria of a meal, but also not to simply be overlooked given their stature in the local culinary scene. While some of these places can and do certainly qualify as a legitimate restaurant where one could enjoy a multiple course meal, for myself they acted as pre-meals, second dinners, or snacks along the way.
Beginning with one of the things I most certainly go out of my way for in any city I visit, I’d heard that Portland’s pizza scene was “good, but not great – aside from Apizza Scholl’s” and yet with that in mind I mapped out two definites and one “maybe;” Nostrana – a spot that would actually cap my first day in town when the person I was staying with agreed to give up an old grudge with service and allow Chef Cathy Whims’ SE Morrison regional Italian restaurant a second chance.
Having dined at Ox earlier that evening before the Trailblazers game and then hoofing it back to my friend’s home before heading out our arrival at Nostrana would be just shy of 10pm and despite the late hour the space was surprisingly full – a few tables open, but the only two-top being cleared as we were greeted at the hostess stand and after a few moments we were led to our seats…where we proceeded to chat without looking at our menu for a good fifteen minutes, a time during which our waitress was actually incredibly patient – though she did stop in multiple times to see if we were ready, had questions, or wanted drinks.
With the space large and heavily wooded plus high ceilings and an open kitchen where the stone pizza oven stands proud the space at Nostrana is decidedly “Italian” inspired and although ‘buzzy’ I never found the room so loud that I had to raise my voice to be heard over the din (compare this to Mozza or Balena or Babbo and it is a welcomed change) and once orders were placed service was on point – items arriving quickly beginning with a flight of reds for my friend and a glass of 2006 Falchini Vin Santo del Chianti with two small biscotti for myself; a dessert wine with a great nose and a lot of sweetness that probably isn’t everyone’s idea of pizza wine but one that did just as well for me throughout the meal.
Moving next to a pair of Nostrana’s famous pies, round and uncut in the traditional Neapolitan manner (served with scissors,) the first was a well prepared and wet Margherita that, although featuring excellent quality toppings, fell flat for me due to a dull and flavorless crust lacking enough heft or char. Better by far, a second pizza, the seasonal Granchio with Dungeness Crab, Crème Fraiche, Fines Herbes, and Paprika Butter would not only up the ante by improving on the crust with more bubble and smoke, but would also work wonders in the balance of ingredients – particularly the manner in which the slight sours of the crème Fraiche and hefty smoked savoriness of the Paprika acted to highlight the sweet, fresh crab. I’ve since told my mother I’d love to see her mother’s signature Hungarian paprikash matched to this sauce as opposed to chicken and sour cream in the future.
Adding a last savory largely because it is something I cannot pass up, the Gnocchi alla Romana would arrive as expected, though to my dining partner’s surprise with three large semolina dumplings baked in a cast iron pot, swimming in a pool of fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, porcini mushrooms, and rosemary infused cream. Dense and delicious, finished in the wood burning oven which added a smoky nuance that really brought out the rosemary I loved the flavors, but found the gnocchi to be a bit mushy – not bad, but not the superlative version I’d hoped for.
Never one to pass on dessert – even at second dinner – two were ordered and having already had Mozza’s budino (reported to be Nostrana’s most ordered dessert by our waitress) I went with the Chocolate Budino with Chantilly Cream while my friend selected the Ricotta Cheesecake with candied orange & chocolate on a pistachio crust. Starting with the budino, cake style as opposed to pudding, the classic combination of chocolate and vanilla was essentially a rich chocolate devil’s food cake and although perhaps not the most daring dessert, it was beautifully balanced and the chocolate with olive oil fruitiness was quite nice. Moving next to the cheesecake – let’s just say the texture was great and the crust was good – the rest of the story consisted of Julia and I making jokes about Kraft’s “Terry's Chocolate Orange,” not particularly a good thing.
Overall a nice meal in a pleasant environment with what I felt to be good service considering the hour and our dilly-dallying over the menu I cannot say Nostrana struck me as a restaurant helmed by a Beard Award finalist, particularly given the strength of Portland (and the Pacific Northwest’s) culinary scene, but at the same time it was good enough for the price and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to try more of the pastas or pies in the future if I was craving Italian and living in, rather than visiting Portland.
--KEN'S ARTISAN PIZZA--
Moving next to one of the less pleasant experiences during my visit to Portland a pre-dinner stop for pizza on Superbowl Sunday took me to Ken’s Artisan Pizza just after they opened the doors at 4:00 and arriving to find the place unsurprisingly quiet my issues with the space began with my greeting at the door, where I was told that singles are ‘only’ seated at the bar. Understanding that a small restaurant may not want to expend a two-top on a single during peak hour and happy enough to sit at the bar under most circumstances I found this a bit odd considering the fact that only one four top and one two top in the entire restaurant was filled when I arrived…and when you take into the fact that less than 25% of the restaurant was occupied when I left 45 minutes later it seemed even more peculiar.
Touting Zagat scores, a cookbook, and a laundry list of fine artisan purveyors Ken’s is nice enough on the interior – large central tile oven, concrete floors, wood tables, high ceilings and a bar plus a traditional meat slicer and some wood piles…it looks like a pizzeria – but bearing in mind my ‘welcome’ things really did not get much better once I sat down. Unnamed and unsmiling, a female bartender seemed put-off that I did not want alcohol (note, I did not want to sit at the bar) and sliding a menu before me I ordered what I knew I’d come for, a Prosciutto pizza minus half the prosciutto so I could taste the Margherita on its own…only to be told “we don’t do half and half.” Explaining that I’d pay for the $15 Prosciutto pie (the Margherita $11) but just did not want meat on half of it the words were uttered again “we don’t do half and half” – her eventual compromise being that I could order the Margherita and get a ‘salumi portion’ of Prosciutto on the side and add it myself…ridiculous, but so I did.
Sitting, ignored, with my water glass empty as the bartender fussed at the far end of the bar it would not be long before the pie arrived – along with a plate of pork – and aside from the impossibly flavorless basil (compared to both Nostrana and Scholl’s, so not an effect of the season) it was…alright, the crust yeasty and neatly charred, the mozzarella creamy, and the sauce just a touch sweet but certainly not overtly so. Adding the prosciutto to half helped in terms of salinity; and doubling up on a slice was too much as the pork itself was actually quite hefty and wonderfully flavored. Taking half home for my friend I’m told it warmed up admirably in the oven the next day, so kudos to that I guess.
Off put at this point but well aware of Ken’s Artisan Bakery on 21st (another subpar spot I’d visit a few days later) dessert seemed a good choice, but watching it “prepared” was enough to turn me off to Ken’s Pizza for good – the chilled cup of $8 Chocolate Custard coming from the refrigerator, the fresh whipped cream scooped from a container, and two room temperature chocolate cherry cookies plucked from a jar. Realizing that not all desserts are made and baked on the spot and not entirely expecting this the flavors were fine – a sort of rich budino with high quality chocolate, but to watch it be slapped together (by the bartender) in a few seconds from three storage units sort of killed the magic…much like every other bit of ‘service’ at Ken’s Pizza spot.
Saving the best for last, my third pizza stop in PDX was Apizza Scholl’s – without a doubt the most highly praised pie in the city, and possibly the entire Pacific Northwest. Owned and operated by Brian Spangler and often sporting hour plus waits despite seating twice as many as other pizza legends such as DiFara’s, Lucali, Great Lake, and Bianco I was happy to hear that the Hawthorne Blvd hot spot had recently began accepting reservations and having booked weeks in advance even a steady downpour did not delay my 6:00pm pre-dinner visit for one; in this instance a specific request to sit at the bar so I could watch the kitchen at work.
Utilizing a 700 degree electrical oven instead of stone, wood, or tile and thus allowing not only larger pies but more pies to be baked to order it would only be moments after I arrived before a young lady greeted me and led me to my seat and knowing exactly what I wanted I omitted the menu and placed my order for a full size pie, half Apizza Amore and Half Bacon Bianca. Aware that smaller doughs are available for solos but not as splits and wanting to taste both the red sauce and the white I sat back with my order in and as the restaurant filled to capacity chatted briefly with the waitress and a young pizzaiolo who was stretching dough nearest the counter; all very friendly folks despite how busy the restaurant was and a nice change of pace from Ken’s.
Sitting, waiting, watching, and sort of drooling as the couple next to me received their 18 inch bubbling pie it would not be long before mine too would arrive in all its golden glory and with light char both top and bottom surrounding still bubbly cheese I waited perhaps a minute while snapping a picture before grabbing a steaming slice and taking a bite – the crust absolutely astounding with crunch giving way to slight stretch and without a doubt one of the best crusts I’ve ever had in terms of both texture and the smoky/yeasty taste. Moving on to the cheese – a creamy meets funky blend of fior di latte and aged mozzarella and then the modest use of bold San Marzano tomato sauce the base of the pie spoke for itself.
Having mentioned the two sets of toppings – the Apizza Amore is described as “tomato sauce, mozzarella, pecorino romano/grana padano, fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil & fresh basil, hot Capicollo” while the Bacon Bianca features “Whole milk mozzarella, pecorino romano/grana padano, lots of fresh garlic, herbs, black pepper, extra virgin olive oil and our house cured bacon” and whether you like your pizza with or without red sauce there is really no way to go wrong here, but loving the blend of tomato and good mozzarella plus basil as I do I think the Margherita inspired Amore was my favorite of the two, though the coppa was not quite as mesmerizing as the briny house cured bacon – too bad they won’t allow that bacon as a Build Your Own topping, though I understand why given the limited quantity.
Working hard to resist eating the whole pie (particularly with Little Bird reservations to follow) I requested half the pie be boxed (or foiled, as is the trend in Portland) and took it home for my friend; I didn’t see it there in the fridge the following day so I assume all went well. A legend for very good reason and entirely worth the hype (and maybe even an hour wait if you don’t have reservations) this is a pizza that even for $30 after a hefty tip felt like a deal – on par with the Great Lake’s and DiFara’s for best non-woodfired pizzas I’ve ever had the opportunity to taste.
--PINE STATE BISCUITS--
Moving past pizzas to something I have decidedly less experience with, biscuits, I’d originally planned to visit Pine State Biscuit for breakfast towards the tail end of my trip to Portland but wandering past the Belmont location during the very first Saturday of my stay and finding the line only five persons deep I knew I’d be foolish to pass by without stopping in for a bite – even if I had just finished brunch at Woodsman Tavern…and even if I was en route to The Waffle Window.
A small space, literally a handful of tables and s small bar along the window with a bustling kitchen of six churning out Creamtop buttermilk biscuit after Creamtop buttermilk biscuit topped with any number of fresh local ingredients it would be only perhaps ten minutes before I found myself at the front of the line and at this point weighing both options and hunger I decided to go for what I’d heard the last three persons before me order – The Reggie Deluxe – plus a pair of desserts to go, and stepping aside I watched the kitchen at work, each member assigned a specific task and working in succession to expedite the process as the line suddenly swelled to fifteen or twenty.
With my order now in hand and a spot serendipitously opening at the bar I took my bag to the side and unpacking my goods as I browsed the concert posters and local art I started with an appetizer – the weakest item of the group in the form of moist but overly sweet butternut squash bread; a slice I I’d expected to be a bit more savory and although good, not great.
Moving next to the main event, the Reggie Deluxe, there really is not much I can add that hasn’t been said about this gluttonous pile of crisp and juicy fried chicken, thick bacon, country gravy, cheddar cheese, and a still-runny fried egg between two of the most wonderful, fluffy, and buttery biscuits I’ve ever tasted – to make it simple, if this sounds like something you’d like then you should order it and if it does not sound like something you’d like then…aside from there possibly being something wrong with you…you should probably order it anyhow since it might change your mind, particularly as Pine State avoids the common mistake of allowing the gravy to overwhelm and thus allows each ingredient to shine.
At this point sated but certainly not “full” I disposed of my garbage and quickly giving up my seat to another waiting patron I was bid farewell by the friendly crew and taking to the street with plastic utensils in hand I attacked the house made Pecan Pie with zeal, the thin $3 slice ample with brown sugar, bourbon, and vanilla beneath toasty pecans supported by a flaky golden shell; a textbook rendition of the southern classic that would have only been better warm with ice cream and coffee; the later available from Stumptown in both hot and cold brew forms at Pine State.
Generally treating sandwiches as snacks when traveling and told that Portland features many excellent ones – from Bunk to Lardo to Kenny and Zukes the place that most caught my eye was a small restaurant-within-a-store called Evoe – located in Pastaworks on Hawthorne. Having spent the majority of the day checking out the Pacific coast from Tilamook to Seaside and arriving back in PDX well before dinner reservations at Le Pigeon the sandwich and charcuterie stop seemed like the perfect spot for a quick bite.
Tucked in the back corner of an enormous Italian Grocery store (incidentally connected to another store full of oddities and knick-knacks that requires more exploring when I have more time and open space in my luggage) I arrived at Evoe to find the bar empty and the two workers chatting, slicing, and preparing jars of pickles as I was invited to sit where I like; the menu directly above the bar and featuring no less than 4 sandwiches and a dozen charcuterie options that sounded divine. Asking questions about the meats felt a little bit like an episode of Portlandia as the heritage and curing was described at length, but with samples offered as we moved along who was I to complain – the cured salmon and jamon iberco both excellent.
Order placed what followed next would prove to be anything but a “quick bite,” though the results were well worth it as I spent the next thirty minutes watching true artistry in the composition of both my sandwich and a side dish – each ingredient picked, cut, toasted, roasted, or grilled individually and sauces made on the spot; this is serious sandwich making, not some “Sandwich Artist” throwing deli meat on a bun that came pre-frozen from the factory, and starting with a beautiful torchon of Foie Gras with Walnut toast and Sauteed Pears – both made as my house cured foie was sliced and my sandwich was prepared – you’d be hard pressed to find a more nicely composed torchon at a bistro in Paris or Montreal. Silky and buttery, completely deveined and spreadable on the warm toast as the pears provided a sweet juxtaposition the only thing that could have made this better was a glass of Tokaji or Sauternes.
Moving next to a dish suggested by the chef when I asked what was best, the Little Bo Peep Sandwich would prove every bit as good as the quality of its four ingredients – the tender and gamey lamb meatballs with a bit of mint and pepper, a rich but surprisingly light feta and olive oil sauce muddled right before service, and bitter frisee on thick ciabatta more with great chew and wispy pockets quite amenable to soaking up the sauce without becoming soggy. Truly a case of letting great ingredients show for themselves this is what sandwich making is all about to me – a composition of tastes, flavors, and textures every bit on par with other raved sandwich spots like Paseo, Paesanos, and even Roli Roti but entirely unique and distinctly Portland.
Up next – a quick stop…literally only 10 minutes – took me to the oft raved Cacao for a taste of their drinking Cocoa and finding a short line before me I took a few moments to browse their other selections, a veritable who’s who of American and European chocolatiers including Amadei, Mast Brothers, and many more with bars and tabs ranging from a few dollars to just shy of twenty. Pleasant enough and nicely designed with florals and woods the dominant tones of the room it would not be long before I was greeted by a young lady at the bar and placing my order for a single $2 shot of Rivoli Dark Drinking Chocolate the beverage was poured and I grabbed a chair before taking a sip.
Designated on the board as 72% Ecuadorian Chocolate in milk and cream yet somehow less bitter and more sweet/berry than I’d have expected perhaps this was a case where I expected too much – or perhaps a case where I was simply jaded – but the fact remains I’ve had much better both stateside (La Burdick and Christopher Elbow) and abroad (Jacques Genin,) though admittedly not for $2. A fine spot, but not nearly a ‘destination’ in a city with so many other great places to spend time, dollars, and calories.
--COOL MOON (and a quick word on how bad Tillamook Ice cream is)--
Wrapping up some of the random bites before and after meals with ice cream (and intentionally trying to erase the memories of the abomination I tasted at Tillamook a few days prior – seriously, the cheese curds are good but between the Fireside S’mores and Caramel Butter Pecan ice cream I’m not sure which is the worst thing I’ve put in my mouth in 2013) a walk down Johnson Street would lead me to Cool Moon Ice Cream; a locally owned small batch ice cream store that I’d heard mixed things about but decided to visit anyhow largely because I was in the area. Natural and organic, made in-store, and focused on local ingredients with an egg-laced base rather than that of pure milk and cream I knew entering the store that the smallest size available would be the better part of valor and yet as I looked at the menu I knew some sampling would be in order – an act happily facilitated by a young Asian woman who more or less suggested I try everything before making my final selections – two scoops amongst the dozen I tasted including delicate dairy free chocolate sorbet and mandarin orange sorbet plus rich Coffee Crackle, Café Vesuvio, Birthday Cake, Horchata Cookie, and Thai Iced Tea ice creams plus others I’m sure I’ve forgotten.
Taking my $5 pair of scoops to a small table next to an elderly woman and her dog while I browsed a map of the Pearl District my proper selections began with a rather disappointing Salty Caramel that I selected largely because the young server seemed so sold on how ‘amazing’ it was despite the use of no corn syrup and while the texture was indeed quite nice the flavor was simply lacking – a taste that was not “caramel” but rather just “sweet,” like tasting ice cream base without any additions. Moving next to the a vastly superior second scoop, “Peanut Butter and Jelly” would up the ante substantially by providing the same outstanding custard texture but this time truly representing the flavors with rich curls of peanut butter in a flavorful grape base; the finish even featuring a slight yeasty note that completed the picture of a frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich – a flavor I’d really never noted in an ice cream prior but would happily revisit.
--SALT & STRAW--
For the last of my between-meal bites in Portland each of Salt & Straw’s locations would receive a visit – the location on 23rd just after 7:30am before my side trip to Seattle and the one on Alberta mere hours before I departed Portland en route for home…obviously I was impressed or I’d not have gone back, but beyond the quality and originality of the ice cream it was the service that impressed me most since I was literally taken aside at both places and given a spoon-by-spoon education on the shop and its ingredients regardless of whether there was a line (Alberta) or if I was the only person crazy enough to be eating ice cream at 7:30am in the middle of a storm.
Like much of the PDX Artisan scene the story at Salt & Straw begins with a single person whose idea bloomed into something entirely original and interesting by focusing on craft, quality, and organic local ingredients. Dedicated to the point of making their own chocolate, caramel, and certain baked items in house while incorporating ultra-high butterfat milk and interesting ingredients instead of simply making each flavor a sugar bomb or relying on additives the result of this “farm to cone” process is probably the creamiest ice cream I’ve ever tasted and with a density akin to gelato this is ice cream that eats like a meal, particularly the Malek’s signature flavors – a well culled collection matched by interesting seasonal flavors that change by the month.
Moving past waxing poetic and onto the flavors I’d be hard pressed to name all of the metal spoons I licked clean at Salt & Straw on either day, though particularly memorable options included Coffee and Bourbon, Pear with Blue Cheese, Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper, and Chocolate Mole but when it came time to order three options proved to be la crème de la crème, on my first visit the Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons and on my second a 2-scoop cup of Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache and Candycap Mushroom with Port.
Beginning first with the Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons a common theme sat Salt & Straw was the complex balance of sweet and salty with expected flavors used in clever manners, in this case the base ice cream actually salty vanilla with the caramel so sumptuous and interwoven that the end result was like two layers twisted into perhaps the best “salty caramel” ice cream I’ve ever tasted – a bold assertion given my fondness for Toscanini’s, Jeni’s, Humphry Slocombe, and Sweet Rose Creamery – but one I’ll stand by until all four can be tasted side-by-side, and one only furthered by the quality of my other two selections as each were equally creamy, incredibly balanced, and beguiling in their ability to take savory ingredients and fold them into the rich starter with an end result a flavor entirely unique, the almond brittle almost ‘smoky’ on the palate and the candycap mushroom distinctly earthy but also leavened tasting; the end result when blended with port something like pancakes with syrup meets poached pears – definitely an eye opener and quite unlike anything I’d experienced before in an ice cream.