Portland restaurant report: A feeding frenzy

This report took forever. As mentioned previously, life got in the way of writing. Long story short: Gastrolust headquarters will be moving in exactly one month. (Hopefully!) Staying in Seattle, but read on to see how we were almost tempted to move to Portland…

Ten years of living in Seattle, and never a trip to Portland? Unacceptable. To make up for lost time, Akiko and I recently spent four nights in the City of Roses. Food fanatic that I am, I asked anyone who knows anything about Portland to help me build my dining itinerary. As the suggestions rolled in, I realized that even five days would mean too little time, too much to eat. It’s further challenging when there are only two people in the dining party, but we were lucky that food-loving friends from Seattle would be in town the same weekend, and that there were new friends to meet in Portland. Last minute, trying to enjoy the relaxing ride that Amtrak provided us, I was putting finishing touches on the tasting schedule. Despite our voracious appetites, some restaurants had to be shelved for a future visit, which will surely be in far fewer than ten years.

Day 1

Ping – The only downside of the Amtrak trip was that while we were initially rushing toward an early arrival, construction on the last few miles of the rails made us late. Plans to go to Park Kitchen went out the window, but luckily I knew that a little walk through Chinatown would take us to Ping—sister of Pok Pok, which was on the to-do list for later in the trip. I liked the funky vibe inside, exclaiming that we don’t have restaurants like this in Seattle. Unfortunately, lunch service had now flipped to happy hour, which meant limited menu selections. The steamed pork buns were flavorful (perfectly sweet) and filling—better than the ju pa bao, a Macanese style pork chop bun that’s deep fried in pork fat and served on a soft roll, “unadorned.” Cute, but boring; had it been adorned, it might have been more adored. More disappointing, the deep fried tiny fish were something straight out of a bag, and the spicy mama ramen tasted as advertised: doctored up instant ramen. We cut our losses (happy hour prices were reasonable) and left, admiring the space but hoping to come back at a better time to try more of the menu.

View Portland Day 1

The Biwa cart; drinks at Bluehour; Ping’s steamed pork buns

Bluehour – People kept promising that the room would be sexy and seductive. They were right. The most striking feature of Bluehour: the flowing, floor-to-ceiling curtains which are simply mesmerizing. We walked around the whole restaurant, checking out the various seating areas, until we settled for a spot in the corner, back by the front door. Adding to the ambiance is the lounge music, with the overall effect so entrancing that I quickly settled in with my drink. Dinner was next on the agenda, though, so we simply shared a few small plates, including a butcher’s board of salame, salmon tartare with potato gaufrettes, and bay shrimp and ruby grapefruit salad. This is definitely a place to see and be seen. And to enjoy the scene. We wanted to stay longer and see how the light changed as the sun set further, but it was time to go to dinner.

Biwa – We were so taken by Biwa’s bright red wagon-on-wheels outside the restaurant that when we relayed that to chef/owner Gabe Rosen, his partner offered Akiko a ride, which she couldn’t resist. I, on the other hand, took in the atmosphere of the restaurant, which instantly transported me to Tokyo. With yakimono on the menu, I’d recommend sitting at the end of the counter area, where a few seats have a view of the grilling action. (Note: Stools at the counter area directly in front of the kitchen are blocked by walls, making it hard to see any of the cooking.) On this night, though, we were at a regular table on the other side of the room. Rosen sent out dish after dish from various parts of the menu, ranging from maguro poke to gyoza to ramen. I especially enjoyed the saba nanbanzuke (spicy vinegar pickled mackerel, which I’d like to see on more Japanese menus) and the grilled fava beans (dipped in just a little salt). There are some Korean-influenced dishes, like kimchi chijimi (Korean griddle cake) that make me want to visit again—especially now that I found a Korean cookbook I like. The only miss for me, though, was the ramen—our last dish of the night. The menu calls it “Biwa Special Ramen” with dark and porky soy sauce soup. So far, so good. But my first slurp of noodles and broth surprised me. What is that taste, I wondered? And then I knew. Charred onions. Charred onions? In ramen? Maybe if I knew what was coming, I’d have liked it, but the taste was off for me. As Rosen and I would discuss, there are hundreds of ramen restaurants and varieties in large Japanese cities. “It’s easy to get dogmatic about ramen,” he said. Well, I admit, I can be a dogmatic type of guy. My suggestion: Just change the menu description to indicate “charred flavor ahead.” Rosen’s such a nice guy and running such a great restaurant, I hope he’ll do it.

(For more shots from Biwa, click here.)

Day 2

P1040035 Our first two nights of the trip, we stayed at Hotel DeLuxe, a charming, throw-back hotel affording easy, walkable (but, really, isn’t so much of Portland wonderfully walkable?) access to downtown, the Pearl District, and the Nob Hill neighborhood. The style is art deco, decorated with the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood. I especially enjoyed the many golden age photos on the walls. Our room was incredibly spacious and the bed comfortable.

Ken’s Artisan Bakery – Oh, the croissant was pretty good, but I was after a morning bun. Someone had told me about Ken’s morning buns, so I was glad I remembered, as I didn’t see them in the display case, and there was no mention on the menu board. But they bestowed a bun on me. It was moist and flavorful, matching well with a wake-up morning coffee. Ken’s is a bustling bakery. When we eventually scored a table by the window, what did we notice just down the street? Tanuki. But that meal would have to wait for a couple of days.

View Portland Day 2

Avocado and corn at Andina; sashimi at Departure; Ten 01’s gorgeous pea soup

Ten 01 – I’d been hearing mixed reviews about this restaurant in my pre-trip planning research. Some said it was one of the hallmark restaurants in the city, well worth visiting, while others said it was past its heyday and suffering from some changes in the kitchen. True, there’s a new chef at the helm, but you’d hardly know it from the food we sampled. A beautiful, chilled pea soup with carrot, basil and flowers was a feast for the eyes, and indicative of the clean and creative tastes we enjoyed this lunch. I loved the lentils accompanying Manila and savory clams, the beefiness of the Strawberry Mountain grass-fed hamburger, and the scent of truffle in the addictive fries. Beef tartare was tasty, fava risotto fresh and oh-so-Pacific Northwest, and halibut aguillette a new and interesting preparation for a fish I often find boring. The only disappointment was the chicken liver mousse, which I wanted more liver-y and less mousse-y. Yes, I like my organ meats straight up.

(For more shots from Ten 01, click here.)

Departure – At the Nines, we shared an elevator to the top floor with locals, who upon seeing the purple pathway wondered, “This is in Portland?” The rooftop restaurant’s exterior boasts expansive views, while the interior looks like a cross between a spaceship and a cruise ship. I had a chance to chat briefly with Executive Chef Bryan Emperor (who, I just learned, has apparently just departed Departure), whose experience in Asia inspired his menu. A selection of sashimi was fabulous, featuring high quality fish. I liked the juicy pork buns (made with pork belly and Szechuan pepper sauce—two of my favorite things) better than the Kobe meatballs (panko-crusted, but if advertising foie gras, I want to taste foie gras). And you’ve gotta like a restaurant that sells Koshihigari rice as its own menu item. I should mention that the service was stellar, with our waiter wittily describing the menu items and making drink suggestions, though I was naturally drawn to the Thai chili in the Hatori Hanzo and the muddled Thai basil in the Tasho Macho. My thoughts strayed to eating more and spending an evening that would end with some Szechuan coffee, but it was time to go on to dinner at…

Andina – Consistently rated by Urbanspoon as number one for fine dining in Portland, I was interested in participating in an upscale Peruvian experience. It was just the two of us for this meal, so it took time to navigate the menu and make the best choices. But first, it was time for sacsayhuaman, one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had in my life: habanero pepper infused vodka shaken with passion fruit puree and cane sugar, served up with a sugar rim and a cilantro leaf garnish. Herbal, spicy and refreshing. As for the food, we sampled some ceviche, which was good, but I’m realizing I like the raw over cooked. (Must be the sushi lover in me!) We enjoyed some beef hearts and an avocado dish, as well as the purple potato. I was just a tad disappointed with my tuna, formally known as atun con tacu tacu y aguaymanto, from the novo-Andean menu. The dish consists of a healthy portion of seared yellowfin tuna with black pepper and orange zest, with sides of lentil “tacu-tacu” and orange-endive salsa criolla (both delicious). The cape gooseberry aji-Amarillo sauce, however, simply overpowered the fish. The restaurant bounced back, though, with a wonderful tomato, sesame seed and lavender sorbet. It’s the third time I’ve had a tomato-based dessert in the past year, and all have impressed me.

(For more shots from Andina, click here.)

Day 3

Broder – I rarely go out for breakfast in Seattle, so four mornings in Portland presented interesting possibilities for this early riser. Knowing that a full slate of food would follow each day, I didn’t really want to do the multiple egg and cream sauce and carbo-loading thing. So while I got lots of great recommendations (including Podnah, Simpatica, Mother’s, Screen Door, and Pambiche), I wanted something light and different. Without a car for this particular stay, ever-changing Vietnamese soup at HA & VL was out of the picture. (But I’ll be back, and I hear it’s worth the trip.) Then friends in the food world started recommending Broder, and when the Seattle restaurant reviewer I trust most, Jonathan Kauffman of Seattle Weekly, wrote me saying it was one of his favorites, I was sold. Broder meant an easy bus ride across the river, and a chance to start exploring some interesting neighborhoods. The meal was fabulous. Aside from the much-heralded aebleskivers (served with maple syrup, lingonberry jam, and lemon curd—my top pick) rivaling those I’ve eaten in Solvang, we ordered trout hash and also a baked scramble with a refreshing side salad. We loved the atmosphere of this cute little eatery. (Hmm…I guess I did get eggs and carbs—but I did eat a salad, too!)

(For more shots from Broder, click here.)

View Portland Day 3

Pizzas at Nostrana; Pok Pok’s chicken wings; aebleskivers at Broder

Nostrana – After Chef Cathy Whims impressed me with her food at the Beard nominees dinner earlier this year, I told her I’d come down to her restaurant, and here I was, two months later. What a great experience! We met friends, and immediately ordered the house charcuterie plate and a colleague-recommended Nostrana salad, which is like a Caesar salad but made with radicchio. Good, complementary starters. Next we placed an order for two pizzas, but in the meantime Whims sent out one of the day’s fish specials (paglia e fieno: “straw and hay” spinach and egg fettucine with tuna cream sauce, garlic, pea shoots, parsley and fava beans). Luscious can be an overused, meaningless word, but trust me—this dish was luscious. We also got a flight of three small plates (this concept is new to the menu, and I think it’s a winner!) that included zuppa arcidossana (with sweet sausage, ciabbata bread, spinach and ricotta salata), parched wheat orecchiette (with broccoli raab, anchovies and Calabrian olives), and Sicilian Farmer’s bruschetta (with wild oregano, chilies, Keith’s marsarpone, spring raab and oven-candied tomatoes). The flight is an inexpensive way to sample a few plates, and get a sense of true Italian cooking at a reasonable cost ($12). At this point, the thought pizza was a little overwhelming, but I grabbed some scissors and helped slice our pies, with the standard Margherita my favorite. (The meat was just a little too dominant in the luganega: spicy sausage with smoked mozzarella, tomato and cime di rapa.) Oh, there was definitely room for another slice (or three) of pizza, especially when it was this good. (It’s not DiFara, but definitely high quality ingredients and good crust.) And as if we’d not had enough for lunch, Whims sent out one of the best panna cottas I’ve ever eaten, explaining that Nancy’s yogurt makes it special. She also suggested we come back for late-night happy hour, when pizzas are discounted to $5. Twist my arm. Oh, if the schedule wasn’t so full, we’d be back, sitting right at the counter and watching the pies come out of the oven.

(For more shots from Nostrana, click here.)

Sahagun Handmade Chocolates – There’s always room for chocolate, right? That meant a sweet stop at Sahagun. It’s a tiny little shop, but well worth visiting. We sampled a number of owner Elizabeth Montes’ delicacies. Even on warm days, I like to try hot chocolate at a shop like this. And it was a good one, made with single origin chocolate. Later, I’d enjoy the sun drops and salted caramels that I took back to the hotel.

Teardrop Lounge – A perfect place to take a breather and meet up with friends, new and old. This is one of the “it” places, and it was fun to sit in it for a while. On this great eating day, I had a drink called “The Longest Day,” with tequila, leche de pina, lemon, apricot liqueur, agave nectar, and soda.

Cupcake Jones – If I was a dog, this would be my favorite cupcake shop, as they serve doggie cupcakes. But I’m human, so I needed a human cupcake—though not a big one before the big dinner ahead. The orange creamsicle mini served me just fine. I must say, though: I’m not so sure about this whole cupcake phenomenon, and may comment on that more in the future.

Pix Patisserie – Another sweet? Well, when you’re on the wait list at Pok Pok and it means an hour or more before eating, why not stroll down the street to check out Pix? Actually, we’d been in earlier, stumbling across it while walking from Broder to the Hawthorne neighborhood (shopping at the Powell’s Books for Home and Garden, a dangerous detour for home cooks) and somehow avoiding a snack at EVOO. I wanted another gaze at the gorgeous delicacies in the showcase. And who can’t resist sampling some macarons, which were right on par with what I’ve had in Seattle at Bakery Nouveau, though I like Honore’s better.

Pok Pok – I continually complain that Thai food in Seattle is too uniform in its offerings. Pok Pok is further proof that we can be doing better. The long wait is more than worthwhile. With its indoor and outdoor seating, and cooking areas scattered about the place, it feels like Thailand. This is definitely a place to go to with a group to experience as much as possible. Luckily, four of us were able to sample a number of dishes, including the legendary Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings chicken wings, which were amazing. Papaya salad was a good pairing with this dish (along with some sticky rice, of course). I also enjoyed the crispy broken crepe with mussels, eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts (hoi thawt). I was most excited to try the boar collar meat rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled and served with chilled mustard greens and a chili-lime-garlic sauce (muu paa kham waan). Delicious, as was everything we ate at Pok Pok. You’d be lucky to find more than one of these offerings on any Thai menu in Seattle—and I doubt there’d be a match in quality. This meal sealed the deal on the best day of dining we’d have in Portland—and they will all be quite good.

(For more shots from Pok Pok, click here.)

Day 4

DP_trans_03.tif We woke up this morning at the Hotel Lucia, sister to Hotel DeLuxe. As much as I liked DeLuxe, I liked Lucia even more for its newer feel. The room was smaller, but the lobby area was interesting with contemporary art touches. (Might I mention the fabulous photos by David Hume Kennerly, including a shot of Hugh Hefner and some bunnies by the elevator?) The staff was warm and friendly, helpful with local versus touristy ideas. And with its location in downtown proper, it meant an easy Saturday morning walk to…

Portland Farmers Market – Let me first state: I adore Pike Place Market, and I really appreciate all of Seattle’s neighborhood markets. Was it just the visitor in me, though, that made me say, “Why don’t we have a farmers market like this?” On the grounds of Portland State University, there was something extra satisfying about it. Perhaps the openness of the park adjoining it. Perhaps the layout. Perhaps the entertainment connected to it. A little of all of those, but I think that in addition to the various vendors (one was selling only garlic scapes!—and I scooped up a bunch of those to bring home!), the food vendors made it majestic.

Tastebud – I sampled some of the pizza, and especially enjoyed a slice with leeks, though like the DeLaurenti pizza I recently wrote about, it was too bready.

Two Tarts Bakery – A selection of cute sweets. Even rugelach! It’s easy to see why Two Tarts attracts a crowd. We bought a few mini-cookies and enjoyed them on the train ride home.

Pine State Biscuits – This was our top pick at the farmers market. It’s the equivalent of Paseo’s sandwiches in Seattle for the mess factor. Sit down to eat it. The gravy option tempted me, but I went with the McIsley: fried chicken with pickles and honey mustard. Akiko didn’t think she’d like biscuits or the overall heaviness of the dish, but she ate her fair share, such that I was happy to have gotten an extra biscuit which I enjoyed with marionberry jam. Maybe she’s now ready for fried chicken with waffles?

View Portland Day 4

Tanuki’s hotate sudachi; sign at Tanuki; Pine State Biscuit

Tanuki – Before long, it was time for Tanuki. I kept hearing about the impossibly low-priced omakase experience, so we sat at the counter (watching some very bizarre, sometimes bloody, sometimes sexy, Japanese television) and said we’d love to sample food for $25. Chef/Owner Janis Martin shuffled back and forth from the kitchen, bringing dish after delicious dish, describing them briefly. And delivering intriguing samples of sake and more to match them. Martin has never been to Japan, but she clearly has a knack for Japanese food (which we love), embellished with Korean (which we love) and Southeast Asian (yes, which we love) influences. Did I lose count at a dozen dishes? You can check here for all of them, excluding the edamame starter and miso soup closer. First up was uni with real wasabi and shiro shoyu, which we normally order last at sushi restaurants so we can end with Akiko’s favorite food. Fabulous, as was the hamachi sashimi. A bunch of skewers, oysters with kimchi shaved ice (wow), delicious kimchi and reverse “tanabata” kim chi (veggies fresh, sauce fermented), watermelon-radish salad (Martin brings veggies from her garden), and more and more and more. Tanuki is a special restaurant. We want to take the train back as soon as possible (especially with rumors of change ahead) to experience more: noodles, pork belly, goat, ribs, and whatever Martin feels like serving. Note the sign upon entering: “No sushi, no kids.” And no messing around. This was one of my most memorable meals of the year to date.

(For more shots from Tanuki, click here.)

Cool Moon Ice Cream – May as well add “No dessert” to the Tanuki sign, but they’ll direct you to Cool Moon for a sweet ending. The Thai chili peanut is Martin’s favorite, and I quite liked it (though not as much as the peanut ice I’ve eaten in Mexico), but a fresher finish was the mango sorbet. Get it to go, sit out in the park, and wonder as we did, “Why are more people out enjoying themselves on the streets in Portland than in Seattle?”

Day 5

Beast – I knew I’d like this restaurant simply based on the name. Once seated at one of the two communal tables, I smiled upon reading this on the blackboard: “Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good piece of meat.” Brunch at Beast is a four-course affair for $28 (more if you’d like wine pairings) and definitely includes meat. First up was a delicately delicious brown butter crepe with maple bourbon caramel, tay berries, and maple glazed bacon. Just perfect. Next came braised shortribs which were rich in taste and melted in the mouth. Along with the ribs were porcinis, peas and potato hash—and I didn’t mind the Benedicted egg that accompanied it all. The third course was a refreshing little salad of baby greens, and a selection of three cheeses. That was followed by the final course: a caramel and chocolate tartlette that was divine. (The tart was simplicity on the plate, but I would have liked just a little seasonal fruit to go with it—perhaps even just one of those juicy Oregon strawberries.) Beast is a bit pricy, but the brunch is well worth it—enticing me to return for dinner sometime.

View Portland Day 5

Pastrami w/chopped liver at Kenny & Zuke’s; a rack at Voodoo Doughnuts; Beast’s beautiful brunch crepe

Voodoo Doughnut – Not far from Lucia, I meant to make Voodoo a late-night stop (the best time to go to see the colorful characters), but the food coma from Tanuki dashed those intentions. Still, even in the middle of the day, there was quite a line, and quite a scene. I loved the tacky stuff for sale, and was overwhelmed by the doughnut choices (not wanting the maple-bacon, as, amazingly—and at the risk of losing my foodie status, I’m feeling over-baconed these days). So I asked the counterguy for his recommendation of one doughnut to try. I think he gave me a peanut butter-Oreo-something-or-other. I took it outside where Akiko used the Vado camera to videotape my introduction and first couple of bites—only to later find out that it didn’t record properly. So no such footage, and the sugar rush had me immediately forget what I ate. Let’s just say that Voodoo’s doughnuts are sweet.

Kenny & Zuke’s – Beast + Voodoo = stuffed stomach. So that meant Kenny + Zuke’s to grab a sandwich for the train ride home. The pastrami and chopped liver (what a wonderful marriage!) sandwich was huge and tasty, and came with a bit of cole slaw. It was an ongoing reminder, until we reached that last bite, of the fine food that Portland has to offer. We’ll be back…

Ping on Urbanspoon

Bluehour on Urbanspoon

Biwa on Urbanspoon

Ken's Artisan Bakery on Urbanspoon

Ten 01 on Urbanspoon

Departure on Urbanspoon

Andina on Urbanspoon

Broder on Urbanspoon

Nostrana on Urbanspoon

Sahagun on Urbanspoon

Teardrop Lounge on Urbanspoon

Cupcake Jones on Urbanspoon

Pix Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Pix Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Pix Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Pok Pok & Whiskey Soda Lounge on Urbanspoon

Tastebud on Urbanspoon

Two Tarts Bakery on Urbanspoon

Pine State Biscuits on Urbanspoon

Tanuki on Urbanspoon

Cool Moon Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Beast on Urbanspoon

Voodoo Doughnut on Urbanspoon

Voodoo Doughnut Too on Urbanspoon

Kenny and Zuke's on Urbanspoon

7 Responses to “Portland restaurant report: A feeding frenzy”

  1. August 16, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    In four-and-a-half days? Heroic!

    You hit a great mix of places and several favorites. When you come back for Tanuki’s goat, add Toro Bravo and Laurelhurst Market…maybe Beaker & Flask for happy hour. Hmm, and Apizza Scholls to compare against Seattle pizza? We’ll drive you! Or a burger-off: four people= 1 burger + 4 cocktails @ 4 places in one night. It can be done…but our vote was too split to be useful.

    Great reporting, glad your experience was a good one. Hope to have you back soon.

  2. August 16, 2009 at 11:26 am #

    PS: Wish I’d known of your site/writings in advance of a recent trip to Seattle. (In PDX 8 years, first trip up to SEA.) Yelp and Seattle Weekly research made it somewhat hit-and-miss. Next time!

  3. admin
    August 17, 2009 at 12:08 am #

    Denise, thanks for writing – and for your recommendations. All the places you mentioned are already on our to-do list for next time. I’ll keep your info on hand! In Seattle, I like Jonathan Kauffman’s recommendations in the Weekly, so I’d hang in there with him as a resource for future visits. But I’m thrilled if you read here as well…

  4. Dave Mo
    December 2, 2009 at 8:36 am #

    Wow, that was an amazing read with superlative photos. As a Portland resident it was great to see you enjoy the places I know and give me a preview of places that are still on my list. Also interesting to hear your perspective since I’m a Seattle native, I’d love to do a similar food tour up there since I’m not in touch with the restaurant scene up there any more, although my agents are ready.

  5. admin
    December 2, 2009 at 9:13 am #

    Glad you liked the report, Dave. Feel free to consider me one of your “agents” by perusing all the Seattle write-ups I’ve done.

  6. Nayukpa
    April 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    Thank you so much for having posted this info on PDX resteraunts. I will be attending a conference for a few days in Portland, and after having been there one other time, I knew there were better food places to be had, and I am proved right! I will enjoy my stay there from SF, and thanks to you, will eat well.

  7. admin
    April 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    Nayukpa, glad this posting helped. Have a great trip, and feel free to report back on your meals!

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