Edibility. It’s what I came to evaluate in a different type of trip for me to Portland. Admittedly, I’m skeptical of bargain food months, food carts and food tours. Oh, and also hipster hotels, where I spotted that “edibility” word.
It’s one of many words you’ll find, as I did, on the wall inside guest room 303 of the Ace Hotel. A writer like me appreciates pages of the dictionary plastered on a couple of walls of my room.
Portland Dining Month (PDM) was my main mission of the trip. I’m a skeptic because bargain (set) menus often mean busy kitchens (and harried servers) pumping out largely pre-prepared food for crowds of people likely never to return the restaurants they’re trying. But maybe Portland would surprise me, as it often does?
PDM differs from what we have in Seattle in that most Portland restaurants offer a set menu with no choices. $29 generally gets you one pre-selected appetizer, one pre-selected entrée, and one pre-selected dessert. So in shopping around, you need to not only find a restaurant you want to try, but also make sure it’s serving food you want to eat. Come with a companion, and the second person gets the same meal at the same price—or can order a la carte from the regular menu. My companion and I opted for the second option for more variety. Here’s what we experienced.
The PDM menu at Lincoln:
- Spinach salad with fennel, kumquats, olives, almonds and dill. Nicely dressed, but a rather small portion with just a few leaves of spinach.
- Pork chop with borlotti beans. Seemed like just an “elevated” pork and beans, but brining with molasses made for a moist chop that paired well with the plump, sweet beans.
- Chocolate fudge cake with salted caramel. A wet horizontal slab with much-welcomed sea salt to balance the sweetness.
Our non-PDM selections at Lincoln:
- Brussels sprouts and grapes with cashews, ras el hanout and mint. Intriguing spice sadly dominated by too much salt had us grasping for precious grapes in each bite.
- Albacore bucatini with octopus Bolognese, clams and mint. Ironically, we wanted more salt in this dish to amp up the flavor. The fat noodles were cooked appropriately al dente, but maybe needed more sauce to temper their dominance (and dryness).
Assessment: The PDM menu seemed too simple. Overall, not a bad meal, but not compelling to warrant a return.
The PDM menu at Ataula:
- Pulpo: octopus carpaccio with sun-dried tomato, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pine nuts and pickled Cipollini onions. Served with tortilla de patatas con bellota with farm eggs, confit potatoes, onions and 4-year cured Ibérico ham. This was a generous starter with delicious octopus and herbs, and of course fantastic Ibérico ham draped on an egg omelet like well-imagined Spanish “nigiri.”
- Mini rossejat negre with toasted noodles, calamari, squid ink, sofrito and harissa aioli. Not the most picturesque dish (fortunately the parsley oil added some color), but was very flavorful and filling.
- Brioche donut with spiced sugar. Not advertised online, this warm dessert was melt-in-your-mouth satisfying.
Our non-PDM selections at Ataula:
- Pa amb tomàquet: house coca bread, shredded tomato and extra-virgin olive oil. Simple and yet an umami blast.
- Remolacha: pickled beets, compressed apples, spiced quail eggs, Parmesan cracker and cumin croutons. There was a lot going on in this refreshing dish. (Far more complex and abundant than the Lincoln salad.) I loved the various greens, some bitter.
- Ataula montadito: house-cured salmon, mascarpone, yogurt, black truffle honey and coca bread. Two delicious bites with wonderful flavors.
- Vieira: plancha-seared bay scallops, parsnip-piparra puree, sobrassada powder, lime-sage gastrique and squid ink potato chips. I’m not usually a fan of these little scallops, but they were great in this preparation, picking up all the flavors in the dish while still retaining sweetness.
Assessment: No wonder people were lined up at the relatively early 4:30pm opening time. The PDM menu reflected the regular menu (a “greatest hits,” as our server said) and more than made the case for a return visit.
[The early dinner at Ataula afforded us the chance to have a second, late dinner at Muselet. Here we intended to do the PDM menu, which actually offered pairs of plates for each course (all savory, part of the appeal) designed for sharing between two people. Muselet hosted our meal and ultimately decided to tweak the dinner to “better reflect what the restaurant is doing”—a sign to me that perhaps restaurants are prouder of their non-bargain menu dishes. The meal was fantastic, with wine pairings a strong suit of the restaurant. They served my favorite dish of my whole trip. Scroll down to the bottom of this article for an accounting of the meal.]
The PDM menu at Clyde Common (in the Ace Hotel):
- Pork and shiitake lumpia with house sweet and sour sauce. A rather lackluster dish, though fried food fans might still enjoy it.
- Preserved ramp butter risotto with grana padano, chili oil and chicken chicharrónes. Maybe midway between plain-cooked rice and risotto, this dish was not at all creamy. Advertised flavors were all muted.
- Local bee honey panna cotta with chèvre whipped cream, mixed berry jam and candied pine nuts. This was the best course of the meal, with the sweetness of the honey nicely countering the tanginess of the whipped cream. The jam was distracting.
Our non-PDM selections at Clyde Common:
- Beets with grilled treviso, chévre and pistachio butter. The beets were flat in flavor, the treviso was not grilled, and the pistachio butter had little impact.
- Turbot with creamed nettles, artichokes and smoked uni butter. Interesting choice of fish, with decent smokiness and some sea urchin flavor in the sauce, but overall a forgettable dish.
Assessment: Unfortunately, the PDM menu made for a disappointing meal. Looking around the dining room, the “pub grub” accompanying the cocktails looked more appetizing than the other food on offer.
The better meal at the Ace might be in the breakfast room, if you’re focused on food in the hotel rather than in the outside world. For $12, you get eggs cooked to order, plus lots of local products: bread and pastries from Little T American Baker (I enjoyed a decent croissant), a couple of Olympic Provisions cured meats, locally smoked trout, tea from Steven Smith Teamaker, Stumptown coffee and more.
There are also some local food products (as well as cup ramen) in the Ace Hotel’s guest rooms, along with upscale bath products which they sell at the front desk. Those folks at that front desk are nice and helpful, even if a bit “Portlandia.” The rooms are nice, with comfortable beds and interesting décor, though there is some sacrifice in creature comforts. For example, the clawfoot tub shower isn’t the most user-friendly, and our room lacked electrical outlets and comfortable seating options. Request a room in the back if you don’t want street noise, but note that if you’re not on the top floor, you might get noisy footsteps and more above you.
An unusual amenity: Ace has special bikes to loans its guests. Take advantage, as Portland is a great biking city. But even if you don’t bike, the Ace is a base for plenty to do. Powell’s Books is close and open late. There’s other shopping nearby. Living Room Theaters is across the street, showing interesting films. The Portland Art Museum and weekend markets are in range. And you can just lolly about endlessly in the lobby, watching people play in the photo booth and hang out in general while listening to tunes from albums spinning on the record player.
Assessment: The Ace is retro-hipster and well-worth a stay—at least once. It might not be your life partner, but you’ll be glad you at least went on one date.
While there’s a Stumptown Coffee right in the hotel, Ace’s location put me just a block away from my must-visit hangout (and place for a breakfast bite): Courier Coffee. I always enjoy trying a couple of beans brewed via pour-over (typically buying a bag to bring home), and am endlessly pleased with the canelé they bake on-site in a tiny oven.
Speaking of coffee, I was an invited guest for one of the Third Wave Coffee Tours. As an ardent research and independent explorer, I’m often reticent about group tours, but with love of coffee, wanted to give this a try. Our stops on the “A Streetcar Named Delicious” tour:
- Case Study Coffee Roasters. This was the most educational part of the tour for me, with plenty of time to learn about coffee-brewing techniques and do a comparative tasting.
- Cup & Bar/Trailhead Coffee Roasters. As it’s also the site of Ranger Chocolate Company, this stop demonstrated connections between coffee and chocolate, including a “Dirty Charlie” sample drink. (Though with the amount of avocado toast I saw, maybe the coffee and avocado connection is also of interest?) This is a good stop if the coffee roaster is available to answer questions while roasting.
- Ristretto Roasters. This stop offered an excellent opportunity to learn about and actually experience cupping, though an opportunity to sample some brewed coffee would round out the visit here.
- Nossa Familia Coffee: Just a drop-by for espresso con panna—a “dessert coffee” experience.
- Olé Latte Coffee. Again just a drop-by, but fun to enjoy latte (on this day with pine infusion) at a food cart where you can also be charitable by paying it forward.
Assessment: The tour was well-organized albeit a bit rushed at the end, with less of an educational component at the last two stops. It gives a good introduction to coffee for those who want to learn more, though a little less educational for more experienced coffee aficionados. Still, a fun way to sample a variety of interesting coffee drinks in several of the nearly 900 cafes in Portland.
The food carts are a notable feature of Portland, with a big pod near the Ace Hotel serving up a wide variety of food that’s tempting to sample. I typically find food carts/trucks overpriced, especially given that they’re usually seat-less and service-less. But they seem a little cheaper in Portland than in Seattle. Near the Ace, Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a reliable favorite, but as it’s closed on the weekend, I tried three new-to-me places:
- The Frying Scotsman: While most people order fish and chips (that look good), I couldn’t resist the haggis, made with lamb liver and heart (and oatmeal) and deep-fried like a croquette. It’s a bit minerally though not nearly as funky as I would have desired (maybe because it’s missing other organ meats, some—like lung—not allowed to be served in the U.S.?), but still flavorful and fun for $9 including fries.
- Anna Thai Basil: I picked this cart at random to test a $6 dish. The pad kee mao comes with a choice of meats and was a decent portion, delicious enough and pleasantly spicy per request.
- Bing Mi: This is what a food cart (and even restaurant) should be: Do one dish, and do it right. Bing Mi serves jian bing, a savory Chinese crepe filled with scrambled egg, black bean paste, chili sauce, green onion, cilantro, pickled vegetables and wonton “cracker” (providing crispy texture).
Assessment: If I worked or lived near a Portland food cart pod, I could see eating there on occasion. Some of the food is quite ordinary, but as with Portland Dining Month, if you research carefully, you can find something—as I did this word in room 303 of the Ace Hotel—extraordinary.
Thanks to Travel Portland for helping with travel arrangements and PDM meals.
Speaking of extraordinary, more of the Ataula meal:
And highlights of the extraordinary Muselet meal: