It had been almost two years since we’d been down to Portland, Oregon. Portland has become quite a dining destination in recent years, with skilled chefs opening innovative restaurants constantly. We spent two nights there this weekend, hoping to whittle down the list of restaurants we’ve been compiling. While it was one of our more memorable foodie weekends in recent memory, we’re left with a list that has only grown longer.
The first reservation we made was for Le Pigeon, since we weren’t able to dine there on our last trip. Then, a month ago, my coworker foodie friend Kurt came back from Portland with a glowing review of his meal at Sel Gris, a fine dining restaurant that opened there last fall. We were torn. We’d be there only Saturday through Monday, and neither restaurant is open on Sundays. Should we wait yet another trip to try Le Pigeon, or should we miss out on Sel Gris? In the end, we canceled our reservation at Le Pigeon and made a new reservation for Sel Gris at 5:30 pm. A little earlier than we desired, but it was the only time still available for the 6-seat chef’s counter (where Kurt said we had to sit).
We arrived in Portland during lunchtime. Since we didn’t want to eat much before dinner, we opted for lunch at Escape from New York Pizza. Eric misses the NY pizza from his childhood and is always on a quest to find good NY pizza. He likes Seattle’s A New York Pizza Place, but the crust and sauce there are a little blander than I like. Escape from NY Pizza pleased us both, with tasty sauce, plain cheese pizza for Eric (which he says is the way it’s meant to be eaten), and a New York vibe inside the place.
We did some shopping, checked into our hotel, and then caught a cab to Sel Gris. We were the first to arrive when it opened and sat in the center two seats at the glowing amber counter. It was really tough to order, because so many items sounded good. My eyes kept landing on the pasta dish. I knew it was the token vegetarian dish, and I felt that I should order a meat dish to really see what the chef could do. But I love pasta when it’s done well, and I just couldn’t pass up the artichokes, peas, ramps, mushrooms, and goat cheese, which may as well be a list of all of my favorite things. So I ordered it anyway. Eric chose the lamb. We heard a number of other lamb orders fired after his, and I don’t think we had been sitting there for more than 15 minutes when we heard the chef tell the wait staff that there was only one lamb dish left for the night – apparently they’d had an early run on lamb. I guess our early reservation was fortuitous!
We started with the foie gras done two ways. This was the first dish out of the kitchen that evening, and so our first opportunity to see what beautiful plates Chef Daniel Mondock constructs. The chef’s counter directly overlooks Chef Mondock’s station, where he effortlessly drew a pattern onto our plate with molasses. The plate was warm, so the molasses melted and then thickened as it cooled, sealing in the blood orange sauce alongside. We know this because we were so intrigued by its consistency as we ate it that we had to ask our waitress Mary why it wasn’t fluid as we’d expected. Both foie preparations, one cold and one seared hot, were flawlessly seasoned and we instantly knew what Kurt, and the subsequent reviews we’d read, had been fussing about. This was only the first in a series of spot-on dishes, brilliantly presented and incredibly flavored.
Our salads were next. Mine was fun to eat: a salade composée, where the components of the salad were artfully arranged on a plate. Rabbit paté with a tiny cornichon and mustard on the left, grilled onions cradling olives, figs, crispy pork, and almonds in the middle, and then diced strawberries with cheese on the right. Eric enjoyed the Lyonnaise salad with warmed frisee, lardon, bacon vinaigrette, and a poached duck egg. His only complaint of the night was that while the salad was nicely seasoned, the egg was not, so he had to add some of the sel gris they had provided on the side. Perhaps this was intentional, in homage to the restaurant moniker? It did seem out of place in the salad.
I could tell that our main courses were coming when I saw vivid green English pea puree being spread in a rectangle across a dark plate. The pasta with peas was piled into a cylinder on one side and the vegetables were arranged on the other. One bite and I was happy. Creamy and sweet with the goat cheese sauce and perfectly al dente hand-cut noodles, it was exactly what I was hoping for. But I couldn’t help eyeing Eric’s lamb. He shared a few bites and I now understood why everyone was ordering it. Neither of us had eaten such a tender, flavorful lamb loin before. And then there was the spherical round of spiced lamb balanced on top. What was this? Yellow egg yolk burst from the center when Eric cut into it – an egg had been wrapped in lamb! The pepper crust went perfectly and we agreed this was the best part of the dish, even with that amazing loin.
Over dessert, we chatted a bit with our waitress and one of the waiters. They wanted to know where we’d recommend they eat when they visit Seattle this summer. In exchange, they gave us a few tips on places to try in Portland. We hadn’t even eaten at two restaurants yet and already our list was growing again: Nicholas (Lebanese), Good Taste Restaurant (Chinese), and Restaurant Murata (Japanese).
Mary also told us how she’d lived in Barcelona recently, which piqued our interest, since we love that city. She told us not to miss Cinq Sentits next time we visit, which is an up-and-coming restaurant that she thinks is outstanding. She said that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more widely known.
While we were talking about Portland, she mentioned that Le Pigeon is great, too. We heard this at least twice more during our visit, but even so we didn’t regret missing it. Sel Gris far exceeded our expectations, and we’re glad that we had the chance to dine at this creative Portland restaurant.
We headed back to our hotel, but it was still early – daylight, in fact. Michelle Magidow, from Licorous/Lark, had mentioned that there is an innovative new cocktail bar in the Pearl called Teardrop Lounge. We weren’t really in the mood for cocktails after that meal, but we wanted to go somewhere and this was another place not open on Sundays so it was our only chance to try it. So we walked over from our hotel. These people are passionate about drinks! My cocktail was interesting, with forbidden black rice horchata and chipotle-chocolate bitters. They make their bitters in house. Eric ordered from their extensive sake menu. It was a “small” sake but I was lucky that it was really quite large, because I stole more than a couple sips – it was amazing.
We stopped at Powell’s and stayed until close, lost in the photography section. The only reason I mention Powell’s is for one food-related find that we purchased with our books: an Envirosax. Everyone seems to be catching on to using reusable bags as part of their regular routine at the grocery store, including us, but sometimes we forget to bring our bag. There’s no excuse with Envirosax, because it’s a lightweight eco-friendly polyester bag that rolls up to a tiny size that fits in your palm. Stash one in your glove box or your purse and you’ll never be without a bag again.
Onto day two… we are not yet done eating. We had chatted with John Sundstrom before we left for Portland, and he recommended brunch at Beast, so this is where we headed on a sunny Sunday morning. We’d enjoyed clarklewis last time we were in town, and Beast is Naomi Pomeroy’s newest venture.
The restaurant is small. There is one small communal table, seating eight, and another about twice as big. We were seated facing the open kitchen, which occupies about a third of the room. We enjoyed Stumptown coffee and fresh squeezed juice while watching them prepare the first of four courses. The menu called it “brioche and baguette french toast” but it was really a bread pudding (thinking about it, are they really much different?). Topped with a strip of candied bacon, maple bourbon sauce, and whipped cream, it was like starting brunch with dessert. Just my kind of brunch!
Between courses, we had fun reading the wall-sized chalkboard covered with cooking tips, quotes, and random info. There was a small list on the side listing their favorite restaurants. In case you are looking for more recommendations:
Second course was a poached egg perched on a hash of morels, crispy potatoes, spring peas, ramps, and a medallion of venison. Hollandaise paired perfectly. It reminded us of the lovely seasonal dishes we enjoy at our favorite Seattle brunch spot. This was followed by a selection of Steve’s cheese and a wild gathered salad. This wasn’t the only time we noticed Steve’s cheeses while we were in Portland.
Finally, there was dessert (or was it second dessert?). A tiny scoop of buttermilk ice cream with poached rhubarb and a dollop of caramel ended the meal sweetly.
That afternoon, we headed to the Portland Indie Wine Festival. It was a juried event featuring small independent wineries from the state. It was fun meeting the winemakers and learning about wines we had never heard of before. We particularly enjoyed the 2006 Pinot Noir wines from Johan Vineyards and Capitello Wines. We also tried an interesting cranberry wine from Hawks View Winery. We’ve tasted cranberry wines before in Door County, Wisconsin, and haven’t been big fans, but this one was nicely refined and not too sweet or tart. It would be a fun wine to serve at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
Dinner on Sunday was at Toro Bravo, another sibling of a restaurant we’d enjoyed on a previous trip, Simpatica Dining Hall. We sat at the bar, continuing the weekend theme of observing the kitchen while we ate. The kitchen was surrounded by the bar seats, but unless you’re along the back corner as we were, you can’t really see the cooking. It was controlled chaos as the kitchen was slammed that night. Everything was delicious. We particularly liked the oxtail croquettes, which were hot and creamy inside.
We had noticed that the cook on the far end of the line looked familiar. During a break near the end of our meal, she came over and wanted to know if we were from Seattle because she recognized us, too. Turns out, we knew her from Lark where she previously worked. Rachel has just moved down to Portland and is loving it.
Ok, just Monday left (are you still with us?). For lunch, we were headed to Pok Pok, which I’ve been dying to go to since Matthew Amster-Burton wrote about it in 2006. He’s mentioned it regularly since and each time I wonder why I haven’t tried it yet. This was really the entire motivation for our trip.
But wait, I forgot breakfast. We knew we had to eat light, so we headed over to Stumptown Coffee for cappuccini (orrr, cappuccinos – they went out of their way to point out that they prepare them traditionally, but then go and call them cappuccinos We also grabbed a doughnut (just one) from Voodoo Doughnuts up the street. Only one because it was the most massive doughnut I’ve ever seen: their Memphis Mafia doughnut. The two of us could only eat about a third of it.
We hung out until lunchtime and then headed over to Pok Pok. This place was incredible. The dishes we tried were definitely distinct from any other Thai restaurant we’ve been to. Andy Ricker, the owner, is on a constant quest to recreate the best food in Thailand, along with Vietnam and China. He regularly travels there and brings back new ideas, and is constantly evolving the menu. We loved the Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, which were sweetly caramelized, garlicky, and left our mouths tingling. Our favorite dish was the Khao Man Som Tam, which was shredded green papaya salad served with coconut rice and sweet shredded pork, along with fried shallots and cilantro. The waitress suggested that we mix everything together to get the best combination of flavors and textures. What an amazing dish. The coconut rice alone was enough to make me happy. We finished with the Pok Pok Affogato – condensed milk ice cream drowned in Vietnamese coffee, served with fried donuts for dunking. If we had a place like this in Seattle, I would eat there regularly.
Initially, we thought that two days wouldn’t be enough, but with that much food packed into one weekend, we were ready to go home and detox. However, we’ve vowed to return to Portland again before the end of the year. Two years was too long.
1852 SE Hawthorne, Portland
Teardrop Cocktail Lounge
1015 NW Everett St, Portland
5425 NE 30th St, Portland
120 NE Russell St, Portland
3226 SE Division, Portland
128 SW 3rd Ave, Portland
22 SW 3rd Ave, Portland