Birch Financier with Quince Butter, Smoked Apple Leather
Dark Chocolate Truffle with Fig Leaf Ganache
Knowing full well that I would be paying a visit to Michelin 2* Atera during my upcoming visit to New York I felt it only appropriate that the final dinner of my trip to Matt Lightner’s prior home on SE Hawthorne, Castagna, a meal that prior to my arrival in Portland was undoubtedly my most anticipated of the trip and yet by the time the meal arrived a meal that I met with some trepidation, wondering how the city’s most expensive ‘fine dining’ establishment would stack up to the prior eight days of thoroughly impressive cuisine; a brief apprehension that new chef Justin Woodward and his team put to rest almost immediately.
Considered by many to be the finest example of molecular-technique meeting foraged Pacific Northwest flavors Castagna is one of those restaurants where much of what you might expect on entering the space is immediately challenged and with each twist, turn, and technique you feel confused and amused, educated and delighted that things you’d never expect to work not only do work, but wow – sous vide compressions adding substance to style, ISI-whip for more than just looks, and paco-jet for more than presentation. In some ways very “un-Portland,” this is food with beauty and brains behind the top quality ingredients and served in a serene room with white tablecloths it is cuisine that demands the same attention that the expert wait staff gives each diner all evening.
Beginning first with one of the more aromatic cocktails I’ve ever experienced and progressing quickly into a succession of seven small bites running the gamut from sweet to savory, light to unctuous, and crispy to creamy it does not take long to realize how much craft goes into each plate at Castagna; the buttermilk puff intensely perfumed with black truffles yet the onion soup restrained, the liver on rye tasting like something from a Jewish deli while the buckwheat cracker riffed on the traditional haute cuisine pairing of crème Fraiche and caviar with nice effect.
Moving through a few rounds of bread – a tender and nutty biscuit largely serving as a warm delivery mechanism for a smoked pork fat that reminded me of ‘Hungarian Turkey’ – the proper courses began delicate and dynamic – the crab picked moments prior and although muted in color a deft balance of sweet, bitter, and slightly sour on the tongue while the beet was bold with spice and earth aplenty as the protein acted largely as accent with a vegetal cool on the finish.
Moving through pungent leeks soup teaming with fresh seafood onward to perhaps the best piece of sturgeon I’ve ever tasted my favorite course arrived as the penultimate savory; a tender piece of pork that presented minimal resistance to both knife and tooth draped with earthy kohlrabi and paired with creamy sauce tinged with garlic and tempered brine; the end effect something familiar like my Grandfather’s pork steak and potatoes, but at the same time a revelation with the swine and sea marrying so smoothly.
Transitioning from a hefty slice of lightly prepared beef and expectedly tender oxtail into sweeter territory with delicate floral panna cotta what followed can only be described as my best experience with a grapefruit to this date, an ingredient I’m generally indifferent to overcoming its intrinsic sourness through the use of buttery cake and an aromatic piece of ‘glass’ to form a truly beautiful and memorable experience that has since made me reincorporate the humble grapefruit into my life.
Finishing the evening with a crispy pod of liquid chocolate which proved that, when done with finesse, cocoa and orange can work followed by the restaurant’s owner stopping by to say hello along with a (admittedly superfluous) branch bearing a trio of interesting mignardises I really cannot think of a meal that was more “Un-Portland” than that at Castagna, and yet I also can’t think of many recent ‘modernist’ meals that were more inspiring – it was a meal every bit as good as that at Chef Lightner’s 2* Atera and given the price difference all the more evidence that Chef Woodward is an adequate successor to Matthew in a dining scene that can compete with the best in the nation.
Kimchee, Bacon, Blue Cheese Bun / Yuzu Olives / Ojingoh – spicy soy sauce squid jerky / Tako – simmered octopus salad w/mulberry nomi-su ginger dressing / Cuttlefish Pickles / Peanut Sauce Jellyfish with edamame
Hamachi tataki – chopped spicy hamachi, cucumber, tobiko, crispy nori
Green-lip Mussel Souffle / Crab Claw in Soju Sauce
Sake Braised Beef over White Rice
Shiro miso – white miso soup w/fresh tofu & wakame
If you’d have told me a few months prior that at some point in the future I’d be sitting at a bar having drank too much wearing a Speed Racer helmet next to a woman wearing bunny ears while eating jellyfish, listening to Korean punk music, and watching zombie slasher porn I’d have admittedly looked at you like you were growing a second head – and yet on the eighth evening of February, 2013 that is exactly what I was doing…and there is photographic evidence. Indeed, to some people the very concept of Tanuki may seem off-putting, and yet there I was after a truly beautiful meal at Roe entirely out of my element and thoroughly having a blast.
Stepping back for a second and looking at the night at Tanuki objectively I think I should note that the decision to visit was mine and mine alone; my friend from Portland having never been to the small space and also not as prone as myself to the concept of ‘second dinner,’ but having heard from others that it was an event not to be missed I knew the $15 tasting menu – yes, $15 for five courses – would at least be a good story to tell. What I didn’t know, however, was that the food would actually be quite good.
Beginning first with six items loosely defined as ‘bites,’ including the restaurant’s deliciously flaky kimchee, bacon, and bleu bun served alongside a variety of unique pickled, brined, and cured seafood preparations before progressing into more traditional flavors such as fresh hamachi with nori wrappers, briny mussels baked into a buttery puff pastry, and tender beef over rice I’m not sure whether it was my third drink of the evening, a yuzu and gin cocktail, or the simply the quality of the food in general but taking into account the cost I was more than a little impressed…and all the more so when I found out that only one person, chef/owner Janis Martin clad in a howling wolf’s head during 9:00pm “hat time,” was responsible for all of it.
A truly unique space in a truly unique city I think it should go without saying that Tanuki is not a spot for everyone, yet with that said it will invariably end up being one of my most memorable dining experiences of 2013 – and almost certainly the only one involving zombie slasher porn and a speed racer hat. Next visit – and unless they close up shop that will be sometime soon – I’m going for the $45 tasting and making a special request for the Santa Claus stocking hat. Pictures?
Returning to Portland and wanting to thank my host for her hospitality during my stay my penultimate dinner of the trip was a visit to Chef Trent Pierce’s restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Roe. Not particularly well known to travelers or locals, the small space located in the back of a ramen spot named Wafu, the concept behind Roe simply seemed too good to miss, a bargain prix fixe comprised of only locally caught/sourced/foraged fish and produce with techniques both Asian, French, and Modernist all on display – it was a meal with every chance to shine…and so it did.
Keeping in mind the restaurant’s location but substantially delayed by (rare) Portland traffic and thus arriving late my first impressions of Roe came from the front of house – each and every person from the man on the phone to the hostess to our waiters incredibly friendly and accommodating – and ushered to our table nearly 30 minutes after our reservation everything from then on flowed marvelously; wine pairings for my friend and a cocktail plus a glass of Chardonnay for myself working brilliantly with the elegant, fresh, and complex cuisine – each bite from the creamy quenelle of butter with various salts to the final bites of dark chocolate impressive in its own way.
Served in four courses with one additional item added on allowing us to sample ~75% of the night’s menu it is not often that I find myself unable to pinpoint a dish that was ‘best,’ but aside from the fact that my friend did not prefer the saline chips of olive served as garnish to her dessert there was not a single flaw or extraneous flavor in any of our nine plates; perhaps none finer in exemplifying Pierce’s skill than the ama ebi – fresh to the point of literally bursting on mastication with an intense sweetness carried by the creamy liver and ending with a citrus top note on the palate. Similarly, the snow crab, blue prawn, and octopus dishes all wowed with the use of citrus to balance and meld various proteins into a single plate while the quality of the Ora wowed even before it was plated; by far the best quality salmon I’ve ever tasted.
Progressing from raw to lightly cooked and onward to heavier preparations much like Le Bernardin or L2o both main courses would prove equally competent as those before them and using delicate butterfish as a backdrop to hefty earthen aromatics while somehow rendering pork belly ‘light’ through the use of acids and bitters before moving to desserts I stand convinced at this time that the cuisine at Roe is every bit on par with both of the aforementioned Michelin Stars and while the location may not be quite as refined as either it is only a matter of time before people start to take notice that, like much of Portland’s dining scene, Roe is an experience every bit as impressive as those in the ‘big city,’ but at one half the cost.
With the focus of the evening aural rather than oral delights I still had no intention of dining poorly before seeing Soundgarden and as such my decision to visit Lark was predicated by its early opening hour, relative proximity to the venue, and strong praise from trusted palates – the later something I questioned soon after my arrival as I found the restaurant empty save for two servers and the kitchen staff, my entire seventy minute visit essentially a two server to one diner experience leading to ample conversation about the restaurant, the food, the city, and music with a woman and her mother finally breaking up my privately catered experience just as the check arrived.
With a setting haute-bistro and service as exemplary as one would expect given the above caveats it was with some regret that I eschewed the nicely priced selection of sweet wines and sipped water to assure minimal interruption in my concert experience, particularly as much of what I ordered would have gone brilliantly with the $10 Tokaji or sweet Riesling but beginning with a toothsome house made baguette and rather disappointing butter the four savories and one sweet I ordered would all prove quite excellent, and none save for the $19 Foie Gras more than $14.
Allowing the kitchen to determine pacing and order the meal my first two plates of the evening arrived in relatively rapid succession – the first a dense and creamy block of Pleasant View Farm’s Foie Gras en terrine with a small dish of kumquat-vanilla preserves plus toasted brioche points and the second an inspired plate of warm roasted eel resting atop New Potato salad and tinged with saba; the liver expectedly nice but the later actually better as the eel’s smooth, goassamer finish layered well with the supple and earthy potatoes while the saba added its characteristic sweet acidity…the whole dish truly unique and, in my opinion, a reason in and of itself to recommend anyone who hasn’t been to visit Lark.
Flipping through Chef Sundstrom’s cookbook while I waited for my second course the chef stopped by for a brief moment to say hello and chat about his philosophy and promising that the next dish “should be really good” as they’d been out foraging for some of the ingredients just the day prior his words would prove true as the “Crispy Liberty Farm Duck Leg with Walnuts and Shaw Island Quince” was Parisian bistro quality while the “Half-Wild” mushrooms sautéed in garlic and olive oil with a touch of sea salt were truly outstanding; a simple preparation of top quality ingredients rich, supple, and incredibly aromatic.
Finishing off the evening with dessert and a cup of Café Vita coffee the sweets would prove every bit as bistrocentric as the savories as a fresh local Bartlett pear tarte tatin arrived drizzled in rum-spiked caramel and crowned with house made vanilla bean ice cream slowly melting over the hot, buttery pastry; a great end to a meal I’d originally planned around bigger things, but one than held its own in the ‘memorable’ category and definitely warrants a return if and when I have a larger group with whom to explore more of Sundstrom’s cuisine.
Another spot closed during my first visit to Seattle was Paseo; their legendary sandwiches attracting such large crowds that the team constructed a second location which, according to the man behind me in a line of five that had already formed before the restaurant unlocked its doors, had done little to stem the hour long waits I’d arrived fifteen minutes earlier to avoid.
Locally owned and operated but focused on Carribean themed sandwiches from three thousand miles away there is little to be said about Paseo that has not already been said and although the space is small while service is hurried everything in the space, from the line to the servers to the décor, works in controlled chaos…a theme that carries right over to the sandwiches which seem unnecessarily complicated but, at least in my limited experience with the “Caribbean Roast,” are actually harmonious in execution with a crispy baguette more than adequately holding up to supple marinaded pork shoulder, pickled jalapenos, crisp lettuce, sweet caramelized onions, and a slathering of cilantro tinged garlic aioli.
More than enough to share and on par with other legendary sandwiches across the United States including Roli Roti, Paesano’s, Hodad’s, Central Grocery, and Seattle’s own Salumi I cannot say that I’d wait a full hour for this sandwich (or any…though this is debatable for Roli or Paesano’s) I can say I’d get up and get in line early on any future visit to Seattle; ideally with more people in order to more widely sample the menu.
…considered by many to be the finest restaurant in the Pacific Northwest I’d originally planned to dine at Canlis with my family on 12/27/2011, a plan derailed (and detailed http://endoedibles.com/?p=1714) by the worst flight experience of my life and leaving me to make amends just over a year later when I added an extra day to the Seattle leg of my Soundgarden pilgrimage specifically to visit Peter Canlis’ midcentury dining room helmed by Eleven Madison Park alum Jason Franey.
Having heard wonderful things about the room, the service, and most of all the food I entered the hill-top restaurant just after eight o’clock and with free valet for my rental I entered the expansive dining room to find a duo of hostesses waiting, leading me through the room to what I would later learn was Peter Canlis’ personal table – a full view of the room, a wide angle vantage of the windows overlooking Lake Union, stories of visits by Clint Eastwood and former US Presidents, and even a house phone with direct line to the kitchen; a VIP table in a room full of VIPs, though I’d made no special efforts to receive such a thing.
Greeted by my server and discussing the tasting menu versus a la carte options and eventually settling on the later (the restaurant has since migrated to a prix fixe format) it would not be long before the night began with house-filtered water and a cocktail I’ll not soon forget; the $20 “French Foam” with Plymouth Gin, Briottet Crème de Cassis, and Drappier Champagne crowned with Lemon Sherbet a grown-up milkshake like no other and a surprisingly lovely pairing with a sizable amuse bouche of Parsnip Pear Veloute with olive oil gelee alongside a Candy Cap Mushroom sable with pear and candied orange.
Served a round (or three) of warm rolls, a duo of Milk and Honey and Black Olive Sea Salt, along with creamy local butter as I waited for my appetizer I watched the lights outside in the city below and within minutes smoked torchon of Foie Gras arrived along with beets in various preparations, chamomile foam and a side of chocolate-cinnamon swirl brioche. Creamy, rich, and satin smooth with flavors pickled, sweet, and smoky all accenting the plate this was a truly exquisite torchon preparation though the bread, a bit dense for my liking, could have done with less cinnamon.
Greeted briefly by Chef Jason when he presented my main course tableside we spoke briefly about Eleven Madison Park and he confirmed my assumption that what I was about to enjoy was indeed a tribute to something he had learned during his time there; the While Muscovy Duck (for two) returning to the kitchen to be carved and arriving shortly thereafter with the 14-day dry-aged breast rosy and moist beneath crackling skin and a thin ribbon of fat while the accoutrements left nothing to be desired; orange marmalade and poached prunes servicing the sweet tooth while parsnip purée and pearl onions provided balance, particularly in regard to the dense and meaty confit fritters rendered from the duck’s legs that, when considered with the rest, made Franey’s preparation perhaps better than that in New York.
At this point nicely sated from a long day of dining I notably showed some restraint in ordering one dessert as opposed to two, but unfortunately allowed my server to talk me into the “Mille-Feuille” in place of the signature Canlis soufflé – a mistake not in that the dessert was particularly unenjoyable, but in that it was not at all like the mille feuille I’d expected; the textures more like that of a milk chocolate, banana, caramel, and peanut butter ‘kit-kat’ alongside macaron shells, candies, and ice creams in similar flavors.
Declining coffee in favor of the check and watching the crowd slowly thin my last service of the evening featured an apple pie macaron and a pecan maple ‘bon bon,’ both nicely executed but the candy particularly memorable; a veritable one-bite chocolate pecan pie whose flavor I savored all the way to the parking lot where I found my car warmed, ready, and waiting as a steady drizzle came down – the only thing missing from the evening being a driver to take me back to the hotel…and perhaps that soufflé.
With Brandon Pettit’s highly touted pizzeria closed during my first visit to Seattle I’d made it a point to visit during this trip and with limited time in the Emerald City I eventually opted to shoehorn it in as a prequel to dinner at Canlis; the assumption being a 4:45 arrival for the 5:00pm opening would land me a seat and although there were indeed a few folks already in line as I arrived the plan worked perfectly – a seat at the bar where I could watch every action of the kitchen including baby pictures, dancing, and all kinds of staff/patron interaction when Molly Wizenberg arrived an hour later (to the delight of the self proclaimed “biggest fans” seated next to me.)
A small space, the bar and ovens in one room along with some retro-chic odds and ends while a small dining room sits to the right, Delancey is clearly a work of passion as Pettit tends to his self-built oven while good-natured staff tend to diners and the growing line of would-be diners. With a concise menu it did not take me long to order and taking a lead from my server I started the night with a housemade Strawberry “Shrub,” something I’d never tasted before but an item I’ve replicated at home many times since with the drinking vinegars underlying bright strawberries, light sweetness, and herbal notes that paired beautifully with the pizza.
Moving onward to the pie, when dining alone the Margherita is always my must order and opting for the classic topped with La Quercia Prosciutto I watched step-by-step as the pizzaiolo constructed the pie and expecting great things based on appearance alone I was not let down, the bubbly mozzarella and bright sauce beneath lightly draped pork and basil speaking for themselves while the crust was something breathtaking – a blistered cracker with tiny air pockets light with yeast over a nutty undertone that provided ample support for the toppings while remaining supple and airy within – a crust entirely unique and perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted.
Moving past the pizza – though if I did not have dinner plans for later I’d have likely ordered the White pie as well – Delancey further wowed in the sweets department with a Preserved Meyer Lemon Budino whose silky texture was dotted with salted candied pistachios, buttery shortbread, and anise tinged caramel alongside a signature Bittersweet Chocolate Chip Cookie with Gray Salt warm from the oven with chocolate still in the semi-solid state and the salt adding a touch of crunch – a great finish to an excellent meal and much like Great Lake, Lucali, or Bianco the sort of place that absolutely warrants the hour long waits for the pizza alone.
Clearly unable to experience as much of Seattle as I wanted with three square meals a day another dozen or so stops consisting of both sweets and savories would round out the schedule along with the Soundgarden Concert, Art Museum, EMP, and a lot of record store shopping – the first of these stops being Café Besalu, a bakery closed during my prior visit to the city and one that may as well have been closed this time as well given their odd policy on “only baking almond croissants on the weekend because they are so labor intensive” and instead serving overpriced Butter Croissants with a good shell structure but far too dense an interior to warrant a trip to Ballard. Call me crazy, but in my experience it seems that other bakeries both here and abroad are more than capable of baking better butter croissants AND almond croissants daily…
Continuing my travels through Ballard after coffee and thumbing through some vinyl my next stop would take me to “Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery,” though it was not the oft raved chocolate cakes that I had on my mind, but rather Autumn Martin’s slightly less highly acclaimed cookies…plus a cinnamon roll…and bread pudding (and if I didn’t have dual dinner plans I likely wouldn’t have stopped there.)
Cute, but with that decidedly rustic wood and brick feel prevalent throughout the Pacific Northwest, and featuring samples of various chocolates and dips plus everything from wine to coffee to ready-to-bake cakes and cookies my sampling of items from the former Canlis pastry chef began with the aforementioned cookies – one the amusing Bacon Oatmeal Raisin and the other a Salted Peanut Butter Cookie with Theo Milk Chocolate Chunks; the first all the evidence I needed that although it may have ‘jumped the shark,’ bacon can make anything better and the later tasting like fresh roasted peanuts and rich chocolate with a saline top note that begged for milk, or coffee.
Moving on to the made-to-order selections, more sweet-savory interplay arrived with the shockingly light Salted Caramel Potato Cinnamon Roll; the pastry a yeasty cloud shellacked with rich salty caramel and leaving most of this for the following morning (almost as excellent rewarmed) I turned my attention to the Bread Pudding, a custard soaked spice cake paired with fresh sautéed apples and pears dowsed with rich, sticky Maple clove Butterscotch and crowned with a melting ball of vanilla ice cream that served to smooth out the otherwise pronounced sweetness – a nearly perfect bread pudding that was simple in composition yet complex in flavor and nearly as much pudding as bread; by far the best dessert I had in Seattle (Canlis included) and a contender for my top five bread puddings, all time.
With a bit of time to waste as the rain came down I stopped at Fonte given its proximity to the Art Musem and a good experience on my last visit but unfortunately this time found the service to be rather rude as the barista barked at me that they “offered table service” if I wanted to stay and essentially refused to give me my Americano unless I took a seat and let her bring it to my table – strange policy, but fine – the coffee was good with a nice caramel top note and light acidity, but table service or not the young woman would have gotten a better tip if she’d have been a bit more friendly and simply let me drop it in the tip jar.
Speaking of killing time on a rainy day, another stop at Paul Allen’s beautifully renovated Cinerama as the rains came down harder than prior brought not only Zero Dark Thirty with perhaps the best sound system I’ve ever heard outside of ArcLight but also the best popcorn I’ve had in a decade – a chocolate, salt, and butter composition that literally permeates the air throughout the lobby and delivers as hot and crispy as opposed to thick and heavy given the fact that it is sprayed with a sort of glaze as opposed to being dipped in chocolate – at $3 for a small it is also quite filling, and in cinema terms a veritable bargain.
Next up, breakfast on day two was a three part affair beginning with the much praised Crumble and Flake and arriving early at Neil Robertson’s Capitol Hill location I was fortunate to find the shelves stocked, though lacking the canele (only made on weekend) thus relegating me to five other selections including three of the bakery’s signature items and two less raved options; all exemplary beginning with some crumble in the form of a moist and decadent “Heart of Darkness Cheweo” featuring dark cocoa cream filling a dense chocolate cookie followed by the crackling Irish Coffee Macaron formulated with a light Irish Whiskey shell surrounding True North Coffee ganache before moving on to a buttery brioche cinnamon roll unraveling in soft golden layers tinged with butter but not heavy in the least.
Moving onward to the flake, a still-warm butter croissant with shattering arcs of pastry surrounding yawning caverns of butter would prove the best in the Pacific Northwest by some degree while the restaurant’s signature kouign amann, an item often known to sell out within hours of opening, proved equal to any I’ve had stateside as the caramelized pastry crackled to the tooth yielding notes of butter and salt with each layer separating nicely with a similarly satisfying crunch followed by more butter, more salt, and more sweetness – a masterful version of the Breton classic worth the early morning pilgrimage.
Pre-breakfast complete and moving on to actual breakfast I next found myself meeting a friend at Tom Douglas’ Brave Horse Tavern and after circling the block half-a-dozen times to find parking we arrived to find the restaurant empty – seemingly literally until a young server emerged from the back to suggest we seat ourselves anywhere we like; a seat near the front seeming as good as any as the cavernous restaurant spread both left and right with hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, plus a well-stocked bar and kitchen on full display.
With menus present on the table and service essentially one-to-one it took mere moments to place our order and aside from a ruptured paper filter on the coffee machine leading to a heavily sedimented first cup of Starbucks Italian Roast (comped, along with refills) the breakfast was actually quite good with my friend opting for the Pretzel Banana Sandwich and myself selecting Cinnamon French Toast Pudding. Splitting both plates and passing on the leathery bacon (I’m told it was better than it looked) I started with the French Toast which was actually dense like a quick bread rather than a bread pudding but very nicely paired with griddled sweet apples and organic maple syrup that added a lot of sweetness, but also some balance to the rich bread. Moving on to the pretzel, crispy and salted with great chew surrounding sliced banana and cardamom spiked sweetened cream cheese, no complaints were echoed at all and I imagine those pretzels would be excellent on their own or with some cheese.
After a quick stop at Paseo where sandwiches were shared a visit to Mighty O Donuts for dessert proved requisite and finding the small, tidy shop still baking fresh after noon I was encouraged, my love of cake donuts and fritters rewarded four-fold as a batch of both were just ready to come off the cooling rack including the highly praised French Toast plus Organic Raspberry, Plain Glazed, and (after a short wait) the Apple Fritter.
Unbeknownst to me before entering the shop, Mighty O’s donuts are both organic and vegan while the shop, featuring reclaimed items, recycled t-shirts, and plenty of kitsch is so very “Seattle” and with friendly servers helping an ever present trickle of patrons I sat down at a small table with my friend to enjoy the donuts, each one surprisingly light with the French Toast tinged with maple and cinnamon while the fritter, virtually oil-free, was wonderfully flavored but in my opinion a bit less crispy than I’d have preferred. A nice place, particularly for the vegan/vegetarian sect, there are undoubtedly better donuts to be found in the Pacific Northwest, though perhaps none with better values or sourcing.
My last day in Seattle before heading back to Portland began like any other – a long run followed by pastry; a two-stop process beginning with Karen Krol’s pastries at Vietnamese Street Food locale, Ba Bar on 12th Avenue, at 7:00am just as the restaurant opened its doors. A large restaurant with an expected urban-chic interior and large dining room to the left that opens for breakfast at 8:00 the it was the pastry counter to the right that grabbed my attention – the “un-Besalu” presence of a Twice Baked Almond Croissant on a weekday and a rarely seen Brioche Bostock instantly grabbing my attention along with the Apricot Pistachio tart and Chocolate Nutella Macarons; a $10.50 total for what would turn out to be a steal given the quality – definitely a place I’d head back to for lunch or dinner next time I’m in town.
Beginning first with the Bostock and Croissant and saving the egg-custard-like tart and macaron for the car so as to avoid turning my clothing into a confectioner’s sugar mural the bostock would prove every bit as good as that at San Francisco’s Tartine with the eggy brioche dense and crisp, rich with almond and brightened up by light citrus, while the almond croissant was not-surprisingly still warm and although slightly more dense with frangipane than I tend to prefer, still crisp on the exterior with a supple center rich with butter.
Advancing to later in the day, after a (arguably) proper breakfast with a friend at The Original Bakery, I unwrapped the tart while driving along the I-5 only to find it crumbled and unset but undeterred I made the best of it and found the flavors to be quite delicate and balanced while the macaron proved to be slightly more dense in the shell than I’d have liked; a bit more chew than crackle, though the flavors were spot on and not overly sweet thanks to the dark cocoa in the shell balancing out the pure nutella center.
Having already mentioned “The Original Bakery,” a location in West Seattle that was close to my friend’s home and mostly along my route back to Portland, I was intrigued to find out that the restaurant had been around since the 1930s and after checking out the nearby ferry dock we sat down to a cup (or ten) of well made Café Vita light roast coffee and four of the classic bakery’s best items – at least according to the young girl behind the counter – plus two standards in a Buttermilk Bar and a Maple Bar; both good, but neither anything to write home about.
Amongst the recommended items we started with a peanut butter cookie that was dry and far more sugar and flour than peanut before moving on to more impressive selections as a stream of locals trickled in the door, each one placing a very similar order and making it quite obvious that at a bakery touting itself as classic the best items are those doted on by the locals and true to form the critically raved Friday-only Applesauce Donut was light, fluffy, and rich with apples and cinnamon while the Sourcream Nut Horn reminded me of something my Hungarian Grandmother would make each Christmas – nostalgia at best, though hers were better. Most impressively of the group, a Raspberry Almond Bear Claw with fresh raspberry puree and light cream cheese frosting drizzle was at once rustic and delicate, decadent and light. Perhaps not a ‘destination bakery’ but certainly a place worth checking out if in the area or looking for a stop between PDX and the Emerald City.
Peregion Beans, Hedgehogs, Spinach on Toast with Fried Egg
Gateau Basque with poached figs and toasted almonds
Buckwheat Canele with lemon curd
If one had to raise any complaint about Sitka & Spruce it would be just how self-aware of its “Seattleness” the restaurant is; the rustic location inside the Melrose Market, the stripped down interior with heavy woods and exposed brick, and an open kitchen where chopped wood, hanging pans and cutlery, and an open pantry provide the only decorations while Chef Dillon and his team lightly pair and prepare Northwest Ingredients into simple plates that cost more than they seemingly should – at least until you taste them and realize that no matter how uncomplicated the plates appear the ingredients are of the utmost quality while the preparation is that of a man who understands exactly what he is doing to show precisely how high that quality is.
Having missed out on the restaurant (along with Canlis) during my first visit to Seattle thanks to airline issues my first stop after driving from Portland would find me seated along the wall, starring out the window onto a rainy sidewalk while a polite and efficient server presented an $8.50 appetizer of yogurt and apples followed by a $16 entrée of beans, eggs, and mushrooms plus house made sourdough followed by a $5.50 Canele and $8.50 slice of butter cake with figs and almonds over the course of less than forty five minutes. Unassuming yet refined, ordinary but assertive, and above all incredibly fresh and delicious each and every plate worked beautifully, particularly the earthy beans and a superlative custard cake that paired beautifully with a rich Americano; comfort food in a comfortable setting as the chilly grey sky on the other side of the glass brooded on – the whole thing felt very “Seattle,” and I guess that’s the point.
Salt Cod Croquettes with Meyer Lemon Remolade, Pepper Jam
Roasted Quail with Truffled Foie Gras Stuffing, Grape Chutney
Charcuterie Board with Lamb Rillette/Truffled Peas, Foie Gras Brulee/Apricot-Sauternes Jam, Tete de Cochon Croquette/Cured Egg Yolk, Chicken Liver Mousse/Truffled Shallots, Duck Ham, Pickles, Pork Rind, Pickled Quail Egg
Pain D’Epices with Gingerbread, Pineapple Sherbet, Dulce de Leche
Apple Croustade with Gruyere Ice Cream, 30 year balsamic
Stumptown Hair Bender
Apple Cider Macaron
Thoroughly impressed by Le Pigeon the night prior I entered Little Bird Bistro to find the restaurant equally abuzz to its more expensive counterpart – so much so, actually, that the table I’d reserved was still occupied leaving me to wait or take a seat at the bar; the later my obvious choice, particularly as the slick copper topped space was much quieter than the actual restaurant and additionally afforded a limited view of the kitchen.
Greeted by the bartender, and subsequently by one of the servers from Le Pigeon the night before, it would be mere moments before a baguette identical to the one the night prior arrived along with a glass of water and the menu – a wide selection of bistro classics featuring Rucker’s characteristic twists, at least a ten which sounded great but two that truly stood out along with the ‘must-order’ house made charcuterie board – a well earned distinction as the thick wooden slab arrived with half a dozen exemplary meats, each paired with dynamic accoutrements as well as house made pork rinds and pickled quail eggs. From bold and briny duck ham to the intensely sweet foie gras straight on to the crispy and entirely funky head cheese each and every selection was excellent – and all the better paired with a glass of Sauternes suggested by my bartender.
Moving from the meats to a pair of small plates I requested items come out one at a time and with the creamy, salty brandade croquettes followed by the a crispy quail every bit as good as Robuchon’s Atelier classic (at 1/3 the price) my initial impression held true; these guys absolutely nail the classics while the accoutrements, particularly the musty and pungent chutney balanced out the bird’s richness without overwhelming it at all.
At this point trying to decide between another savory or a pair of desserts I opted for the sweets menu and found my answer immediately – the wintery spice bread clearly themed after traditional fruit cake but lacking all the disastrous candied fruits and instead focused on fresh pineapples and salty caramel while the apple tart was flaky, buttery perfection topped off with tangy cheese ice cream and just enough balsamic vinegar to add a touch of acid; to this point it remains one of my most memorable desserts of 2013.
Far less cramped than its older brother and perhaps more accessible for those desiring dressed up French Bistro classics I’d be hard pressed to name a more enjoyable bistro experience stateside than what I experienced at Little Bird and much like Le Pigeon the restaurant ranks very highly on my “to return to soon” list.
Hamachi – Pineapple, Foie Gras, Toasted Coconut (with Kimchee, White Chocolate Clam Espuma, and Pepper Puree)
Rooster Stuffed Shells, Ricotta, Black Walnuts, Pickled Mushroom (with Parmesan Gel, Mushroom and Cabbage Salad)
Smoked Mackerel Tart with Apricots, Hollandaise, Caramelized Onions, Bacon
Sous Vide Turkey, Prosciutto, Matzo Ball, Mushrooms, Sage
Foie Gras Profiterole with Salted Caramel and Coconut Miso Cake with Green Tea Compressed Pineapple
House Made Black Truffle Chocolate
I’ve dined out enough to know how much I can and should eat, what I do and do not like, and while some seem taken aback by the amount such a “small” guy can eat I generally do not think much about it; I simply go to the places where I expect to find greatness and thus far, with the rare exception, I think I have done pretty well. With those things in mind, on February Fourth I walked into Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon and expecting great things I found just that, yet a minor miscalculation on my behalf almost derailed the whole thing.
Small and decidedly cramped – to those who’ve been to Momofuku Noodle or Minetta Tavern at 8:00pm on a weekend, you may have an idea – even on a Monday I arrived at Le Pigeon just after eight o’clock to find Rucker, clad in a Los Angeles Kings cap, plus two other chefs hard at work in the tiny kitchen and with a spot reserved at the chef’s counter where the chef would literally be serving me directly I was quite happy to be back from a long trip to the Oregon coast, not particularly famished but ready to eat. Seated immediately and presented the nightly menu I quickly deferred alcohol, instead opting for a Blood Orange soda recommended by my server and ordered the chef’s tasting menu while person after person to my left and right indulged on the famous burger.
Beginning with the arrival of bread – a truly Parisian quality baguette, warm from the oven – and my beverage it would not be long before I realized that my personal sensitivity to both heat and carbonation was going to factor into my enjoyment of the meal and ditching my jacket while taking it easy on the soda certainly helped, though at my vantage I’d still guess the temperature to be hovering around 90F as the first course arrived; a truly complex composition of shaved liver over shimmering, lean fish paired with flavors at once spicy, briny, sweet, and smooth – the chocolate particularly intriguing as it lingered on the palate with the coconut and foie gras like some sort of funky Mounds Bar.
Clearly not afraid to pair dissimilar ingredients the next two courses would prove equally as exciting as the first and unsurprisingly just as rich. Beginning first with the stuffed shell, a fist sized noodle stuffed to near bursting with bitter walnuts and dense, gamey bird while a pungent slaw helped to temper the rich cheese sauce and then moving on to the shockingly sweet but oddly delicious smoked fish pastry I’d be hard pressed to name a restaurant aside from those helmed by Gagnaire where a chef takes so many chances with his flavor profiles and continually finds success.
Starting to feel the effects of a long day in the car, plenty of food earlier in the afternoon, and the heat of the room I informed my server that if possible I’d prefer pass on the seven-course menu in favor of the 5-course option I was jokingly jeered by Rucker that I must not like the food but assuring him that this was not the case I was given the option of Rabbit or Turkey to finish and deferring to the expert I was served a flawless slice of heritage bird resting atop a dense matzo ball crowned with sweet onions, crispy sage, and dehydrated pork – a sort of reinterpreted thanksgiving dinner with stuffing that was the most traditional course of the night, but still tremendous.
Finishing up the evening with a pair of small desserts plus the most aromatic “truffled” truffle I’ve ever experienced I knew immediately that I needed to experience more of Rucker’s cuisine before I left Portland and happy that unlike “Monsieur Flatulenzi” the foie gras profiterole did not cause my little pigeon heart to explode – instead wowing with its unctuous balance of sweet and salt – I booked a seat at Little Bird for the following evening.
Selection of Cheese from Cheese Bar, Armagnac Poached Prunes, Fried Almonds, Local Honey, Olive Oil, Black Pepper Crackers (UnNamed Triple Cream from Turin Italy, Brebis, Appenzeller Raw Swiss Cow’s Milk)
Theo White Chocolate Mousse, Honey and Thyme Poached Bosc Pears, Salted Pistachio Tuille
Chocolate dipped pig shortbreads
Stumptown French Press
The irony of my meal at Naomi Pomeroy’s “Beast” on Superbowl Sunday came in the form of a quote from my favorite author scrawled across the bathroom wall – Kurt Vonnegut’s “You can’t just eat good food. You’ve got to talk about it too. And you’ve got to talk about it to somebody who understands that kind of food.” It was ironic because as a ‘thank you’ to my host in the city I’d offered to take her along to the small restaurant on NE 30th Avenue and both the food and the restaurant definitely warranted discussion.
Considered by many to be the best restaurant in Rip City, Beast features a nightly six course seasonal menu for $75 – a veritable steal in fine dining – and with a small staff and seating for less than two dozen the feel of the restaurant is indeed quite intimate with the full kitchen on display and seats closely spaced, but not ‘crowded’ by any means. Dark, wood, cement, and steel much like the majority of Portland restaurants the space is excellent and the service leaves little to be desired as it is efficient and attentive without being overbearing.
Focusing on the food and the bulk of our conversation after the meal it should be noted than there was nothing wrong with anything that we tasted during our two hours at Beast and as a matter of fact, most of it was very good – the issue was the cooking, or relative lack thereof as nearly every course was simply assembled on the plate…a case of mise en place gone overboard, verging on assembly line food detrimental to both temperature and texture, and something I’ve never experienced before despite dining in many open kitchens and at a fair number of ‘kitchen tables.’
Served with great pacing and ample descriptions of each course, the salad and sorbet would prove to be fresh and light while cheeses were well culled; all a case of quality sourcing rather than preparation while the signature charcuterie plate was indeed quite nice – the two liver preparations particularly memorable and the boudin noir one of the more funky preparations I’ve had to date. Less successful, the duck course clearly suffered from pre-preparation and arrived less crispy and less warm that desired; a shame as the flavor was good and the pairing of oranges and carrots was actually quite inspired in complimenting the fowl.
Choosing not to imbibe but tasting a bit of what was served to my fellow diner I have to say the wine pairings at Beast were all quite impressive; particularly the light Riesling served with the earthy sweet soup while coffee, a Columbian Single Origin roasted by Stumptown was perfect with dessert, a lightly whipped chocolate cream serving to smooth out the intensely sweet pears – a nice ending to a good meal, but certainly not the best meal in a city with so many fantastic restaurants where you can watch the culinary team hard at work preparing a much larger variety of interesting plates.
Cake – Vanilla Bean Tres Leches Cake, Roasted Banana Pudding, Dulce de Leche Alfajor Cookie
As great as my trip to Portland would prove to be, there was little doubt in my mind shortly after I exited Greg and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton’s “Ox” en route to the Rose Garden for a Trailblazers game that it would probably be the best meal of the trip – and, barring a truly stellar year, one of the best meals of 2013. Perhaps not surprising given the strong word of mouth and multiple awards bestowed on the Argentine restaurant what I experienced during my ninety minute visit thrilled plate after plate and bite after bite.
A surprisingly large space despite its small façade, Ox is a no reservations spot – both literally in that you line up at the door when they open or risk waiting – and figuratively in that one should have no reservations about anything on the menu; if it sounds good, order it – and if the stellar servers suggest you ordered too much ignore them; you can always take some home or leave a few bites on the table…or prove them wrong and order dessert as well, much to the amusement of your neighbors who you’ll likely make friends with quickly given the cramped quarters and convivial atmosphere.
Dark woods with an enormous open hearth near the entry I was offered a place at the fire but having heard the space can get quite warm I opted for the window instead, a good choice as the bartenders both proved knowledgeable, friendly, and efficient – offering advice on plates and happy to oblige when I ignored them, eventually selecting five savories and two desserts plus a soft and supple bread service with fiery Chimichurri.
Served in pairs with the creamy amuse arriving moments before the a slice of thick, toasty bread bountifully topped with sweet crab balanced by vegetal flavors both creamy and bitter but brought to the fore by shiso things started well and only improved from there as the smoky ricotta platter was more than enough to share given its richness but at the same time a perfect point/counterpoint to Ox’s famous clam chowder; an acid powered and spicy take on the classic with the marrow adding its unctuous flavor to the thin broth and tender, briny clams.
Opting against the larger main plates to sample a greater variety my last two plates would continue the trend of the prior courses as the hominy truly tested my heat tolerance; the egg yolk and crispy pork requisite to keep the acid and spice in check but still a dish hot enough to have me sweating while the carrots natural sweetness was brought into sharp focus by the maple yet kept in check by the savory cheese as the tarragon took a back seat, lingering on the palate. Not to be missed, desserts at Ox stand up just as well as the savories – both selections sweet and substantial with varying temperatures and textures, but the dense torte the better of the two given the dense toothsomeness of the cake and crunchy honeycomb…though when broken down to individual components I’d have gladly just eaten a bowl of the roasted banana pudding, as well.
Totaling far less than $100 after tip (no sales tax in Oregon) my only problem with Ox was that I attended solo and did not have the chance to sample as much as I wish I could have…well, that and the fact that I spent so much more on other meals during my trip when I could have and should have simply gone back to experience more of Chef Denton’s inspired and innovative cuisine and truly impressive service.
A side trip to Seattle – one full of more great food and an excellent concert (and sales tax) – now behind me, my first proper meal back in Portland would see me seated at a communal table at Clyde Common, a space described as a European Tavern but in reality more a sort of “gastropub” in the vein of places like New York’s Breslin – both restaurants located in close proximity to their respective city’s ACE Hotel and both featuring open kitchens, Stumptown Coffee, and menus riddled with unique takes on American comfort foods crafted from local and organic ingredients.
A large space, heavy with blond woods and concrete but balanced by high ceilings, the noise level at Clyde Common was admittedly a bit of a turnoff when I first arrived but after settling into my seat and making my selections the sound seemed to dissipate even as patrons came and went, the restaurant at least half full throughout my stay. Seemingly understaffed, only two young women doubling as servers and hostesses, I will note that my coffee twice ran empty during my brunch and worse, given my vantage of the kitchen I was rather annoyed as I watched many plates – mine included – sit at the pass for five or more minutes before service, a situation that could have easily been remedied by an extra runner or by serving plates as they were readied instead of batching them so everything arrived at once.
Setting aside the dysfunctional service and moving to the food itself my order consisted of two items…one “savory” and one “sweet,” but both with elements of each and both excellent. Starting with the savory, yet another Monte Cristo in a city where the dish is seemingly ubiquitous, the version served at Clyde Common consisted of a single slice of rich fried brioche topped with shaved loin ham and pecorino tartufo plus a lightly dressed salad and a dollop of Fig mostarda and two sunnyside eggs. Rich and balanced, naturally sweet from the figs but plenty savory otherwise, and benefitted by cracked pepper plus the light vinaigrette on the salad this was not a traditional Monte Cristo like that at Gravy…it was better.
Transitioning from my favorite savory breakfast to my favorite dessert, the only thing that could have made the Common’s take on bread pudding better is if it would have been served in a more expedited manner as a separate course so that I could have enjoyed it piping hot instead of luke warm – and yet even with that going against it the “Spiced Bread Pudding” was still pretty fantastic; the warm and dense oatmeal based bread served in a shallow baking ceramic with peanut brittle, chevre, pear preserves, and hand-whipped cream adding elements of sweet and salty plus crunchy and creamy to a wintery base of molasses, ginger, and cinnamon. Complex, rich, and entirely nontraditional I’d recommend a trip to Clyde Common for this dish alone and definitely would not hesitate to return for brunch or dinner, though I would make a specific request for dishes to be brought out individually (a la Tasty n’ Sons or Ned Ludd) if I did.
Always doing my homework before taking a trip and realizing that there was no way I could fit in all the breakfasts and brunches I wanted by doing only one a day it was decided that for my last two days in town I would forgo lunch in exchange for a second breakfast and although I’d considered Olympic Provisions as one of the options a fortuitous encounter the night prior at Roe made me reconsider, the end result sending me instead to Vitaly Paley’s “Imperial” just after 8am despite a late night and plenty of food and drink between Roe and Tanuki.
Arriving downtown on foot after a long morning run and a quick shower I entered The Hotel Lucia in order to browse the lobby’s unique art exhibit before making my way through Imperial’s doors and after chatting with the hotel’s reservationist for a moment I entered yet another dining room with plenty of natural woods, concrete, and high ceilings plus a wide open kitchen and a large wood fired grill – a concept seemingly ubiquitous to Portland and in this case paired with an overhead soundtrack of Beatles, Stones, and The Who plus an almost entirely empty dining room allowing me my choice of seats.
Settled in and browsing the menu as my server readied both water and coffee – a rather acidic blend from Caffé D’Arte – it would not be long before I settled on a few choices and after inquiring about the daily pastry specials I ordered a trio of items, specifically requesting they be brought out as separate courses given the previous day’s experience at Clyde Common; a request that was granted without question leading to excellent pacing, a warm and golden chocolate glazed cake donut arriving with my first coffee refill and subsequent plates arriving at 15-20 minute intervals.
Noting my predilection for sweet to savory and really enjoying the quality of the donut, my second plate to arrive from the kitchen was something I’d sooner associate with Phoenix than Portland and although perhaps better shared given its richness the Warm Ricotta with Grilled Pears and Fry Bread was outstanding; the traditional Indian bread crisp and not excessively greasy, the pears smoky and not overly sweet, and the ricotta rich and creamy – but in a very “first world problems” way, far too large in portion for a single diner.
Holding onto the rest of the ricotta because I simply couldn’t let it return to the kitchen my final savory of the morning was the “Imperial French Toast with Seasonal Fruit, Thickened Cream, and Maple Syrup” and true to the form of much of the French Toast served in Portland this one was divine – another heavily custard laden brioche with a crispy golden exterior and nearly liquid center rife with smokiness from the wood oven. Paired with both caramelized bananas and more wood roasted pears plus a hefty accoutrement of both smoked syrup and hand whipped cream this was most certainly a dish for those with a sweet tooth and although I’d originally considered adding some of the leftover ricotta to the plate I just couldn’t do it, instead ordering an extra slice of toast (no charge) that I topped with the cheese and some left over syrup – gluttony at its best and a great way to finish another superlative Portland morning meal.
Cited by some as better than the low country cuisine of the Carolinas’ and by others as an equal to the food in NOLA largely as a result of superior ingredients and a well trained staff Screen Door was an obvious choice for one of my brunches in PDX yet I have to admit I made a minor miscalculation when planning the midday meal – you see, I failed to realize that Mardi Gras was just around the corner and that even for a party of one willing to sit at the counter the wait at Portland’s bastion of southern cuisine was likely to be in excess of an hour…an hour and fifteen minutes, actually, and the majority of it spent crammed into a small lobby with nearly fifty others jostling for perhaps ten seats and far too little standing room around the ‘while-you-wait’ coffee service; to say the least, the odds were stacked against Screen Door when I was finally wedged into a bar stool seventy five minutes after my arrival.
Finally seated and hopped up on at least 40oz of Stumptown’s Hairbender it would not be long before Screen Door’s menu and list of specials made it into my hands and greeted by the bartender I declined alcohol only to have my coffee mug refilled once again – loud and cramped, busy and buzzy I have to say that as much as Screen Door is most certainly not my scene I instantly felt at ease with the service perusing the menu while the spaces next to me were cleared and filled with new patrons I also found peace with the kitchen; a striking calm at the edge of the maddening dining room where a team of at least fifteen worked rapidly, quietly, and efficiently – the ease of motion harkening Michelin Starred kitchens around the world and immediately reshaping my expectations leading to an order I knew would be too much, both for stomach capacity and bar space.
Sitting and watching the bartender make cocktails with everything from fruits to fire while I chatted with my neighbors and chuckled at the Mardi Gras kitsch it would not be long before my plates began to arrive and as expected the dishes began to pile up quickly, the smaller plates condensed into one after photos forming a single dish containing a buttermilk biscuit, two slices of savory cornbread, and fried chicken plus three sidecars of honey. Starting first with the carbs and moving next to the protein I began my tasting of Screen Door’s cuisine with the biscuit and although good I found the texture to be a bit dense compared to those at Tin Shed, Pine State, or Woodsman Tavern but moving on to the cornbread things quickly improved as the dense bread had clearly been cooked with bacon fat, a smoky heartiness with great tooth and a loose crumb that paired marvelously with the honey but even better with the crunchy and slightly spicy fried chicken.
Moving next to the dish I knew I’d be ordering well before I even walked up to Screen Door, the Bananas Foster French Toast would prove to be every bit worth the hour plus wait as two thick slices of golden brioche with a rich vanilla custard interior arrived bathed in boozy maple syrup tinged with cinnamon and topped with caramelized bananas and dollops of thick whipped cream. Intensely sweet but laced with rum and every bit as good as the signature dish in New Orleans the only thing missing from the experience was the fireside flames – probably a good thing considering the close quarters.
At this point quite stuffed with both food and fluids my server/bartender asked if I’d be interested in dessert and as much as I knew I should defer I simply couldn’t overlook the pending holiday and my fortune to be in a place serving King Cake – in this case a King Cake with Pecan Praline and Cream Cheese Filling, Sugar Sprinkles, plus Chicory coffee Anglaise that I took with me to go and indulged on at Heart Roasters after a showing of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the Laurelhurst Theatre. Nicely crafted with the sweet yeast dough housing rich praline filling and deftly balanced by the slightly-bitter Anglaise I can’t say this King Cake was quite as good as those in NOLA, but offered by the slice and nearly 2,500 miles separated from the praline version at Haydel’s it was not too far off…and much like Screen Door I am retrospectively more than happy to have waited over an hour for that cake.
Moving on to my final day in Portland; a 6:00pm flight scheduled to deliver me back in Phoenix just after 8:00 I knew I had time to double up on brunches once more and after my morning run and a stop at Coco Doughnuts I hoped to build on the previous day’s southern success at The Country Cat; Adam Sappington’s “Country Craft Kitchen” on Stark Street. Described with many of the current industry buzz words including “farm to table,” “nose to tail,” “organic,” and more featuring a sizable menu with many of my favorites and reportedly FAR shorter waits than those at Screen Door the space seemed like a can’t miss but in the end the experience turned out to be a mixed one.
Arriving just after 9:15am and finding the space already half full but never anywhere near as jammed packed as Screen door I was greeted by a young woman at the door and offered my choice of a table or a seat at the Chef’s counter and opting for the later I’ll note that if you have the option, particularly as a solo, this is the spot to be as a quiet but friendly staff of four worked the line while joking with one another as well as guests, seemingly enjoying their job every step of the way – even as they heckled me about ‘ordering too much,’ something I assured them that two plates was very unlikely to entail.
Sitting and waiting, sipping yet another cup of Stumptown, while watching the team expedite everything from pork to pancakes and biscuits to brisket it would be approximately a twenty minute wait before my duo of plates arrived (unfortunately the restaurant’s policy was to serve dishes together, as opposed to coursed out) and as hard as it was to pass on the Monte Cristo my selected savory would prove to be well worth it, the signature “Cast Iron Skillet Fried Chicken with Toasted Pecan Bacon Spoonbread” an exemplary pile of crispy bird paired with sweet-meets-savory bacon and cornbread custard topped with buttery pecans plus a seemingly extraneous salad that actually proved brilliantly placed, the light acid of the vinaigrette helping to provide some levity to an otherwise hefty plate of excellent cuisine.
Transitioning from savory to sweet, and the main reason I opted to visit Country Cat on a weekend rather than a weekday, the *weekend only* Cinnamon Swirl French Toast with Makers Mark Custard, Vanilla Poached Pears, Clabber Cream, Maple Syrup would unfortunately prove to be quite disappointing – particularly in a city where I’d already experienced so many superlative takes on my favorite breakfast dish – and largely because of the toast itself. Large in portion and big in flavor with the poached pears, cream, and pure maple all excellent it was the execution of this dish that fell short – the custard not only unremarkable (and certainly not boozy,) but also not saturating the bread thus leaving the interior not dissimilar to a slice of plan cinnamon toast. Admittedly more than ample for sopping up the lovely amalgam of fruit, cream, and syrup but generally ‘bready’ I’m sure some of my disappointment in this dish was my preference for custard laden toast, so perhaps others results may vary, and I certainly would not hesitate to return in order to sample more of the menu – particularly the cinnamon rolls and monte cristo which both looked excellent, or some of the more interesting options from the dessert menu (which they should really consider serving at brunch.)
For my final brunch in town, and actually my final meal in general, I decided to take a chance on one of the new kids on the block – not necessarily a new restaurant, but a new (and decidedly unique) brunch service at Spints Ale House that would turn out to be one of my best spontaneous decisions of the trip – and the second best brunch, as well.
Obviously a watering hole from its title to its layout I was clued in to Spints by a fellow Chowhound and after so many crowded brunch spots throughout Portland I was admittedly surprised when I arrived to find the space literally empty; myself, a bartender, and a hostess the only people present save for the kitchen staff and honestly, had there not been a sign out front and a smiling “good morning” from the man tending both bar and table I’d have probably turned around at the door instead of seating myself at a hightop in the bar room where Radiohead played overhead and heavy woods and concrete once again filled the space with Stumptown soon to fill my mug.
A warm and open space with an ample collection of top shelf liquor befitting its primary function as a bar it should go without saying that service was excellent given the lack of other patrons (though another couple would show up later) but just to stress the point service was really quite exemplary, the bartender well versed in both the food and beverage program and even going so far as to gift me two cocktails he was “experimenting with” for future menus – the first a take on the White Russian featuring Apple Rum, Mint Bitters, Condensed Milk, and Kahlua while the second was served as a “warm-up” to my coffee with espresso, Bailey’s, and Cedar Bitters. Generally not one to imbibe so early in the day but not wanting to seem rude I must say that while I generally prefer my coffee sweeter, the first drink was excellent – the house made bitters coming across as a light kiss on the palate while the rest of the drink tasted like a creamy Amish apple pie.
Chatting as I awaited my plates and informed that despite the lack of patrons that day the brunch service had been doing rather well it would be a mere fifteen minutes before my first dish arrive and as much as the dish has become bastardized and cliché here in the States I couldn’t pass up the concept of “Sweet Potato and Chicken Liver Poutine” after my server’s description of hand cut fries, fresh curds, rough cut fried chicken livers, and a touch of cheddar; the whole thing decadent and rich with plenty of mineral funk – a great dish if you like liver, but probably not ideal if you don’t (or if you’re expecting the Quebecoise classic.)
Moving from funky to funkier, my main plate at Spints was the dish that got me in the door and as much as I knew I was taking a risk ordering Sweetbreads at a non-French, non-fine-dining restaurant the old adage of “high risk : high reward” proved quite true in the case of Spints’ French Toast with Fried Sweetbreads and Maple Syrup. Starting first with two slices of rich poppyseed bread entirely saturated with creamy custard and fried to a golden brown and moving on to three peerless sweetbreads; much like the toast golden crisp on the exterior and creamy within and lightly touched with powdered sugar plus barrel aged maple syrup this was the sort of dish one would expect to find, perhaps, at Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon and achieving the same deft balance as much of APdC’s cuisine at a mere $14 this dish was a veritable steal and amongst the most memorable in all of Portland.
At this point sated – and actually rather full – I could have easily departed Spints’ quite happy with the entire experience but literally incapable of passing up Bread Pudding when it is present on a menu I did the smart thing and ordered a slice – the $6 square far larger than I’d anticipated yet so good I nearly found myself licking the plate clean (and well aware that I was in for a long, sleepy flight.) Described simply on the menu as “Apple Bread Pudding” but in reality chunks of angelfood cake saturated with apple infused custard, cider, and chunks of roasted apples topped with rich vanilla bean crème anglaise this was, like everything else at Spints, the sort of food I love and without a doubt amongst the best bread pudding dishes I have had in some time – another must order, no matter how full you think you are, and a beautiful pairing to the apple rum cocktail.
An exquisite brunch in a city full of great brunches my visit to Spint’s ended with the bill – a modest $30, served alongside house made pecan brittle and thanking my server for both the recommendations and the drinks with a hefty tip I made my way to the car not only completely satisfied, but also with the newfound knowledge that Chicago is no longer my favorite breakfast and brunch city in America; not even close.
Perhaps because it was the meal we most frequently enjoyed as a family when I was young or perhaps as a result of my propensity for sweets in general I absolutely love breakfast…and perhaps moreso the concept of brunch. Always the sweets over savories sort yet also easily tempted by a croque, biscuit, or runny egg with quality pork (or in a perfect world some delicious marriage of both) one of the very first things that caught my eye when setting the agenda for Portland was just how strong the brunch/breakfast scene was; no less than twenty places serving weekday BRUNCH, hundreds with unique breakfast options, and still others featuring weekend-only choices that upped the ante even further; the only question from my standpoint was how to maximize my exposure without cutting into other meals (too much) – a mission I think I accomplished admirably in tallying 11 spots in seven days.
Starting off my breakfast list with a proper weekend brunch only thirty-five minutes after hopping off the plane my very first taste of Portland would come from the Woodsman Tavern and Market, directly next to the Original Stumptown Coffee, owned by the same team, and thus serving copious refills of their signature brew for free with breakfast. A heavily wooded spot from floorboards to tables and chairs to fixtures and the bar while brick walls and heavy curtains added to the ‘tavern’ feel Woodsman also features a small market next door selling house made breads and baked goods plus a number of locally source goods and house cured meats plus artisan products from companies like Mast Brothers, McClures, and more…the whole of the experience very curated but also homey and warm.
Without the absurd waits of some of the city’s more ‘famous’ brunch spots my arrival at Woodsman Tavern coincided with the sunniest day of my visit and with moods seemingly matching the weather I was seated promptly and greeted by the first of two pleasant young female servers who presented the menu, poured coffee, and left me for mere moments to ponder the options; a total of three eventually selected that she would claim “a lot of food” but I would consider just right beginning with an appetizer of Honey Vanilla Brioche Beignets featuring a delicately crisp exterior overlying a dense and buttery center that paired beautifully with house made pear-rosemary jam; the light herbal notes a perfect foil to the otherwise sweet doughnuts.
Well timed both with coffee refills and transitioning from course to course my next plate to arrive from the kitchen was apparently a bit of a signature dish according to my server and, as I would soon find out, a signature for good reason. Served on a single plate but featuring two distinct entities easily enjoyed together or on their own, “Potted Egg, Creamed Greens, Mushrooms, Biscuit, Country Ham, Apple Butter” would prove to be one of the most well balanced breakfast dishes of the trip – the jar a mélange of earthiness and umami while the golden biscuit with savory ham and a light smear of sweetness was every bit as good as the one at Pine State – at $12 a must order.
Last up – at least amongst the items from the Tavern proper – “Griddled Panettone, Caramelized Blood Orange, Mascarpone” would serve as the restaurant’s take on French Toast and although it was the weakest of my selections largely because the bread was neither dredged nor soaked thus leading to a texture more akin to “Toast” than “French Toast” it was at the very least interesting as the addition of rich mascarpone and bitter-sweet blood orange jus teaming with cinnamon and clove gave the dish a sort of Christmassy feel I hadn’t expected but certainly enjoyed in the context of panettone.
With the bill paid – a mere $27 considering the (surprising) lack of sales tax – I next made my way from the tavern with plans to check out Stumptown but allowing my curiosity to get the best of me I instead ended up in the Woodsman Market…a fortuitous mistake, perhaps, that led to a pound of coffee for the road, a Mast Brothers Dark Chocolate with Stumptown Coffee bar, and a Dark Chocolate and Salted Peanut Cupcake – the later a truly impressive specimen with a nearly souffle base topped in light peanut butter frosting, roasted peanuts, and fleur de sel that ranks amongst the best cupcakes I’ve had in some time.
Moving next to Sunday, a good night’s sleep after the two-fer of Ox and Nostrana gave way to a great morning run at the park and after readying myself for the day it was off to a breakfast two-fer, the first being the venerable and very, for lack of better word – “Portland” – Tin Shed, a space with brunch daily starting at 7:00am, a reservation list that includes the number of dogs in your party, and a campaign of local, organic, non-GMO foods and a comprehensive composing program. With ethics in place I will say that Tin Shed was a spot that many locals detracted me from visiting during my original research but with early opening hours and a solid, though perhaps un-exciting, menu and low prices I figured it worth a look.
Arriving early at the restaurant and thus avoiding any lineup I walked into Tin Shed and was greeted pleasantly by a middle aged female who suggested I could sit anywhere I like and opting for a bar-seat near the window overlooking rainy Alberta Street I was handed a menu and offered coffee – refills available to my rear – and given a “Grumpy” cup I had to chuckle because at the time my mood was quite good, even if the “Portland Roasting Company” Coffee on brew was a bit acrid and over-roasted.
Orders placed and left to wait as I watched the street outside slowly begin to populate with 20 to 30-somethings, the vast majority with dogs, it would not be long before my plates began to arrive – unfortunately all four of them at once; something I’d not see at any other brunch spot in the city even though the restaurant was not at all busy…though in the end I guess it did not really matter as none only one of the items was anywhere near ‘good,’ the least of which being a $2.25 chocolate chip cookie that paled in comparison to even the sort cut from a Pillsbury Bar and baked at home.
Moving next to slightly better options, the “Belly Teaser” featuring Coconut Milk Jasmine Rice Porridge with Vanilla, Bananas, and nuts was fine, I guess – the texture pleasant enough but the flavor flat and lacking any semblance of vanilla while the bananas were a bit under-ripe – the whole dish cried for some sweetness, but even with a bit of sugar added it was not worth the stomach space and the majority of the $6 order returned to the kitchen untouched while the $1.75 Buttermilk Biscuit received the majority of my attention, its flaky exterior and soft center both textbook and nicely complimented with provided fresh raspberry preserves.
Last, and although not least certainly not ‘most,’ a $2.50 side of “Sin” rounded out the offerings at Tin Shed and although the exterior was nicely cooked and laced with cinnamon the interior of the “House baked Sweet Potato-Cinnamon French Toast” was essentially just warm potato bread; not custard, not really sweet or even nuanced, just whispy and dull while the syrup – thick and cool – seemed out of place for a restaurant so focused on natural/healthy options, a note on the menu indicating that “real maple syrup” would have added a $1.50 surcharge to my $15.00 total bill; the vast majority of which I’m at least reassured went to compost.
With the majority of my meal at Tin Shed remarkable only in how subpar it was I was happy I’d planned on a second brunch/early lunch during my second day in Portland; this one at Ned Ludd. Described by themselves as an American Craft Kitchen and by people I trust as one of the most “authentic” restaurants in Portland due to Chef Jason French’s responsible local sourcing ethos and a focus on cooking everything in a wood burning oven I sort of had a feeling going into this meal that it would be something memorable, but I had no idea that it would end up arguably the best meal of my trip.
Located on MLK Blvd in a rather nondescript metal and glass building I’d jogged by just that morning my arrival at Ned Ludd preceded the 10:00am opening and wandering around back to see the local garden, then around front where the February weather had clearly worn on the foliage and herb garden it would not be long before the doors to Ned Ludd opened and greeted first by a young woman and then the young bearded man who would turn out to be my server I was offered my choice of seats and taking one opposite the bar so that I could see into the kitchen – a tiny space I’d later visit in order to see the minimalist layout and wood burning oven – I was handed a menu and offered coffee; my first of many experiences with Heart’s superlative Ethiopian Yukro before being left to weigh the options.
All wood beams and cement, heavy curtains and plants, plus a background soundtrack of Dylan and Young while brass chandeliers hung overhead it would not be long before the server returned and after inquiring about portion sizes – him suggesting ‘one or two’ plates per a guest – I opted for four, partially because I assumed he was underestimating my ability to eat and part because I felt the need to limit myself and not order the eleven items that sounded great. Asked if I’d like plates ‘spread out’ I stated that I certainly would and with two more tables now seated my server disappeared to the kitchen to place my order, returning seconds later with a refill and menus for the others; if there was another waiter or waitress present besides the bartender I’m unaware, but either way the service was beyond reproach.
Happy with the coffee, music, and warm environs as the restaurant continued to fill my first plate to arrive was actually a board featuring a single Oven Griddled Apple Muffin with Sweet Butter and like everything that followed it was excellent – the muffin itself spiced like cider with a spongy texture not unlike a soufflé cake while the sweet butter/apple butter were an obvious accoutrements perfectly suited to the muffin – the sweet butter especially bringing out a light smokiness from the wood in the oven.
Moving next to something savory, not always my ‘go to’ at breakfast or brunch but in this case too good to pass up, the Pork and Lamb Rillettes served with toasted whole wheat bread and pickled apples would prove an unintended but inspired follow-up to the muffin, in this case the savory apples providing a light acidic and texturally crisp foil to the intensely gamey but creamy rillettes.
With two excellent dishes behind me and yet another coffee refill nothing could have prepared me for what came next, a plate that as of this writing on 3/3/13 is still the best thing I’ve eaten in 2013 – the simply named “Thick Cut French Toast, Maple Syrup, Pear Butter” featuring what can best be described as vanilla pudding posing as bread – a nearly liquid custard beneath the golden crust that was actually closer to buttery or savory than sweet and therefore a perfect pairing to the hot maple syrup and thick pear butter. Rarely one to pass on French Toast, whether served as breakfast or dessert, this was without a single shadow of a doubt the best French Toast I’ve ever experienced – a strong statement considering the one at LeMeac last April.
At this point I could have stopped and left Ned Ludd ready to deem it one of my top five breakfasts/brunches of all time but at the suggestion of the couple next to me I decided to take my chances with one last plate and while the “Oven Kissed Chocolate Chip Cookie with Cold Milk and Sea Salt” did not soar to the heights of the French Toast it did indeed exceed all expectations – the steaming hot skillet a sort 50/50 mixture of crispy cookie dough and dark chocolate topped with crunchy bits of sea salt. Rich, decadent, and entirely over the top whether at breakfast, lunch, or dinner I’d be hard pressed to say this was the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever tasted, but I’d also have to think pretty hard to think of one aside from perhaps Levain or Le Grande Orange that was on par – and neither of them are anywhere near the same caliber of Ned Ludd in terms of setting, service, savories, or especially French Toast. Simply stated, my next visit to Portland will feature both brunch and dinner at Ned Ludd and I’d suggest anyone in town for even one day make it part of their agenda, as well.
Another day and another brunch, this one before heading to the Pacific Coast, would see me visit Tasty and Sons; the small plates restaurant from the team behind Toro Bravo seemingly a perfect place to experience a large representative example of what the kitchen could do without being wasteful (or entering a food coma that would make it difficult to make the round trip to Seaside and back without pulling over for a nap.) Warned by many of hour-plus waits even on weekdays and myself arriving at the Williams Avenue location just minutes before 9:00, having already stopped downtown for coffee and canele at Courier plus a box of Voodoo Doughnuts, I have to say I was still surprised – a small line of a dozen folks already waiting by the door and starting the procession inside as I parked the car.
Fitting the style I’ve come to realize is ubiquitous to much of Portland’s dining scene – that being music that is slightly too loud, chairs that are a little too hard, cement floors, brick walls, and lots of reclaimed wood with open industrial ceilings – the first thing that struck me beyond the superficial aspects of Tasty n’ Sons was something else I found common in Portland; friendly and attentive service that carried from the hostess stand to my server, a pleasant young woman at the bar where I’d requested to sit and being the only solo diner in the place for the first half hour the service offered was essentially one to one – plates arriving with impeccable timing and coffee (probably a gallon of Stumptown Hairbender when it was all said and done) refilled without hesitation.
Having again received a suggestion from service that I felt short sighted – specifically that I may have ordered ‘too much’ – without even knowing I’d already been to Courrier and Voodoo as I chuckled at a quote on the wall from Point stating “before judging a thin man one must get some information, perhaps he was once fat” my meal at Tasty n’ Sons began with a pair of small snacks – the first a fluffy Chocolate Potato Doughnut resting in a thin pool of rich Crème Anglaise and the second a Bacon Wrapped Date stuffed with an almond, griddled, and drizzled with Maple Syrup; both items signatures and both outstanding.
Progressing next to heavier options, “Auntie Paula’s French Toast” arrived next and although a decent version of my favorite breakfast item the caramelized and lightly singed brioche was simply too ‘bready’ on the interior to match my tastes for more custard laden options. Offered as a dessert with ice cream and in my case served with pear infused maple and whipped cream there are simply far too many exemplary French Toasts in PDX to bother with this one – particularly when the following dish, a far more simple “Toast & Jam” was vastly more complex, a thin layer of Teleme Cheese melted on each slice while pear and pineapple preserves split time in adding light, natural sweetness.
For my ‘main’ course, if such a thing can be had at Tasty n’ Sons, the Open Faced Monte Cristo would prove to be not only delicious, but also a veritable bargain with a substantial amount of thinly sliced ham perched atop bread what seemed to be the very same bread as featured in Paula’s French Toast, but more most and certainly more saturated with flavor, in this case a sort of pimento pepper spiced maple syrup that was certainly spicy but not overwhelmingly so and a lovely compliment to the creamy cheese and savory pork.
Last, and certainly not least, the team at Tasty n’ Sons definitely went out on a high note with their off-menu special dessert, the “Griddled Rum Cake with Banana and Bacon” a sort of hybrid cross between the traditional French Baba with its golden yeasty crumb and a more pedestrian coffee cake with a streusel topping and thicker crust both infused with hefty notes of rum and drizzled with local honey. Intense, flavorful, and topped with a strip of smoky bacon plus caramelized bananas this was the sort of dish that comes out of nowhere and steals the show in an otherwise entirely satisfying meal, pushing it to a whole different level – a level that ALMOST saw me visit the newly opened Tasty n’ Adler a few days later before deciding to save it for another trip – a choice that, in retrospect, I regret because at least two (and more likely four) of my subsequent morning meals would have been better spent at one of John Gorham’s Tasty locations.
With lunch plans for Pok Pok and an impromptu stop at Lauretta Jeans’ as I misread the opening time as 8:00am as opposed to 9:00 my Tuesday breakfast took place at the Scandinavian hot-spot, Broder – a restaurant that intrigued me largely due to the lack of Swedish cuisine (outside of Ikea) in most major cities but also because I’d heard the space itself was quite unique, a quaint spot on Clinton Street that felt like a throwback to the 1950s in terms of setting, servicewear, and style – a clean minimalism that certainly applied to the long and narrow room, but also, unfortunately to the service.
Arriving just after doors opened to find a few seats filled, notably one of the chefs’ mother and grandmother at the table next to me, I was handed a menu only after answering “no” to the question of ‘do you know what you want’ as I sat down. Perhaps mistaken as a regular, or perhaps just part of the restaurant’s style I did at this point request coffee – a thin and watery brew served in a clear glass mug that I was surprised to find out later was Stumptown…and a mug again served with prompting for my order; at this point bordering on impolite as I’d been seated for less than 5 minutes.
Eventually having a chance to peruse the menu as my server took to schmoozing with the ladies next to me I finally made my selection of two plates and sat listening to random American (not at all Scandinavian) music playing at a modest volume until the dishes arrived simultaneously and although both looked quite good, the results – largely due to the poor quality ingredients – were substandard, beginning first with “Friterade Applen,” a pair of greasy apple fritters largely lacking in apple flavor alongside baked eggs and apple pork sausage – again without any semblance of an apple and only saved by the high quality of the pure maple syrup which was still largely lost on the fritters.
Moving next to my second item, this option a definite improvement to the fritters, a quintet of Aebleskivers sat piled golden, fluffy, and piping hot with just a bit of powdered sugar to highlight the mild buttermilk tones. Baked in a traditional Aebleskiver pan and thus devoid of any semblance oiliness each of these little puffs tasted like a nice quality buttermilk pancake and when paired with the house lemon curd and lingonberry jam the overall effect was pleasant, though at $9 one could have just as easily gotten far more interesting baked goods made with better quality ingredients at dozens of Portland bakeries, breakfast nooks, or even donut shops.
For my last breakfast before heading north to Seattle for a couple of days I decided to risk an early morning gut-buster in order to visit Mississippi Avenue’s Gravy and with a great morning run of nearly 12 miles behind me I arrived with eyes, for once, actually bigger than my stomach and the door just unlocked with only one man sitting at the counter as The Four Tops played overhead. A large space with the servers still busy setting tables and tidying up I stood for a few minutes a bit confused as to whether I should wait (as indicated by a card and sign-in sheet before me) or take a seat but within seconds the questioned was answered, a friendly woman with a southern accent inviting me to sit where I like while she gathered me silverware, a glass of water, and a menu.
With no menu online but a good idea of what I wanted from reading the words of others it would not be long before my server returned, porting a cup of coffee that would be refilled so rapidly and frequently that I actually had to ask her to hold off since I was to be driving three hours to Seattle and even then the lightly roasted brew – very rich with a bit of berry and citrus making me assume it to be Kenyan or Somali in origin – left me quite buzzy for the drive…not to mention the dishes to come, this time all delivered at once by my request as the waitress asked whether I’d prefer them spaced out.
Sitting and listening to the music as a few more seats filled – one a business meeting and the other a young couple with a child, then more after that, the demographic of Gravy was clearly local and spanned all ages – a good sign of a ‘homey’ sort of diner – and when the dishes arrived I could tell this was not going to be fancy of finessed food, just big portions of interesting takes on classics starting off with a Fluffy Catshead Biscuit teaming with butter and a side of Strawberry Jam. Given the fact that one of my other plates was offered with a side “of my choice,” but precluded from ordering the biscuit because Gravy so frequently runs out, this $1.50 option was not quite as good as others on the trip – the exterior a bit too crunchy and the interior dried out, but my guess is that it would have stood up admirably to the house sausage gravy.
Up next, unable to pass up sweet but also intrigued by the savories I made a mental compromise and ordered the Monte Cristo – a means to sample the French Toast…plus ham, turkey, swiss, and a pair of poached eggs plus a side of pure maple syrup – probably a pound of food in total and one of the few instances where I simply had to leave some of it on the table not because it wasn’t good, but because along with the other items it was simply too much with the batter dipped bread providing a soft, cinnamon note to the otherwise savory plate that turned into a visual nightmare once yolks were broken and syrup added, but tasted divine. As to the ‘side’ – the fruit cup tasted like fruit cups taste at diners in February…like melon.
For the ‘dessert’ option, though just as easily an appetizer or a main course for a small group of people, the oft raved Oatmeal Brulee with Berries was everything I’d hoped for and then some – the oats themselves toothsome and creamy with plenty of sugar and vanilla while a crunchy golden sugar shell topped the dish adding not only intense sweetness that mellowed when broken into the oats, but also a nice textural crunch. Topped with fresh berries, an additional surprise came as I dug deeper into the large bowl to find more berries within, and quite a few of them as well – the fructose and juice bursting and bleeding into the surrounding oats making the whole dish quite dessert like, and nearly impossible to not finish – hence the leftover Monte Cristo.
A great spot with ridiculously low prices considering the quality of the food and the portions I’ve heard that Gravy can often sport 2+ hour waits like the rest of Portland’s best breakfast and brunch spots and to that I say although it wasn’t my “best” breakfast in PDX, I’d recommend getting there early – or waiting it out, because it really is quite excellent – even if you don’t get anything with thickened meat stock anywhere near it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until my sister suggested Seattle as a family vacation for late 2011 I hadn’t really given much thought to the Pacific Northwest as a destination and having checked off myriad great meals during that trip, as well as a visit to Vancouver to catch a game at Rogers Arena the only real “bucket list” item that remained on my list north of San Francisco seemed to be a concert at The Gorge – ideally Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, or Soundgarden…or at least so I thought, until a GQ article detailing the bourgeoning Portland artisan food scene caught my eye one morning while jogging on treadmill and pollstar subsequently alerted me to a Soundgarden reunion tour.
Always one to plan…and plan…and plan a trip the following months featured a great deal of research and after much ado an agenda was hatched in the standard fashion; food first, concerts and sports second, museums and gardens third, and then the logistics of flight, cheap hotel, and car vs. public transport – the later three a ridiculous deal even before I learned of Oregon’s lack of sales tax…and was offered a free place to stay by the sister of a friend, a gracious offer I debated but eventually accepted and one that proved to be the best decision of the trip for any number of reasons including her location, knowledge of the area, love of food, and general (for lack of better word) awesomeness – a quality shared by many locals I would meet over the course of nine days and no less than 63 independent eateries, restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries – the later two to be summarized below, and a collection that in-and-of-itself is enough to bring me back sooner rather than later, especially since the rest of the food scene (to be summarized later) is even better.
Having hopped off the plane and allocated my car in record time with only a light salad and some ultra peptide whey in my system after a morning run and flight from Phoenix food was a top priority on arrival and after grabbing breakfast at The Woodsman Tavern a few steps would take me to what I’d later find out was the original Stumptown Coffee on Division Street – a space I’d visit thrice during my stay largely due to location, but also the layout as the spacious back room was never crowded while the front-and-center bar served up drink after drink and the on-site roaster sat quietly in the back. Friendly and efficient, more than happy to discuss everything from beans to grinders to roasting techniques, I additionally enjoyed the atmosphere of this location more than the location at the ACE or the one on Belmont and while the standard Hair Bender Americano was good it was the Ethiopian Nano Challa that truly wowed, an intense cup with huge top notes of berry but a finish that tasted of cocoa and spice; the second best cup of coffee I had on the trip.
Continuing the coffee-only theme, a second stop en route to OMSI on a later day would take me to Water Avenue Coffee, a very cool looking space with on-site roasting, free wi-fi, and great beans but (at least during my visit) an unfortunate staff that fancies itself as cool as the location; the sort of baristas who give the job a bad name with their holier-than-thou attitude and excruciatingly slow preparations; the pour over especially, leading to a nearly fifteen minute wait for my 12oz El Toro Americano despite there being only two people in line before me. Admittedly a very good cup of coffee – rich and smooth with a sort of smoked chocolate finish and nearly zero acidity this was one of two coffees I purchased to take home and although best served as an espresso I’ve also found it to be quite excellent via siphon; less so in a press.
Next up, Oui Presse would prove to be the low-light of the coffee-centric portion of my trip – perhaps due to the fact that I visited only an hour before closing as I was killing time before dinner at Castagna, or perhaps because I’d gotten so used to the small batch hand roasted options elsewhere, but either way there was not really much to love about the overly roasted flavor of the Americano which I believe was from Stumptown, but either old or a blend I’m not familiar with, nor the snarky attitude of the clerk when I looked at him confusedly when he told me he “couldn’t” make a 12oz Americano – only 6oz or 10oz – something I hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the city. Taking into account the ample seating, secure wi-fi, and interesting selection of (purchase only) magazines I think Oui Presse could probably be a decent space and the food menu looked interesting but considering the quality of other local spots I’d probably only return if I was a local.
Moving finally to the last of the coffee-only spots on my list, and in this case saving the best for last, there really isn’t enough that I can say about Heart and the quality of their beans, staff, and products – all well-culled and excellent, a veritable best of the best where the roaster sits in plain view – often in use – and the staff is not only educated, but more than happy to discuss the craft of their trade. Having visited the store three times over the course of four days and sampling everything from a Stereo Blend Ameircano to a Ethiopian Yukro pour over to the Colombia Perla Del Sur via Aeropress it is not only the quality of the whole beans that shows, but also the exquisite roasting – easily exampled when you purchase the beans (most roasted the day prior) and examine them at home, smaller than the average, lighter than average, and just short of dry. More expensive than the other roasters in town but not quite as pricey as some of the best in San Francisco (Ritual, Four Barrel, and Blue Bottle come to mind) a full 12oz bag of Perla Del Sur and half a bad of Yukro both returned to Phoenix with me on 2/11 and thus far brewed via drip, press, pour over, and siphon there is really no way to go wrong; the Yukro especially is one of the most complex single origins I’ve ever tasted.
Unable to subsist on coffee alone, additional caffeine based stops also led to sampling some of Portland’s pastries; the majority sourced from local bakeries and patisseries I’d planned to visit anyhow, but one in particular doing a small bit of in-house baking truly worth going out of one’s way for – Courier Coffee, a small shop on SW Oak that could easily be missed by those not looking.
Small and compact, just a bar and a few chairs, the menu at Courier is hand-written (or painted on the store windows) and like many of Portland’s best the coffee is all hand roasted by the team, in this case a few miles away and a limited number of whole bean bags are available for purchase while all the standard drinks are made to order while you wait. Selecting a 12oz Americano – at a mere $2 one of the cheapest in town – along with both of the morning’s still-warm pastries the team was friendly and succinct, happy to chat but mindful of other customers waiting behind me, and with all seats filled I took a sip of the steaming hot brew and knew right away I’d be back for another as strong strawberry notes came across fading into a light caramel tone with a smooth and creamy body.
Moving next to the pastries, the first a canele I’d heard much about from a few trusted sources, I have to say that after a number of disappointing canele in a number cities this was the first of two superlative versions in Portland (the other being St. Jack) with a crunchy caramelized exterior giving way to an extraordinary custard sponge within. Golden and sweet with just a bit of rum and a whole lot of vanilla this was the sort of pastry where one wouldn’t suffice – a second, along with a double shot 16oz Americano, purchased the following day.
Onward to the second of two pastries, having asked how the daily muffin was and simultaneously told “amazing” by both baristas, the Local Yogurt, Oat and Blood Orange Muffin would indeed prove to be delicious and at $3 for an entirely organic muffin weighing in at probably 1/3 a pound and loaded with toothsome oats and tangy yogurt balanced by a lightly caramelized top plus the intensity of the citrus it would also prove to be quite the bargain – a pastry that could easily serve as breakfast for many and amongst the best textured muffins I’ve had in some time.
For the second of two coffee shops doing their own baking (but in this case not their own roasting) an unexpected rain storm before pizza at Apizza Scholls sent me to Common Grounds; an idea clearly shared by many as the store was chockablock full with only one open seat at the bar near the window. Procuring the space and asking an older gentleman to watch my bag while I placed my order I was greeted by a friendly young woman and having only intended to order an Americano she inquired “how about a cookie? They’re fresh and delicious,” – clearly a suggestion I’d be foolish to ignore and thus leading me to order two, the entirety of the order prepared in a few moments and carried back to my seat for a mere $5 after leaving a $1 tip in the jar.
Beginning first with the Americano, a 12oz single shot, I appreciated the nuttiness of the finish but not particularly the upfront acidity – a problem I’ve noted before with Café Vita and one mostly remedied by a packet of Splenda and immediately was thankful that there would be more to the experience than just the coffee – the first of those being a rich Molasses Cookie, still sticky from the oven and spicy but also substantially sweet…the sort of cookie one can (and I did) dunk in the coffee thereby benefitting both items.
Moving next to the larger of the two cookies, also $1, the “Cowboy Cookie” featuring the standard flour, butter, and sugar plus oats, nuts, coconut flakes, and chocolate chips would prove to be a step up from both the coffee and the Molasses in terms of both complexity and flavor – everything well balanced and although easily enough made at home a nice way to pass away some time during a rainstorm while browsing the net. Certainly not a ‘destination’ coffee house or bakery like so many others in PDX good enough in a pinch, and clearly a popular joint amongst locals.
Another day and another caffeine fix would feature the Ristretto Roasters location on North Williams Avenue, a spot I visited after breakfast at Tasty & Sons before a drive to the coast and with ample free parking in the area plus plenty of shops to browse I found the shop approximately half full on my 10:30am arrival, many of the patrons from nearby shops and the baristas not particularly hurried, happy to chat with guests both familiar and new as they prepared various beverages for a slowly trickling line.
Myself in the middle of Ristretto’s age range that day – not quite hipster and not quite the well suited older clients – I was interested to see how the servers changed up their mannerisms for each patron and greeted similar to the younger folks with a ‘what can I get ya, bro?’ I ordered up an Americano and pastries to take on my drive – the double shot of Beaumont blend in 16oz providing a huge nose of chocolate and a rich mouth feel with low acidity and a nearly vanilla finish; another great cup of coffee and one I would have purchased for home use if I did not already have three pounds from elsewhere.
Turning to the pastries, in this case all outsourced, my selection was a quartet with the first two from Bake Shop and the latter two from Tonalli’s Donuts. Beginning with those from Bake Shop, a store I unfortunately missed during my Portland trip as they were closed when I tried to visit, their oft raved Figgy Buckwheat Scone would prove to be decent, though not as good as I’d have hoped largely because of my expectations of what a scone should be; those lovely pockets of butter juxtaposing crunchy sugar when instead this was more like a biscuit in texture with a curl of dense fig preserves rolled in like a cinnamon roll. Rich and textural and savory over sweet it is definitely worth trying for those who fancy fig, but at least for me not as inspiring in execution as it is in concept.
Up next, the “Sweet and Salty” Cookie would prove to be another good-but-not-great option with rich notes of chocolate in the toothsome batter, but living in Phoenix and comparing this to La Grande Orange’s Chocolate Chip Sea salt cookie left me feeling a bit flat, though the roasted salty peanuts were admittedly a nice touch.
Onward to the donuts, obviously not as hot as they would have been (and would prove to be later) direct from the source, I opted for two of my all-time favorite old fashioned options and was pleased to find the blueberry cake option as good as those I remember from my childhood while the buttermilk bar was without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted – a better cake donut than the buttermilk stack (and 1/2 the price) at Doughnut Vault or The Donut Man, loaded with a slight tang from the buttermilk and pillowy soft despite being a cake donut…it was so good that I ordered a second approximately a week later when I visited Tonalli’s flagship and that time requesting one of the fresh warm ones from it proved even better; a seemingly impossible task but one I’d suggest anyone check out for themselves – or simply get to Ristritto early enough in the morning to get one fresh there…the lady at Tonalli’s tells me they deliver them just before the store opens at 6:30am.
…and speaking of Tonalli’s, a brief interlude before I get back to the coffee part of this blog (and before I cover the rest of the donuts,) I will simply say a few brief words about the small mom n’ pop shop on Alberta. #1) The prices are ridiculously low compared to similar spots in Portland and other major cities. #2) The servers are smiling, friendly, and astoundingly efficient even when the lines are long. #3) As previously mentioned, the buttermilk bar is a reference standard example… #4) The Blueberry fritter is even better, a crispy lacquered shell of glaze over toasty fried bits bursting with blueberries and soft wisps of dough within. Tonalli’s was my last taste of Portland (for now,) and although the coffee is acrid and weak while the ice cream seems rather pedestrian, that shouldn’t stop anyone who loves cake donuts from stopping by for their fix – particularly as a quick walk down the street can land you are Barista for an Americano and Salt & Straw for some of the best ice cream in America within minutes.
And finally, having mentioned Barista above, the last but not least amongst the coffee-first places on my list would be the location on Alberta – a large, bohemian looking sort of coffee house featuring heavy woods, animal heads, and both beans and brewing equipment from some of the country’s best – not to mention an ample morning selection of pastries from Nuvrei downtown. A surprisingly boisterous space at most times of the day, particularly early morning (I visited twice,) both of my visits consisted of me first browsing the fresh roasted beans from roasters such as Heart, Verve, Stumptown, and Kochere and then ordering a 12oz Americano brewed with Verve’s Ethiopian “The Sermon,” a rich blend with a lot of jam and a bit of chocolate that, although not a local roaster (California,) was still excellent.
With coffee ordered twice, it was only during my first visit – an early Sunday morning while waiting for Ned Ludd to open – that I decided to indulge in the pastries and with half a dozen selections available I opted for two, my standard almond croissant and a wild berry brioche, both from Nuvrei – the former a lackluster and soft sugarbomb loaded with far too much frangipane and powdered sugar that was only saved from the wastebasket by the richness of the coffee while the later was actually quite excellent, the only truly impressive option I’d taste from Nuvrei with a dense egg bread with a crisp and golden exterior holding a custard-like center loaded with subtle intrinsic sweetness and ripe, bursting berries bleeding deep into the core; excellent in flavor and in texture, though probably best shared given its heft. All-in-all a trendy place to be sure – hipster even – Barista is a decent enough shop, but for my money I’d sooner support a true local roaster and a place serving better pastry; Ristretto with Tonalli’s and Bake Shop, Courier with their Canele, and Stumptown with Little T all come to mind…and if you want Heart beans they are $1 cheaper per 12oz bag at the flagship.
Noting my previous experience with Nuvrei while at Barista on Alberta it was with mixed feelings that I entered their far-too-cutesy shop downtown and having already enjoyed a nice brunch and other quality pastries with substantial plans for dinner I decided to let my first few selections dictate whether I would order more – a good choice on my part both for the sake of cost and capacity but also for quality as my choice of two Macarons and a canele would prove to be average at best, the “Framboise – Oregon Raspberry” option featuring a gummy shell with an admittedly wonderful raspberry jam within and the “Caramel au beurre sale with fleur de sel” a nice blend of sweet and salty flavors but again lacking any crackle to the shell while the interior was almost “Sugar Daddy” sticky.
Moving next to the canele, and having already had a superlative version at Courier, I found myself with mixed feelings of the version at Nuvrei largely because it was a bit overcooked – both the shell and the first few centimeters of the interior holding up admirably to the tooth while only the dead-center was the expected custard sponge. Sweeter than the average and seemingly lacking any rum, instead focusing on fresh notes of vanilla I couldn’t help but think of this as an “Americanized” take on the Bordeaux classic – a suspicion that, in retrospect, seemed to plague all of Nuvrei’s overly sweet and off-textured options (save for the berry brioche – something I guess I never really saw in Paris either, but definitely loved at Nuvrei.)
Keeping with the French theme and starting with Little T, as mentioned with regard to their selection at Stumptown, another morning would take me past their spacious shop while window shopping (and shopping) the stores between Broder and Pok-Pok and without hesitation the smell of butter and vanilla drew me in. A nice space, all straight lines, light woods, and steel counters with a staff of at least four doing everything from bussing tables to making lattes to doling out baked goods while the bakers worked fervently in the kitchen.
Stepping up to the counter and greeted by the only employee who seemed less-than-thrilled with her job and browsing the selections I received largely one-word answers and after asking a question about proofing the croissants that she clearly had no answer to I simply ordered; 4 selections and only one a ‘traditional’ pastry in the French formal sense, that one without a doubt the best kouign amann I tasted in Portland – the shattering shell and hundreds of buttery layers all delicately sweet yet also tinged with a slight saltiness that reminded me of the versions in Paris; a high standard only to be surpassed a few days later at Seattle’s Crumble and Flake – the best kouign amann I’ve had anywhere.
Moving on to the French influenced American options and American touched French options, the former was listed as a Baked Currant Donut and as much as I like donuts and currants (and even baked donuts such as those at LA’s ‘fonuts’) I just could not get past the bready texture of this option; a mouthfeel like chewing on a 99 cent for six hamburger bun that was a couple days old. Slightly less disappointing, and entirely different, would be the chocolate praline croissant – essentially a butter roll in without any crackle to the shell but a decent wispiness to the interior and a lot of high quality chocolate with light nutty tones beneath. Decent, but texturally akin to the croissant you’d buy as a “croissanwich” somewhere and a conundrum for me since the crackle of the kouign amann had turned out so well.
Moving last to perhaps the most ‘interesting’ option on the Little T menu, an item titled ‘Chocolate Hazelnut Roll’ would turn the tables back in favor of a possible return visit to the bakery – the light spiral bun something like a bearclaw in texture with bright cocoa notes melding seamlessly with a thick house-ground sweetened hazelnut paste. Difficult to describe as it clearly pulls together a number of influences yet easy to love it was essentially portable baked Nutella; a must order alongside the kouign amann.
Another day, this one the morning of my road trip to Seattle, would see me at St. Honore on Thurman Street and with French Flags flying both outside and within I entered the boulangerie with high hopes – hopes bolstered by a space nearly full to capacity despite the time being 9:00am on a Wednesday. Large and rustic with granite tables, woven seats, and wood beams exposed plus bakers dressed in white aprons and caps similar to those seen in Parisian patisseries overseeing the production of an ample selection of breads, sandwiches, entrements, and pastries it seemed at first glance that St. Honore would be the sort of place I’d love and yet from my first encounter with the monotone server to the part where I had to wait fifteen minutes for their signature pastry to be plucked from a case and placed in a box the experience was less than ideal.
Moving past service issues and the dreadful logistics of parking, the four selections from St. Honore ranged from decent to exemplary and beginning low working towards high this started with another lackluster Almond Croissant – something I found quite common in Portland – this one with an excellent crunch to the shell but enough frangipane that it essentially constituted frosting, turning the interior into a sort of sweet pudding and negating any semblance of nuance; something I hope the local pigeons didn’t mind when I left more than half on the street.
Moving next to a pair of my favorites, both decent but neither astounding, a canele de Bordeaux would prove to be a bit too soggy, though nicely flavored, while the kouign amann was actually textbook in texture – the layers all nicely separated and shattering to the tooth – but a bit too sweet, thus hiding the butter tones of an otherwise fine attempt.
Finally, and perhaps most appropriately, the last bites of St. Honore would come in the form of a picture perfect St. Honore – each of the lacquered choux balls filled with creamy custard, the base layer flaky and topped with fresh whipped cream, and buttery tones deftly balanced against the sweetness. Texturally compelling and one of the best I’ve had stateside this is a ‘destination’ pastry for a trip to Portland even if there are better (much better) versions of the rest of their goods to be found elsewhere in town.
With St. Honore my last stop before departing Portland for Seattle the first stop on my return would be an unplanned visit to Pearl Bakery, a visit prompted by a text message from the young lady with whom I was staying suggesting that the small shop’s bouchon was “the most lovely and amazing breakfast food I know…a dense but oddly light and crumbly (though not dry) rich chocolate muffin/pastry/cake/treat” – tough words to argue with; particularly from anyone suggesting that the riff on Thomas Keller’s classic pastry was a ‘breakfast food’ and even moreso after a three hour drive on the I-5.
Clearly a spot that I’d read about (like most of Portland, actually) yet one that for whatever reason had missed the final cut, our arrival at Pearl Bakery began by allocating parking and having had trouble with that aspect of the Pearl District in the past we were fortunate to find a spot just down the block and subsequently making our way into the wood and tile space I knew right away that the story would not begin and end with a Bouchon – the eventual order constituting a quintet of selections varying from interesting to good to excellent; the bouchon every bit as good as the versions in Yountville, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas…and possibly even better given the larger size and rough cut chocolate with a bit higher moisture content than I recall forcing me to wonder if they are using something other than Valrhona.
Moving on to the other options, a selection running the gamut from sweet to savory and Italian and French to American the oft raved Gibassier would prove to be the only dud of the late morning not because it was poorly done, but largely because it simply didn’t fit either of our palates – the sugared bread a sort of focaccia texture rife with anise and orange peel – and leaving half of this to the birds we moved onto the crunchy-gives-way-to-sweet Sicilian fig cookie, a dense and buttery cinnamon bun, and finally an impressively subtle pistachio croissant that defiantly managed to be more savory than sweet by utilizing toasted pistachios and a bit of salt with minimal sugar to highlight the crispy choux without overwhelming the intrinsic yeasty notes; a great accomplishment that may not fit every palate but for myself the best croissant I found in PDX and reason enough, along with the bouchon, to warrant a visit to Pearl Bakery.
Another well regarded space with French pastry at its core was visited the day following Pearl (incidentally a few days after a less-than-impressive visit to the equally eponymous pizzeria) and although the line was long, parking hellacious, and seating 75% full Ken’s Artisan Bakery proved to be quite average in every aspect save for two things; the over-inflated prices and one unique and truly delicious item.
Beginning first with the location, a corner spot on NW 21st, just assume that you’ll be driving in circles for a while unless you want to walk, something I did from 5 blocks away – and once you’re in the shop expect to be rushed through your decisions as there is a single line, a single clerk, a single cashier, and not nearly enough room thus leading to you handing the cashier your money and getting out of the way until your order is readied. Not a fan of crowded or pushy spaces and taking some items home to share with my friend I think I spent a total of 5 minutes inside Ken’s before landing back on the street with my bag of five items walking back to the car.
At this point still looking for a high quality almond croissant in Portland I’d again meet with no luck at Ken’s – a $3 waste of calories and cash with decent exterior crunch yet enough pasty almond filling to qualify as a twinkie and following this up with the worst canele of the trip – a texture more cupcake than crunch with an interior more sponge than custard – it was only reasonable that things would get better with what followed.
Having returned to my friend’s place with the rest of the bounty, including half of the almond cream puff…er…croissant, further tastes of Ken’s would feature a decent Salted Caramel Coffee Macaron with a crisp shell but slightly gummy filling whose flavor approximated a caramel macchiato followed by a tightly wound and densely glazed pecan cinnamon roll that made up for what it lacked in yeasty rise with plenty of sweetness and a pleasant texture added by what can best be described as a smoky pralines between the layers.
Saving the best *by far* for last, Ken’s celebrated “Oregon Croissant” proved to be every bit as good as some have said – the amalgam of Marionberries and hazelnuts in a creamy layer poured atop the flaky pastry prior to baking and thus bubbling up like a Danish with a base like a croissant. Somehow far less ‘doughy’ than the almond croissant despite the creamy topping and speckled with pearl sugar for extra crunch this was yet another example of a Portland bakery doing one thing very right (much like the St. Honore at St. Honore, or the Wildberry Brioche at Nuvrei) while everything else lagged far behind – a trend I saw time and again in varying degrees until the very last day of my trip…
…at St. Jack, a pre-brunch stop I’d originally targeted as a dinner (and will certainly visit during my next trip to PDX,) where I arrived at only a few minutes after they opened the doors to the patisserie and instantly fell in love with the elegant space, the lovely service, and most of all the fresh morning pastries arriving warm from the kitchen; each of three options I ordered a spot on translation of the versions being served in France and the first, a double baked almond croissant, the only good almond croissant I found during this trip with a perfect crunch, subtle sweetness, and the almond a glossy topping rather than an overwhelmingly sweet paste or filling.
Next up, a canele, in this case still piping hot as if just released from the mold, my tastebuds were met with a great exterior crunch with just a light touch of butter followed by a creamy interior loaded with notes of dark rum and rich vanilla – a taste that necessitated purchasing a second and one that I would love to taste blindly alongside that from Courier to see if I could distinguish a ‘winner,’ though both trump any that I’ve had elsewhere except perhaps B.Patisserie in San Francisco.
Last but not least – and in this case truly baked to order – my last bites of St. Jack would be a $4 bag of a dozen Madelines, each small and dainty, faintly lemon and just a bit sweet…better than those served at the end of many Michelin Starred meals and every bit worth the wait, particularly given the cosy environs and other options to sample while you wait; I can only assume Proust would have been happy; I know I was…and if I lived locally I know I’d be back for more soon.
From French influenced to the creativity of Belgium sporting ‘a Portland twist’ a quick stop at The Waffle Window – yes indeed, a window that serves Liege waffles – would prove to be another inspired decision during my visit to Rip City. Small and shockingly without a line during my visit despite the warm weather I approached the window not exactly sure what to expect but greeted by a friendly gentleman who handed me a menu I stepped back and perused the option for a moment, allowing a mother and her children to place their order, and taking their cue I opted for the same toppings as two of the three and stepped to the side chatting with the woman while we all waited a few minutes for our selections to arrive.
Having chosen the “Bananarumba,” a $4.50 choice described to me as their most popular item, what arrived to me in a Styrofoam clamshell would prove to be an impressive deal as the dense Liege Waffle – caramelized, yeasty, and perfect – was topped with a whole ripe banana, house made banana infused caramel, local granola, and fresh whipped cream. Sweet and rich yet neither cloying nor heavy I’d go so far as to say this was a nearly perfect dish – the only thing that may have made it better was ice cream – and had I more time and a less aggressive eating agenda I’d have loved to return to try the seasonal apple pie version or the blueberry cheesecake option.
Taking a decidedly American turn for the rest of my Portland baked goods, a “just because it was there” stop one morning took me to Lauretta Jeans…okay, that is a lie, what took me there was the smell of apples and cinnamon permeating the air as I walked by just after 8am en route to Broder having dropped off my car near Pok-Pok as I’d be dining there for lunch. A small shop I’d come across in my research I figured it certainly wouldn’t hurt to stop in and look, though obviously in the back of my mind I knew there was a good chance I’d end up buying something – or a few somethings – though I just as easily could have tried a dozen options and skipped Broder all together as everything at Lauretta Jeans looked impressive – and who am I to reject pie for breakfast when all the cool kids in Chicago and New York are doing it?
Greeted by a friendly young man who seemed a bit bored when I arrived and who was happy to chat about the ingredients and baking at LJ’s it would not be long before I found myself placing an order for a duo of items – the first presented right away and the other suggested to be better warm, a couple minutes wait as I took my Blueberry scone to the window to enjoy the mellow pockets of butter, sweet chunks of sugar, and intense swirl of fresh berries; a textbook scone that needed no cream at all, and a sign of things to come moments later in the form of a $4 slice of Heirloom Apple Pie with a rich, buttery double crust housing crispy apples and plenty of cinnamon with no starch or filler and minimal sugar; a nearly savory apple pie that rivals those served in Amish country…my only regret being that I didn’t order it with cheese…something I’d have most certainly done if it were 8pm instead of twelve hours earlier.
Another pie stop would occur under equally serendipitous circumstances nearly five days and thirteen hours after my visit to Lauretta Jeans when I was again walking, this time back to my friend’s home from dinner at Castagna, and again smelled cinnamon and apples in the air…and in this case it was not from a place I’d heard of, nor anyplace brick n’ mortar but rather a food truck set up across from Lardo entitled “Whiffies Pies” where fried hand pies are the order of the day and two choices spoke to me immediately, each $4 and served by a girl no older than twenty who was studying from a thick textbook as I approached.
Paying the modest tab plus a $2 tip largely because I cannot fathom how boring it must be to sit in a food-truck all night and told it would be “a few minutes” before things were ready I took to wandering the food-truck lot and although spots like Potato Champion caught my interest I showed restraint (there is always next time) and returning to Whiffies I found my pies ready to go, piping hot and wrapped in foil – the aforementioned apple version a good balance of crispy Granny Smiths packed into a dough that reminded me of childhood apple pies at McDonalds in terms of texture yet far less greasy with a nice balance of flaky and salty to compliment the apples, but not quite sweet enough to satisfy my craving thus making the second choice an admittedly gluttonous choice, but a great one as well as the pairing of Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chips was essentially the flavor of melted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups packed in a flaky shell – the molten mass too hot to eat for nearly the first mile of my walk but afterwards truly satisfying in that ‘late-night-junk/drunk-food’ kind of way.
Shifting finally to the most American of all the pastries on this tour – yes, more American than Apple Pie – three more stops in addition to Toranni’s (and Mighty O and The Original Bakery in Seattle) for deep fried dough would start at perhaps Portland’s most well-known food stop – the controversially famous Voodoo Doughnuts; home of the Pink Box, long lines, and twenty-four hours of bizarre treats, tourists, drunks, locals, and vagrants alike – for a city that wears “Keep Portland Weird!” as a badge of honor there is perhaps no place (save for Tanuki and the 24-hour Church of Elvis) that fits the mantra so well.
Having mentioned the ‘controversy’ of their fame, what I’m referring to is a sort of divide amongst ‘foodies’ and ‘gourmands’ – tourists and locals, some acting as though these donuts transcend simple fried sugar and flour while others deem them simply a case of good marketing and while I personally spent enough time wandering 3rd Street to skip the place when there was a line I’ll start off saying there is some truth to both sides of the coin…no, these are not worth waiting thirty minutes to an hour for, but at the same time I did visit twice during my stay and both times found the products to be enjoyable if not life altering.
Bearing in mind my visits, one at 7:00am and one around 2:00pm, were both on weekdays when the space was largely unpopulated I’ll start off by saying the staff was uniformly pleasant, though equally pierced and inked, and given the size of the menu they were happy to await my order provided I did not obstruct traffic – the first time selecting a half dozen options and the second a pair; plus another one ten minutes later when I returned with a partially eaten “Ain’t That a Peach Fritter” with a raw interior that was easily exchanged for an alternative. Nine donuts in total and only one (…because really, aside from being undercooked even the peach was good) less than good while four were actually quite impressive my selections ran the gamut from raised to cake and filled to fritter while my sharing of selections ranged from a pair of vagrants to new friends in Seattle as well as the one I was staying with in Portland.
Starting off with the only donut that was really not good at all, the signature “Voodoo Doll” was indeed as clever as it seems but with far too much frosting and a filling rife with high fructose corn syrup I was happy to share this one with a young homeless man in a Dinosaur Jr. shirt outside the store and although the equally famous Maple Bacon Bar was far superior to the Doll, it was no better than versions elsewhere (and not even close to the one at Blue Star just down the street or Nord’s in St. Louis) and thus this one was shared with the same fellow as well.
Moving next to two of the more obscure selections purchased during my first visit, the last of my raised selections was the “ODB” – a yeasty donut with thick chocolate frosting, crushed Oreo’s, and a drizzle of peanut butter that I polished off quickly and moving next to the “Memphis Mafia” I’ll simply say that this fritter alone should be enough to silence the haters as the nearly 1lb combination of fried dough, sugar, cinnamon, bananas, peanut butter, chocolate icing, peanuts, and chocolate chips is about as close as an item has ever come to being ‘over the top’ yet deliriously enjoyable in my experience…right up there with Martin Picard’s Plogue à Champlain at Au Pied de Cochon in terms of both audacity and taste (and probably calories as well.)
Next up, two cake options would both prove to be good – the first a standard Blueberry Cake doughnut with great texture, light glaze, and plenty of berries – then the “Tangfastic,” a veritable creamsicle disguised as a donut featuring a dense cake doughnut with an excellent toothsomeness topped with rich vanilla frosting, a dusting of tang, and a trio of marshmallows; nothing upscale, just delicious in the same manner as those Flinstones Push-Pops of my childhood, or perhaps those orange Hostess cupcakes that everyone hated, but I loved.
Rounding out the list, a trio of fritters including the aforementioned Peach topped with cream cheese frosting, its replacement in the form of a Pumpkin Chocolate Fritter, and a traditional Apple Fritter would all prove to be quite good, save for the undercooked part, and while the flavor profile was probably tilted a bit too far towards the sweet on all three each was packed with fruit and easily shared amongst two or three – a pro or a con depending on how you look at it, and all but the Apple version was something I’d never seen before so points for creativity are also due even if they were not quite on par with the superlative fritter at Blue Star (or The Donut Man, or Old Fashioned for those keeping tabs on my ever growing mental list.)
Another day and another donut, the last fried rounds of my trip would take me to Coco Donuts – the NE Broadway location, and apparently the newest of three locations. A cute shop with a lot of pink, reclaimed wood, news papers, and plenty of seating it seemed almost like a cupcake shop more than a donut store but nonetheless selling both raised and cake options as well as fritters and filled I perused the options before a very pleasant middle aged gentleman finished helping another customer and provided me with his opinions; a man of my own tastes suggesting I sample “a variety,” but particularly the house-favorite Cinnamon Crumble – a very well crafted cake donut topped with buttery cinnamon streusel that far outshined its humble ingredients in taste and texture, particularly as it was served warm.
Continuing with the rest, my other four choices from Coco would consist of the standards, though each would fall a bit short for one reason or another, the raised and glazed a bit too doughy, the buttermilk bar excellent in texture but deplete in the expected sour notes, and the apple fritter not really anything like a fritter in terms of texture – instead more like a raised yeast donut with a light compliment of apples and cinnamon; wispy and without any crunch it was admittedly only $1.50 but even at that price a goodly amount went unfinished; an offering to the pigeons saving room for other things…basically the apple and blueberry fritters at Tonalli’s later that day.
…and saving the best for last, let me just say that while I’m by no means an “expert” I have traveled enough and – given my substantial sweet tooth – tried enough donuts to know what I like…and I absolutely loved Blue Star Donuts; a relatively new spot on Washington Street downtown; as a matter of fact I loved it so much that I made nearly half a dozen visits during my seven days in Portland.
A large and open space where every aspect of production can be witnessed both inside the store and through the floor to ceiling windows from the street Blue Star is the brainchild of Chef Stephanie Donlan as well as owner Katie Camden and featuring a rich brioche dough recipe as opposed to traditional cake or yeast-raised options more commonly found in the United States each of the selections at Blue Star is dense and flavorful even before the addition of toppings or fillings; for those familiar the beignets at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon or the doughnuts at Dough in Brooklyn are about as close an approximation as I can muster but all things being equal neither of them are even close to Blue Star in terms of pillowy texture…or quality of toppings.
Noting my frequent visits to Blue Star the main reason for this was not solely the quality of the donuts, but rather the rotating list of options – some staples available all the time and some only appearing once during my stay – and beginning first with the most simple, a Raised Glazed option on the first day of my visit proved plenty an impetus to influence my frequent returns; the rich and eggy dough puffed into a sort of wispy pillow lightly sweetened and yeasty – a perfect delivery system for the light glaze, a sort of rice milk flavored lacquer that was neither bland nor overly sweet. Great on its own and even better as a backdrop to perhaps Blue Star’s most talked about selection, the Fried Chicken Donut (complete with forks and hot sauce,) the only ‘plain’ donut I’ve found that rivals Blue Star is at Chicago’s Doughnut Vault.
Continuing towards more creative options, three filled options featured at Blue Star included Crème Brulee, Peanut Butter and Jelly, and finally Valrhona Chocolate Crunch and although I’d be hard pressed to decide which was ‘best,’ I’d suggest that all three are well worth the cost and calories; the first two featuring a caramelized glaze – one truly crème brulee in flavor and the other grape overlying light peanut butter cream – while the third is topped with crunchy chocolate spheres that serve an impressive textural counterpoint to the rich, creamy interior.
Largely ignoring an unmemorable slice of Banana Bread Pudding that was decent, albeit a bit bland and too homogenous in texture aside from the crunchy caramel top, and getting back to the donut side of things a quartet of raised brioche offerings would follow with flavors including Blueberry/Bourbon/Basil, Real Maple and Bacon, Dulce De Leche with Hazelnut, and finally S’Mores – each featuring the same excellent texture as the raised glazed option but each with a distinctive topping serving notice that this was not your typical donut. From the fruity herbal balance of the blueberry selection and the intense sweetness of the maple and briny bacon to the nearly peanut brittle flavor of the dulce de leche and rich chocolate smokiness of the chocolate and toasted marshmallows the key to each selection was balance – the flavors all there, but none overwhelming the others…
…and yet none of these options, save perhaps for the Peanut Butter and Jelly, comes close to the ‘wow’ factor of the fritter; in this case a “Hard Apple Cider” Fritter with the exterior crunchy and sweet while the innards were rife with apples and cinnamon plus that slightly fermented taste of fall. All pull-apart delicious, just as a good fritter should be, and literally melting in the mouth due to the butter content of both the brioche and the cooked apples this is a fritter to rival the best of them, and at $2.50 I even threw in two quarters to pick up some house made “doggie donuts” for my friend’s pet, a cute touch from what I firmly believe to be one of the best donut shops in the country and hands down the best in Portland.
Given my affinity for handmade pastas and pretty much anything cooked in a wood-burning oven plus a a memorable meal with my family at ‘All Angelo (RIP) a reservation at Ori Menashe’s Arts district hot-spot, Bestia, was secured even before it received a glowing recommendation the night before by the team at Alma; a four top at the late hour of 9pm for myself and two friends, and as excited as I was for the meal a part in the back of my mind knew that eating after eight would be limiting to my early rising self – a situation I decided to remedy with some Red Medicine at six, after a long afternoon wandering Santa Monica Beach until sunset.
Bearing in mind my seminal visit to Jordan Kahn’s Beverly Hills locale some year and a half prior (http://endoedibles.com/?p=1395) I’ll simply state that not much has changed since my first visit – the room is still loud, the servers still hip, and the food still beautiful…as a matter of fact, the only thing that had changed was the menu; a good thing as I’d not feel obligated to reorder the porridge, but a bad thing in that no less than 10 items sounded fantastic. Seated for mere moments before my server, the first of two Jesse’s that evening, arrived to fill water I set my resolve to only order three dishes plus a drink and requesting both dessert and savory menus at the same time I subsequently spent the next fifteen minutes trying to decide how I’d stick to my original plan; no small feat, but one assisted by my server and his female colleague who independently recommended the same savory while I went with the two desserts I’d not yet tried.
Beginning first with a beverage, Rhum Barbancourt arrived after perhaps fifteen minutes and although perhaps better suited for a winter night in Ohio than a dinner pairing in So.Cal the combination of 8 year old rum, Hot Water, Sugar, Beurre d’Echire, and Sea Salt with Nutmeg was without a doubt the drink that all hot buttered rum should aspire to be – the creamy mouthfeel and hefty spices proving an ample foil to the rum while a light sweetness lingered on the finish. Again, not the best pairing with my menu selections but I wasn’t about to quibble as it went down smooth and far too fast, only a sip remaining when my savory course arrived.
Moving from drink to food, unabashedly in love with the congee/porridge during my first visit I inquired about Kahn’s current grain-based dish and met with raves from both servers placed my order, the plate arriving and finished tableside entitled “Toasted Grains” featuring rice, quinoa, faro, and spelt paired with mushroom pudding, egg yolk, charred onions, sprouts, matsutake mushrooms, and more bathed in ‘Aromatic Duck Broth infused with smoked tea, hazelnut, and malt’ – the entirety of the dish earthy and aromatic, diverse in texture yet shockingly subtle.
Reading my pacing admirably and collecting my plate before I considered licking it clean it would not be long before the first of my dessert courses would arrive and coming on the strong recommendations of a friend “Birch Ice” would not disappoint, even if the first attempted delivery led to a shattered disc lying on the table before me. Again neatly conceptualized and served in a large fishbowl with an almond praline acting as a ‘lid’ to be shattered into the composition the contents of the dish featured whole red currants and red currant gel, jasmine cream, orange blossom “bubbles”, and birch ice cream – each a distinct texture and flavor with strong aromatics juxtaposing notes of sugar and savory, soft meeting crunchy head on, and tons of inspiration – a truly beautiful dish showcasing Kahn’s pastry pedigree.
Last, and certainly not least, my second dessert of the evening was listed on the menu as “Milk Chocolate Cream – In the Japanese Method, Crispy Devil’s Food, Cucumber, Buckwheat, Lovage,” but what I received could best be described as the brightest and most intricate spin on a Snickers bar ever assembled. Beginning first with a wiry chocolate cylinder encasing Japanese milk chocolate ganache, almond, and buckwheat plus a vegetal amalgam of lovage, cucumber, nasturtium, and more each flavor served to highlight and meld the others into something at once sweet and slightly peppery but at the same time cool and nutty, the cucumber a linger on the palate while the chocolate and almond came to the fore.
Content but not full and enjoying the music I was left with the bill to linger as long as I liked and with the restaurant less than half full approaching 7:30 I spent some time chatting with my servers before settling the tab and making my way to the street en route for Bestia. Living only 5 hours from Los Angeles now I knew I’d be back to Red Medicine soon…I just didn’t realize I’d be back at 1:00am that evening to pick up my forgotten camera which the staff had conveniently placed at the hostess stand…the restaurant still at least half full, just as (in my opinion) the best restaurant in the city should be.
Moving on to dinner number two, the space even louder despite being twice the size and parking even more difficult despite its location, I arrived at Bestia early to find one of my friends already arrived while the other followed shortly; the three of us standing in the bar after checking in and being told our table would be readied in a few moments. Having already perused the online menu and finding only a few changes to the daily offerings I had in mind the things that interested me most and yet given the late hour I knew my capacity would be limited…both for food, and for photography given my missing camera; both situations my pals were happy to assist with.
Finally seated approximately ten minutes after our 9:00pm reservation, unfortunately near the bar yet fortunately with a direct view of the large kitchen it would not be long before my second Jesse of the evening would greet us with menus and weighing our appetites and his suggestions we ordered when he returned with our water; a drink for each of my friends and eight savory plates to be shared – an order Jesse noted to be “ample, but not too much, assuming you are hungry,” and with that he left us to chat and take in the large, open room with exposed ceilings, lots of brick, and plenty of wood abuzz with a full house of patrons and enough noise to be loud without being annoying or forcing you to yell in order to be heard.
With drinks in hand it would not be long before plates would begin arriving and despite the crowd I was very impressed by not only the timing of service, but also the thoroughness and elegance of each presentation, beginning first with the house Margherita Pizza and Roasted Marrow Bone with spinach gnochetti, dehydrated olives, crispy bread crumbs, and aged balsamic. Apologizing now for the quality of the pictures but starting with the pizza I must say that my first bites of Bestia’s food were not the revelation I expected – the pizza featuring a decent amount of char and bubble but the crust generally lacking flavor while the sauce was tomato but little else; a decent pie but not worth the stomach capacity with so much else to come.
Onto the marrow, generally not something I rush to order but appealing in this instance for the gnocchetti, it would prove unfortunate that the second plate of the night was equally flawed as the pizza – yet in an entirely different manner. Creamy and rich, nicely presented, and with a bold flavor profile of saline topnotes from the olives and the sweet finish of Balsamic it was actually the texture here that lacked as the breadcrumbs were largely undetectable while the dumplings were too soft, the entirety of the dish simply too mushy for my tastes; something that could have been circumvented with a rougher cut to the crumbs or perhaps a bit less time in the water for the pasta.
Stepping up from our first two dishes, Menashe’s oft raved Salumi Board arrived next – a “half portion” of superlative house cured meats more than enough to share amongst 3 or 4. Beginning first with an intense Black Pepper Salami and moving through Lomo, Coppa, and finally a Lamb Neck and Pork Belly Terrine topped with Horseradish cream each of the meats was bold and assertive while a side of grilled bread and accoutrements of Pickled Pears and Fennel, plus Green Goddess Moustard provided some much needed levity between bites. One of the better charcuterie boards in recent memory another great aspect of this dish was abided by our seat, where we watched the team assemble no less than twenty of these plates, each with the same great care as you’d expect of a cooked dish in the kitchen.
Close on the heels of the charcuterie was more meat and bread, this one the intensely mineral chicken liver crostino with Aged Balsamic and Sea Salt. Rough cut and paired with crusty bread this was more or less everything you could want from a restaurant unable to serve foie gras – rich and heavy, another good dish to share.
Heading into our main reason for visiting Bestia in the first place, again perfectly placed just as we were finishing the last of the meats, the first of two pasta duos would arrive – a pairing of Tagliolini al’Ortica and Fusilli Lunghi al Sugo di Agnello. Beginning first with the Tagliolini, a composition of hand cut stinging nettle pasta, mushroom ragu, and a poached egg with porcini bread crumbs, this would prove to be the only disappointment of the pastas largely because (much like the marrow) while the flavors were all impressive, the texture was sorely lacking – mushy pasta and textureless breadcrumbs but flavors rich with earthy aromatics.
Moving next to the Fusilli, where the Tagliolini lacked this one made up in spades with hand rolled pistachio pasta perfectly al dente and topped with a rich ragu of smoky braised lamb, crunchy gives way to creamy ricotta salata, and top notes of pistachio oil unlike anything I’d have expected – an aromatic every bit as potent as truffle oil and the textures of the dish all distinct yet the entirety of the plate melding nicely.
Kicking off our second pasta duo, two more pastas every bit as good as the Fusilli, the combination of Cavatelli alla Norcina with Ricotta Dumplings, Pork Sausage, Black Truffle, and Grana Padano plus Spagetti Chitarra with Scallops, Calamari, Wild Fennel Pollen, and Chili Fennel Sofritto arrived; both plates rife with aromatics and lightly dressed with their respective sauces; the former actually leading one of my dining partners to wipe/scrape/mop the plate so clean that I’m rather certain it returned to the kitchen spotless.
With everyone quite full, myself perhaps most of all, and the hour pushing 11pm (plus the drive back to Red Medicine to retrieve my camera) dessert was a questionable decision for my friends but having heard nothing but raves of two of the sweets we ordered them both; one good, the other an early contender for my year’s top-10. Beginning first with the good, “Coffee and Donuts” seemed a safe option and indeed it was, the Spiced Chestnut Zeppole a bit more dense than I’d have preferred but not a bit oily and nicely paired with whipped cream and coffee gelato, the smoky chestnut notes adding an interesting savory component to an otherwise sweet dish.
Moving next to the second dessert – one every bit as good as the rumors – the Valrhona bittersweet chocolate budino tart with salted caramel, cacao crust, olive oil, and sea salt was more or less everything I love in a dessert; the chocolate pudding intense and smooth, the crust even darker and more concentrated, yet the whole composition brought into focus by the sweet caramel and an ample shake of crunchy salt plus a light drizzle of quality olive oil providing a slightly grassy finish; a perfect dish that my friends found almost too rich, thus forcing me to finish off the last bite for fear of leaving any return to the kitchen.
Settling the bill (less than $50/pp after tax and tip) and bidding our farewells, my friends back to work the following day and myself back to Phoenix, we each made our way to our respective cars and with a drive back to Beverly Hills followed by the trip to my hotel I was left with plenty of time to focus on the meal that just was – not a perfect one to be sure, but one speckled with brilliance on all parts of the menu from appetizers to desserts in a space with plenty of buzz; in other words the sort of place where the food (and service) are way better than they ‘need’ to be, and a great place to share some drinks, plates, and good times with friends. A high volume spot, to be certain, I’m glad to see Chef Ori doing well and while the food isn’t quite as precise as that at ‘All Angelo I get the feeling Bestia will stand the test of time much better – no easy task in the Los Angeles dining scene.
The Why: Living in Ohio and moving to Phoenix my opportunities for good Dim Sum are limited and given the fact that this trip to Los Angeles would be my very first by car I wanted to visit at least one of the hot spots in the San Gabriel Valley – ideally with a group – and when a local dining buddy suggested he’d gladly meet me out in Rosemead AND bring a group the only question was whether to visit Elite or Sea Harbour, a decision eventually favoring the later since he’d already been to Elite. Admittedly no expert on Dim Sum and thus deferring to the opinions of my friend the decision was made to arrive ‘later’ in the day as to avoid the oft cited 2+ hour waits, approximately 12:30-1:00.
The Reservation: Nope – just a long line, even at 1:00 when we all arrived and managed to allocate parking – and a 45 minute wait before our party of four was called and we all rushed in to avoid the front of house moving on to the next number.
The Setting: White tablecloths, comfortable chairs, and controlled chaos. Pretty much everything you’d expect from Dim-Sum, and although there are no carts there is the occasional server zipping around to offer you har-gow, a pork bun, or something else adding to the confusion.
The Service: They take your order. They fill your tea. They deliver your food as it is prepared. If you are lucky they will tell you what they are serving…and maybe even get you a glass of water (if you ask.) If you ask me I’ve personally never had bad service at a dim sum spot – I’ve also never had good service; just appropriate service and the same as every other table in the house.
The food and drink: Tea, Water, 13 Plates divided amongst a group of four.
Steamed BBQ Pork Bun: Simple, fluffy, packed with a lot of pork and not overly sweet. A very good start.
Shrimp Dumpling: Perhaps the ‘definitive’ must-order standard for dim-sum a quartet of high quality Har-Gow arrived with translucent wrappers barely able to contain the densely packed shrimp and although I personally found the wrapped to be slightly too thick the shrimp was snappy, sweet, and steaming hot.
Sticky Rice Wrapped with Lotus Leaf: Admitting that I’m not a big consumer of rice I was skeptical of this dish but when it arrived and I opened the bundle I was met with not only the fantastic aromatics of soy and allspice but also nearly rice-pudding textured roll lightly tinged with seasoned beef; definitely one of my favorite plates of the day.
Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce: Considering the fact that I eat (no exaggeration) about 20lbs of broccoli a week I obviously love the vegetable and yet at the same time I never order it in restaurants largely because I consume so much the rest of the time. That said, apparently ‘needing’ to have some vegetables on the table according to those wiser than I this long-stemmed style broccoli was perfectly steamed and snappy while the oyster sauce was thick and savory with just a bit of sweet…good, but too filling considering the rest of the items on the table.
Stewed Ox tendon and Tripe in Brown Sauce: A chance choice with this one and unfortunately we took a swing and missed – the textures all fine but the sauce a sort of acidic and grainy flavor that fell somewhere between grape nuts cereal and apple cider vinegar; not good…not good at all.
Shrimp and Scallop Dumpling: Offered as replacement to my friend as the kitchen had run out of shrimp and chive dumplings these were actually quite nice and although the dusting of roe really offered nothing the shrimp and scallops were both nicely cooked while the wrappers proved thinner and less sticky than those on the har-gow.
Beef Ball in Superior Sauce: Not something I’d have ordered by choice but actually quite good, the meatballs lightly spiced and the “superior” sauce more of a chicken stock style of broth with tender bok choy adding a needed vegetal tinge.
Sauteed Sichuan Runner Beans with Minced Pork: While I did not detect much pork flavor the beans were nicely cooked with a snappy exterior giving way to the tender beans within – a bit sweet, a bit savory, and filling that *need* for vegetables on the table.
Meat Ball and Fish Ball Bean Curd Congee: I love congee and as good as the version was at Yang’s in Toronto this is probably the best traditional version I’ve had of the dish. Featuring white rice cooked to that perfect point where it becomes creamy but remains toothsome and further enhanced by smooth tofu plus a trio of each protein there was a whole lot (both in portion and in flavor) to love about this dish and although traditional donuts were not offered a sidecar of green onions and crisply fried dough added plenty of bonus texture.
Egg Custard Tart: Hot, just short of set, and housed in a crisp pastry shell my dining partners held off and enjoyed these as dessert while I endangered the roof of my mouth with the molten custard…and it was totally worth it, the subtle sweetness and rich filling marrying perfectly with the buttery crust…I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I could eat these by the dozen.
Deep Fried Squid in Spicy, Salty, Pepper: Oddly described on the menu with only adjectives I wasn’t sure if this would come in sauce or simply breaded but when it did arrive it proved to be without a doubt the best dish of the afternoon for me, the calamari all tender and sweet with a light batter that was, as promised, plenty salty and spicy, but not so much as to overwhelm the squid.
Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp Paste: I love eggplant, I like shrimp, and although the eggplant was a touch overcooked for this quartet the flavors were quite nice – the sauce clearly derived from roasted eggplant and peanut oil but also tinged with five spice and green onions. Great flavor but a bit ‘mushy’ this was an enjoyable dish but probably not one I’d order again.
Deep Fried Fish Paste Ball: The last dish to arrive, each piece of this quintet was slightly larger than a golfball and sliced prior to presentation in order to facilitate cooling the flavor was largely like lightly sugared brandade while the texture was something akin to the egg custard; both perfectly suited to my palate and as such another favorite of the afternoon.
The Verdict: I’ll never pretend to be a dim-sum aficionado – it simply isn’t in my genes or my experience – but from my naïve Caucasian perspective Sea Harbour is turning out some great dishes to a throng of diners of various ages, ethnicities, and experience levels each and every day so they are clearly doing something very right and although I’m not sure I’d wait 2 hours during peak times I’d have no trouble justifying a return visit with the same folks or an even larger group in the future to try more of the menu.
The Why: Truthfully, prior to the Kings announcing their game I didn’t even know Alma was an official restaurant rather than the Ari Taymor’s pop-up I’d read about months earlier when planning a previous visit to the city of angels, yet the moment I started looking into the scene I couldn’t help but come across the former Water + Flower chef’s restaurant as perhaps ‘the’ place to go in Los Angeles today. From Gold’s gushing review to strong words of praise from friends I trust (some who’d been, some who’d only been to the pop up, and some who hadn’t been at all) it seemed that whatever Taymor was doing in his new downtown location was enough to get Los Angeles diners excited – something I realize happens frequently only to have the restaurant disappear half-a-year later – but here it seemed different, like whatever was happening was a legitimate change to the dining scene…I immediately did my research and put it at the top of my short list – a spot it never departed in my week of planning.
The Reservation: A hot spot with limited seating in downtown LA I knew there was a chance that such a last-minute trip would leave me locked out of Alma for this trip and appearing to be completely booked via Opentable with phones down on the Sunday when the Kings game was announced I opted to e-mail and within four hours received a response from a woman named Ashleigh who not only confirmed that they could fit me in, but that they’d be happy to do so for the tasting menu at the chef’s counter – right at the pass – and I gladly accepted, 1 diner at 6:00pm.
The Setting: Familiar with Los Angeles in the global sprawling sense but less so in the downtown area I triangulated my parking to make Staples, Industriel, Nickel Diner, and Alma all an easy walk and yet if I didn’t have an address or GPS I’d have walked right past Alma; to say the least it is a small spot. Featuring a wooden exterior reminding me of something in Chicago’s Fulton Market I walked through the doors to find the space equally subtle; a blonde wood hostess podium and chairs with a white countertop and tables beneath elegant but restrained lighting – Spartan and clean without that ‘trying to hard’ minimalism feel. With a solid selection of quiet-Alt/Indie including xx and Placebo playing from a speaker near the kitchen (and my seat right at the counter,) my view for the 2 hours I was there featured the four chefs, two servers, and a dishwasher working largely in silence turning out plate after plate for a steady-but-never-full-house crowd.
The Service: In my experience it is hard to receive bad service when the chef is standing 2-feet from your right arm and as such I have little to note about Alma aside from a couple of oddities that comes with their pending liquor license (and thus current BYOB status) including plates sometimes lingering a little too long and the expectation that the diner pour her/his own water from the provided bottle. For the part of the individual servers, everyone from the hostess to the chefs presented plates and descriptions were thorough, requests granted, and feedback sought (if you get bread with your tasting menu when you go, that was me.) Equally excellent, given my proximity to the kitchen, was the chance to chat with members of the team…Night + Market is now on my shortlist for next visit and had I not already had reservations at Bestia the following night I’d have placed it on my list as well.
The Food and Drink: Water, one complementary house soda, bread and butter (requested,) and 13-course tasting menu for $85.
Turmeric Soda: As I did not bring wine the chef suggested I try a house soda and sent out this; a spicy and complex drink with fine carbonation much like a champagne but really quite overwhelming until the ice melted to dilute. Not something I’d seek out or order the drink definitely fit the scene and provided a great palate cleanse between courses.
Alsatian Beer Bread with Cultured Butter: I’d heard Alma had an excellent bread program and saw it on the menu yet half-way into the meal I realized it was not included in the tasting, a situation I requested to remedy by ordering some bread and although I was not charged (and it is rumored to now be included in the tasting) I’d have happily paid twice the menu price for this rich and malty bread, warmed in the oven and served with a sort of sweet/sour butter – good on its own, great at sopping up sauces…order it if you go.
Seaweed and Tofu beignet, yuzu kosho, lime: The first of three items listed as “Bites,” essentially one bite snacks or canapés, the first bite of the night was the restaurant’s signature savory beignet of seaweed served over a sweet and herbal cream with a sprits of lime, the donut a bit more dense than I’d have preferred but at the same time not a bit oily and very nicely balanced – I’d have definitely eaten a full order solo if dining a la carte.
Oyster Wrap with cilantro, Serrano, fingerlime: Another fried bite, this time a briny oyster resting atop a ham and topped with cilantro, lime, and jalapeno, was every bit as good as the first but here focusing more of the palate on salty than sweet I particularly enjoyed the touch of heat, a rarity for me, as it helped smooth out the oyster’s brine thus bringing a unique mineral note to the mix.
Shitake, cabbage, cultured cream: Clearly working the palate through these first few courses the third bit was pure umami – the obvious effect of the lightly heated mushroom but brought to a point through the use of such rich cream and house fermented cabbage plus an interesting mint-meets-spice note from the florals resting atop the composition.
Radish: If the first three plates were canapés then this one was the amuse and perhaps in an attempt to continue the trend of new tastes and sensations I think the team took a big chance here; one I respect but didn’t particularly enjoy as the bitterness of the common radish was presented in five forms. Interesting in temperature and texture as a panna cotta, ice, raw, and powdered version of the vegetable mingled with its stems the it was simply a matter of flavor – bitter, bitter, bitter, bitter, and bitter – that didn’t work for me…thankfully it would be the only miss of the night.
Dungeness Crab, Fennel, Citrus, Sourdough, Malt Vinegar: Having watched Chef Taymor peel each individual segment of the orange by hand I couldn’t help but love the care that went into this dish and with fresh picked crab, lightly cooked fennel, and a sourdough crisp all lightly dressed with malt vinegar and touch of fennel cream this was perhaps the best crab dish I’ve had since the mesmerizing soft-shell a half-year prior at Taro in DC. Two parts exquisite ingredients and one part skill and beauty of preparation this would be only the fifth most memorable course of the meal.
Sunchoke Soup, Egg Yolk, Smoked Date, Amaranth: Admitting that this is one of those courses that doesn’t *look* like much I can say without batting an eye that it was the most interesting of the trip; a thick vegetal potage poured tableside over a poached egg yolk that, when mixed, released rich campfire aromatics but when tasted was at once sweet, savory, smoky, and even slightly ‘woodsy’ – an amalgam of flavors unlike anything I’ve ever tasted and the sort of dish that leaves you reeling, at once wanting a whole crockpot full of it and also wishing you could go back and re-experience the first eye-opening bite over and over again.
Potato, Uni, Ink: For me, this dish was sabotaged by two things – or perhaps just one – and neither having to do with the dish itself, but rather that it arrived far too quickly after the soup and that it arrived after something as outstanding as the soup at all. Described as a ‘potato risotto’ but mostly just finely cut potatoes that added a bit of tooth to the otherwise creamy pudding of what I can only assume was butter, squid ink, and perhaps mascarpone the flavor was subtle but sweet, a lovely counterpoint to the exemplary urchin.
Winter Salad of Shoots, Leaves, Roots, Seeds, and Horseradish Crème Fraiche: Call me American, call me uncouth, but raw vegetables as a salad rarely wow me and although this was good it was still a salad – slightly bitter, plenty textural, and nicely complimented by the surprisingly subtle notes of horseradish.
Aged Duck Boudin Blanc, Brussels Sprouts, Apple, Green Mustard: Unabashed love of duck and game birds in general this dish came with great expectations and managed to meet them all as the creamy textured sausage wasnearly naked of spice, instead letting the duck’s characteristic notes shine while sliced cooked apples, warm Brussels sprout leaves, and a bright (and decidedly un-mustard) sauce all did their parts in highlighting the diverse flavors of the protein. On many menus this would have been the highlight of the meal, but like the soup it was just one of many truly interesting and delicious takes on an ingredient I’ve seen many times before.
Carrot, Porcini, Maitake, Bloomsdale Spinach: I don’t eat a lot of carrots – I don’t really know why aside from the fact that I like other vegetables better – but with that said, this was without doubt the dish of the night, a simple presentation of vegetables that was not at all simple on the palate. Beginning at its base with carrots of various sizes and varieties, some wood roasted and others still snappy and sweet, subsequently sautéed with mushrooms and spinach in a pan with butter, olive oil, and spices it was the sort of dish that one could overlook on the menu but as it was – earthy, sweet, bitter, and texturally complex – it was the sort of dish you eat one small bite at a time in order to savor each morsel and feel a bit despaired when you finally finish; the sort of dish that sends me back to tasting menus time and again as it was something I’d have never ordered.
Jimenez Lamb, Cabbage, Truffled Buttermilk, Hay potato: For the final savory of the evening I was admittedly feeling a bit full and tired from the long day, but the moment this pair of chops arrived I knew I’d have no trouble justifying a strong finish; particularly as the high quality chops weren’t even the highlight of the dish, but rather the crispy lamb belly and the manner in which the smooth buttermilk and – for lack of a better word – ‘country air’ subtleties of the roasted potato flooded the palate with each bite.
Grapefruit Soda: It was a palate cleanser. It was grapefruit. It was carbonated. It was fine.
Olive and Citrus: Without a dedicated pastry kitchen (and without space for one in its current format) Alma’s desserts trended towards those easily prepared from stored items and although good enough, this composition of black olive biscotti with orange segments, olive oil gelato, and tangerine sorbet certainly did not live up to the high standards of the savory courses. Slightly briny, plenty sweet, and a nice balance of textures it was not a ‘bad’ course at all, just one where I think the team could exercise a little more effort and inspiration considering the quality of the rest of the meal.
The Verdict: Minimalistic, but not to a fault, and relevant to current trend of local/seasonal ‘terroir’ driven cuisine while implementing enough technique to coax the maximum flavor out of each ingredient there really is not much I can say about Alma that isn’t captured in the dishes above but if I had to sum up what I enjoyed most about the experience it would be the honesty of the cuisine and the willingness to push each flavor to a maximum without overcomplicating the plate and losing flavors and textures in the shuffle. Admittedly not every single course ‘wowed’ me and desserts definitely need some work to catch up to the savories, but at the same time there were no wasted ingredients or misplaced plates here – the narrative was fluid and the ingredients were superior even when the chef’s palate differed from my own. A great restaurant even at such a young stage I’m truly excited to see how the space and the team mature with time and hopefully, despite Los Angeles’ fickle nature, the wait list will grow as the accolades accrue and the liquor license is granted; at $115 for tax/tip/menu all-in I’d be surprised if there is a fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles offering better value for the dollar than Alma right now, and if there is I’d love to know where…otherwise I’ll probably be seated at that bar again in a little over a month.