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.