Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Top of the Town: Portland

For some reason or other, I have always been drawn to the Pacific Northwest. I had never visited the area before last October, but I think I just knew that it would be incredible. A mystical land of fog and forests where the coffee and craft beers flow freely. That was my vague notion of it anyway. Of course, according to J., there's no sugarcoating the intense rainy season, but I think I could put up with it because the town itself is so incredible. It's a well-known paradise for those of us who have a penchant for counter cultures, and even though Portland is a large city, it feels much, much smaller, and every neighborhood has a distinct personality.
I've only made the pilgrimage to Portland twice, so I'm no expert, but J. grew up there and has taken me to his tried and true favorite spots, so I feel confident in this list. I highly recommend visiting the city. Watch out for cyclists--most of them play by the rules, but there are those who don't.
This little guide is BY NO MEANS comprehensive. There's so much to see, do, and eat in Portland that there's no way I can cover it all, and neither can you in one visit. I recommend you pace yourself and plan on visiting more than once to really enjoy the city.

Portland Eats

broder--a Swedish-inspired restaurant with an amazing brunch and the absolute best bloody mary I've ever had.

bunk sandwiches--very creative sandwiches and a selection of local brews.

Le Bistro Montage--a really awesome spot for late-night dining. They have an incredible collection of murals on the inside, and their mac and cheese selection is impressive. The oyster shooters are memorable--so memorable, in fact, that they're a must-try. They also wrap your leftovers in foil which they turn into little pieces of "doggie-bag" art--I think they gave me a swan the last time I was there.

Syun Izakaya--the best sushi I've ever had, hands down. As with all sushi restaurants, the menu is overwhelming, but I've never had anything bad here. The okanomiyaki pancake is unbelievable, and the dried tuna flakes on top make the whole thing look like it's moving. A visual and gustatory wonder. They also have a superb sake selection--in fact, I was told that if you happen to be a sake connoisseur, they will store your sake at the restaurant for you and unearth it when you eat there. It's a bit of a drive to get there as it's in a suburb of Portland, but it's absolutely worth it. Make reservations, though. It's a small place and always packed.

Ken's Artisan Bakery--if you like French-style pastries, this is the place to go. The Saint Honore Boulangerie is very good, but Ken's is even better. Every time we go there, we get at least three pastries to share because it's so hard to choose just one apiece. The Oregonian is a particularly nice one (blackberries, hazelnut paste), but I don't think you can go wrong. Their desserts and breads look stunning, too. I haven't tried them, but as pastries are very tricky to make, and Ken's are so incredible, I can't imagine that their bread and desserts would fall short. They also make delicious macarons--slightly larger and heartier than their French counterparts, but fabulous.

La castagna--ok, so I'm going to give you a disclaimer first. I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of molecular cuisine. On the one hand, I have always felt that, as Americans tend to overdo it on the processed foods, we should steer ourselves toward whole foods prepared in an understated way. Not that we shouldn't enjoy the fruits of culinary technology, but I think that being able to decipher what's in your food is a good thing. Having said that, this place is incredible. They focus on superb local ingredients and prepare them meticulously. They lean toward molecular cuisine without succumbing to the gimmickiness that can often accompany it. I found myself utterly charmed and even thrilled by the creativity of the chefs and the immaculate presentation of the dishes. To give you a little taste--the "snacks" that were served as part of the meal included a purple carrot leather that had been folded and filled with lotus gel, fennel pollen, and hibiscus powder; another was a buttermilk "puff" (think cheese puff, but with an intense buttermilk flavor) that had been hollowed out and filled with vegetable aioli and cod roe. Truly remarkable and probably the most entertaining and fun meal I've ever had. Expect to drop at least $75-100 per person, but as a food experience it's worth the money.

Pix Patisserie--Fabulous and gorgeous French-style desserts in a bar setting. Not frou frou or boutiquey. Open late. They also make their own chocolates and ice creams, which I did not have, but that I have heard wonderful things about. One of the managers there made J's best friend's wedding cake. There's some true talent here.

Voodoo Doughnut--Okay, so the doughnuts are okay. I mean, how good can fried dough get, right? But you should go just for the spectacle of it, and the bacon maple bar is probably one of the better ideas there.

Pok Pok--Recent James Beard Award winner for best regional restaurant. When we went, the staff were very disorganized, but we went for the food, which was great. The fish sauce wings are an absolute must, and they make a great appetizer. The lemongrass game hens are also spectacular, which is no small feat, since I usually find restaurant chicken to be dry and lacking in flavor. The premise of the place is also a lot of fun--you're supposed to order dishes to share with the table, so you can taste several different things. The pork shoulder and belly is another good one, but be prepared to straight up eat fat--the most delicious fat I've ever eaten, but fat nonetheless.

Pho Hung--If you haven't had pho--Vietnamese beef noodle soup--I suggest you rectify that immediately. The stuff is magic, and it cures everything from the blues to the flu (this is not scientifically proven, but I find it to be about right). There's something about the broth that eludes me completely. J. and I tried to make it at home once. We got close, but there was something crucial missing. This is the place to go for it, though, and Portland has an astonishing variety of pho restaurants. This is one that J. and his friends prefer.

Kenny and Zuke's--A Jewish-style deli. I'm sure there are lots of New Yorkers who would take issue with the place, but we can't all live in New York, can we? It's a bit pricey, but enjoyable nonetheless. The pastrami is a must-try, the latkes are lovely, and their bagels and bialys are fabulous. I won't recommend the pickle plate, as I found the pickles were not "pickly" enough, but everything else I've had there is good. They also have a great soda selection, which is nice to have with such salty food.

Food carts!-- Two of my favorites are Potato Champion (poutine, really great French fried with lots of house-made dressings, ketchups, aiolis, etc.) and Creperie Perierra (sweet and savory crepes and the best and most creative milkshakes I've ever had). But really, there are so many food carts here that you should just walk around and sample from lots of them. I absolutely love this part of food culture, and in Portland it really shines.

Hands On Cafe--Located in the Portland School of Arts and Crafts, this is a really great place to grab Sunday brunch (which is a must-do in Portland--I think it's against the law not to have brunch on Sunday in Portland). Always crowded, you can look at the gallery while you wait for a table.


Stumptown Coffee--A great cup of brew. On the pretentious side of things, but worth a sip.

Horse Brass Pub--An English-style pub. Very cozy and dark, and the walls are stained brown from years of cigarette smoke. Sounds disgusting, but I thought it added a distinct charm to the place, and since smoking is no longer allowed indoors, you can just think of it as a relic from a bygone era. We spent a few easy hours there, nursing our drinks and just enjoying the place. The Scotch eggs are pretty decent--I mean, it's a fried, sausage-wrapped hard-boiled egg, for heaven's sake. It's not supposed to be stellar. They also have other British staples, which I've heard are just fine as well.

Tugboat Brewing Company--Portland's oldest micro-brewery. A very welcoming place with some lip-licking beers (try the Chernobyl Stout for a real wake-up call). J. tells me that the bartender sometimes plays Planet Earth, which he creates his own soundtrack to, on the small flat-screen above the bar. Amazing.

Huber's--A very old-school cafe/bar with a stained-glass ceiling. They make a Thanksgiving meal every day, but J. says it's not very good. We went there for the Spanish coffee, which the bartender prepares spectacularly. Quite a show. Kahlua, Bacardi 151, Bols triple sec and coffee, topped with fresh whipped cream and nutmeg, flamed tableside. Stunning to watch and really delicious if you're a hedonist.

To See

Portland Japanese Garden--Peaceful, beautiful, and extremely well done. This is a great way to spend a few hours. And I actually think the garden is more beautiful when it's overcast.

The Bishop's Close--Another beautiful garden destination. Great for a leisurely walk.

Bagby Hot Springs--A fair drive outside of Portland, but absolutely worth it. The drive itself is gorgeous, and the hike-in to the hot springs is a little like walking through a fairy tale world. The springs themselves are diverted into cedar tubs of all sizes. A perfect day-trip. Take a picnic.

Cannon Beach--Located about an hour from Portland proper, this is a tremendously glorious place on earth. Not very commercialized, quiet, and one of the most dramatic coastlines I've seen, this is a perfect place to get away from the bustle. Hunt for mussels, build a fire on the beach, and check out the sea caves. There are also some good hikes around this area, and Highway 101 is a field trip in and of itself.

Multnomah Falls and the Columbia River Gorge--Yet again, another breathtaking place. Oregon has a wealth of natural beauty, and while Multnomah Falls is a little touristy, it's still an amazing waterfall. The hike to the top isn't for quitters either--the view will reward your burning thighs.

Portland Saturday Market--There's some good craftsy stuff to be found here. You'll have to weed through the kitsch and junk, but hang in there because there really is some quality handiwork. The market also gives you an excuse to walk along the waterfront.

The International Rose Test Garden--If you're of the botanical persuasion, this is a really cool thing to see. Hundreds of varieties of roses.

Powell's City of Books--I've only been here three times, and I've already spent way too much on books. It's hard not to. A great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Okay, I'm going to stop now. If I think of anything else I'll let you know.

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