On the face of it, Portland, shouldn't be one of the best places in the country to dine. Unlike New Orleans or San Francisco or Chicago...
On the face of it, Portland, shouldn’t be one of the best places in the country to dine.
Unlike New Orleans or San Francisco or Chicago, Portland doesn’t claim any classic dishes. The ethnic presence in this city of nearly 600,000 people is small. Fancy destination restaurants tend to go against the cultural (read: casual) grain of the Northwest.
There are, however, superlative ingredients, as anyone who spends even a minute at the city’s Saturday farmers market near Portland State University can attest.
Passion underscored by a certain modesty is in abundant display, too, evinced in part these days by the nearly 600 food carts that dot the landscape, hawking fare from fish and chips and Vietnamese pho to Cuban sandwiches.
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“Small and personal” is the current mantra for Portland’s top chefs, a group that includes Chris Israel, chef of the delightful Grüner, which specializes in enlightened German and other cooking. Here’s a look at Gruner and two other top restaurants:
From the vantage point of a window table at Grüner in Portland’s West End, it’s easy to imagine oneself on some smart neighborhood corner in Berlin, Vienna or Zurich. An old stone church looms across the street. Inside the restaurant, a former design store, beechwood tables, espresso-colored banquettes and black brick make a minimalist statement. The menu, meanwhile, revels in liverwurst, sauerkraut, braised meats and accents running to caraway and paprika: “Alpine-inspired cuisine,” its creator dubs it.
The talent behind the flavors is Israel, one of the city’s foremost chefs.
His first restaurant, the Mediterranean-themed Zefiro, opened in 1990 and was widely credited with helping fuel Portland’s early restaurant revolution. The chef’s Asian-influenced Saucebox followed five years later, also to rave reviews. (Zefiro closed in 2000.)
“When I thought about opening another restaurant, I was looking for a way to distinguish myself,” says Israel, 51. He also saw Grüner and its Teutonic lilt as a challenge: “People have a hard time with that cuisine for some reason.” The only difficulty I have with his interpretation is limiting myself to just one soft pretzel roll from the bread basket.
If forced to choose just one appetizer, I’d opt for the light, meat-stuffed ravioli floating in a clear golden broth of veal and beef stock flecked with minced chives: elegant comfort food.
Israel has always had a signature chicken dish on his menus. At Grüner, braised dark chicken meets spaetzle and chanterelles in a hearty entree enriched with creme fraiche and given some crunch with crispy shallots. There’s wine in the mix, too, which is why the chef refers to it as “coq au Riesling.”
German food is stereotypically heavy; Grüner proves that it doesn’t have to be. And the informed service is infused with the warmth of a neighborhood tavern.
at Laurelhurst Market
The juiciest steakhouse in Portland doesn’t play the part of a typical porterhouse-and-Cab purveyor. Instead of walling its diners in darkness, Laurelhurst Market wraps its dining room in windows.
Rather than charge customers for every extra, this wood-and-concrete restaurant completes its signatures with something special. (Ask for the rib-eye and it shows up with Walla Walla onion rings. Hanger steak gets a rich boost from creamed chanterelles.)
Amazingly, waiters are even known to down-sell diners, as anyone who inquires about a tenderloin but is steered to a teres major, from the shoulder, discovers.
When chef David Kreifels and his two business partners from the nearby Simpatica Dining Hall opened this combination butcher shop and restaurant last year, they hoped to create “a steakhouse everybody felt they could come to,” which explains the young families here and the quartet of women there. (The kids’ menu includes a three-ounce steak with fries.)
Suspended above the open kitchen is a blackboard with a diagram of a cow. The drawing, labeled “Cuts Available Tonight,” indicates where the entrees are coming from, freeing the servers from having to explain the selections.
Most of the beef is grass-fed and grain-finished. At the restaurant, some of the meat is dry-aged, and all of it is seasoned a day ahead of cooking and brought to room temperature before it hits the grill. An order of skirt steak tricked out with heirloom tomatoes and a creamy jalapeño-lit avocado sauce was bursting with juices. Side dishes — corn grilled with thyme and lemon, padrón peppers brightened with mint and crackling with sea salt — also go beyond standard-issue steakhouse staples.
But first, consider some appetizers, and be sure to fit in ling cod fritters. Made with riced potatoes and house-cured fish from the Oregon coast, and simply seasoned with parsley and garlic, the dark-golden orbs are simultaneously crisp and fluffy — and hard to stop eating.
From a whiskey cocktail to the hazelnut brittle that sweetened the check, I relished everything about a recent dinner except the pork chop, somewhat dry and most memorable for the applesauce made with local fruit. As my companion summed up the entrees, “Cow trumps pig.” But that’s one small beef amid a lot of pleasure.
at Pok Pok
I’ve never been to Thailand, but more than any other place that purports to do the cuisine right in the United States, Pok Pok makes me want to go there, right now, and graze on nothing but home cooking, pub grub and street food, which is what this thrilling restaurant celebrates. That means you won’t find pad Thai or chicken curry on the menu.
But you will begin a meal with a cup of water flavored with pandanus leaf, which imparts a toasted rice note, and perhaps conclude with a custard made from durian, the Southeast Asian fruit known for its notoriously funky aroma and creamy, slightly sweet flesh.
Owner Andy Ricker, who opened the laid-back, two-story Pok Pok five years ago, thinks that “Thai food hasn’t been represented well yet” in this country. He says, “I’m doing my part to say, hey, look, there’s other stuff” beyond the prevalent often-Americanized cooking here.
Pok Pok takes its name from the sound Thais hear when pestle hits mortar, an Asian kitchen essential. The menu descriptions explain where Ricker picked up some of his ideas.
A fabulous crisp broken crepe arranged with steamed mussels, fried egg and bean sprouts is a typical nighttime market snack. Catfish fried in turmeric oil and set on a soft bed of vermicelli with mint and peanuts is Pok Pok’s nod to a restaurant in Hanoi.
Glorious, glossy (and super-sticky) chicken wings, caramelized with fish sauce and trumpeting garlic, come from one of the grill cook’s files. (The kitchen goes through about 2,000 pounds of wings a week. Ricker jokes that the dish “is paying my mortgage.”)
Squished into a corner table upstairs, my comrades-in-eating and I are full, but we keep ordering. Clean and racy and free of concessions, the cooking is astonishing. A night of feasting, tax and tip and drinks included, set my party back a mere $45 a head. Not bad for a trip to Thailand.