On the face of it, Portland, Ore., 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 populace. As Karen Brooks, a longtime observer of the food scene here, puts it: "There are no Thomas Kellers out here, and there's not going to be. The money doesn't exist here."
But superlative ingredients do -- and always have -- as anyone who spends even a minute at the Saturday farm market near Portland State University can attest. Passion underscored by a certain modesty is in abundant display, evinced in part by the nearly 600 food carts that dot the landscape, hawking fare from fish and chips and Vietnamese pho to Cuban sandwiches. (Not to be missed: the strapping Schnitzelwich, a breaded pork cutlet seasoned with paprika and horseradish and packed in a fresh roll, from Tabor Czech Food's red hut.)
Regarding restaurants, "small and personal" is the mantra for Portland's top toques, a group that includes Chris Israel, the chef of the delightful Gruner, which specializes in enlightened German and other cooking. "New York is very theatrical," he says. "We're more do-it-yourself."
Farmers appear to work with restaurants on an unusually helpful level here. David Kreifels, chef-owner of the innovative Laurelhurst Market, a joint butcher shop and steakhouse, recalls a farmer asking him, "What do you want me to grow for you?" (Land was cleared to grow iceberg lettuce for wedge salads.)
Portland also boasts fairly easy access to real estate. "If you have an idea here, you just grab a storefront," says Brooks. Together with Gideon Bosker, she's writing a book with the tentative title "The Mighty Gastropolis: How Portland's Rule-Breaking Chefs Hand-Crafted the New Urban Cuisine." The book doesn't come out until 2012, but here's why I already agree with the authors' thesis:
From the vantage point of a window table at Gruner 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 Gruner 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. Or keeping my fork out of the way of my companions'. Thin radish slices cover a plate, an edible pinwheel in red and white crowned with fresh herbs and drizzled with pumpkinseed oil. A rich terrine of rabbit and foie gras is tempered by a garnish of pickled plums. If forced to choose just one appetizer, though, 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. Honoring its theme, Gruner stocks myriad gruner veltliners (plus Riesling and pinot gris) and serves intriguing cocktails that make use of distinctive spirits and herbal liqueurs from abroad.
Israel always has a signature chicken dish on his menus. At Gruner, 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." Of course there's choucroute garnie, and it's as good as any I've encountered in Strasbourg, built as it is from winy sauerkraut, caraway-spiced bratwurst and lean pork tenderloin. In this delicious company, grilled trout with a dab of spinach and boiled potatoes is a bit of a wallflower.
Desserts are simple successes. Plum torte is a small raft of neatly arranged fruit dusted with confectioners' sugar and served with a drift of vanilla whipped cream, while fried-to-order doughnuts are filled with jams that lean to the seasonal (or with chocolate when the weather turns cool).
German food is stereotypically heavy; Gruner proves that it doesn't have to be.
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 side, this 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. Laurelhurst Market pushes lesser-known but tasty cuts of beef, including bavette, from above the sirloin.
When chef David Kreifels and his two business partners from the nearby Simpatica Dining Hall opened this combination butcher shop and restaurant in May of last year, they hoped to create "a steakhouse everybody felt they could come to." (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. A chart on the menu describes cooking temperatures (it defines "well done" as "not recommended").
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. Where appropriate, Kreifels and crew rest the cooked meat on herbs, sometimes fennel fronds, to enhance the eating. An order of skirt steak tricked out with heirloom tomatoes and a creamy jalapeno-lit avocado sauce was bursting with juices. Side dishes -- corn grilled with thyme and lemon, padron 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: hard to stop eating. Laurelhurst Market's pantry extends to its butcher shop, the source of a charcuterie platter that changes nightly and advances the cause with five or six terrific tastes, perhaps including shoulder bacon, venison pate laced with pistachios, and rabbit galantine on a plate rounded out with biting pickles and slender crostini, everything made in-house.
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.
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.") Thin slices of grilled boar neck roar with lime and chilies. The dish, a popular drinking snack, is chased not with a liquid but with ice-topped leafy yu choy, a crisp and cool counterpoint to the fire.
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, and so is the bill. A night of feasting, tax and tip and drinks included, set my party back a mere $45 a head.