A taste-thrilling tour of the City of roses.
The three-dollar doughnut—made of brioche dough, fried in pure rice oil, topped with a crisp glaze of burnt sugar—oozes crème anglaise when you pierce it with the tiny vial of Cointreau served with it.
Good morning, Portland. The doughnut is made with cage-free eggs by Blue Star Donuts (“doughnuts for grownups”). We tasted a whole flight of doughnuts, from Blueberry Bourbon Basil to Chocolate Salted Almond.
The first time I was in Portland, I got my doughnuts at Voodoo. One was the “Hangover,” iced and sprinkled with crumbled Tums.
Compare and contrast: Portland grunge has gentrified. Still offbeat, still bohemian, the City of Roses has blossomed in its own contrary way. Portland has taken flight. That’s a pun, as you’ll find out.
We were there to eat and drink, of course. Portland is one of the most intense food centers in the country and as we discovered over a long weekend, every aspect of hospitality here has its own unique flavor.
For example, the first night, we stayed in a converted Masonic retirement home—our first taste of Portland-style hospitality. McMenamins Forest Grove Hotel is housed in a sprawling old brick building on acres of Oregon-green grounds. Walls—as well as exposed pipes and doors—were painted by local artists with images of Masonic mythology, compasses, squares and portraits of past masters. You may have an en suite situation, or you may have to go down the hall to wash up. They have recently added a number of more up-to-date rooms, but the charm here is the step backwards into another, slightly eccentric, era. There is nothing modern or cookie cutter about this place.
McMenamins operates 54 distinctive pubs, restaurants and historic hotels in the Pacific Northwest. Starting with a single Portland pub in 1983, brothers Mike and Brian McMenamins’ eclectic collection now includes 18 on the National Register of Historic Places. McMenamins also handcrafts its own beer, wine, spirits, cider and coffee—if uniqueness is a measure of luxury, these places rate five stars. It isn’t luxury by conventional American standards. But it’s so Portland.
In the city, we stayed at the dog-friendly, Stumptown coffee-serving Ace downtown in the old Clyde Hotel building, whose weird, near-Soviet urban décor is so hip it almost hurts. (Borrow one of the hotel bikes to explore the Pearl District, Powell’s Books and other nearby shops.) Visiting Portland is a little like visiting another country—you have to culturally adjust.
Not far from Forest Grove is Sake One, the largest sake brewery in the United States and one of the first. Take the tour—you’ll finally begin to realize the precision of this beverage, from sorting the raw rice, sanding almost half of it away, to application of koji mold spores and yeast. Crucial to the process is the water quality; that’s why Sake One’s parent company Momofuku chose the location in Forest Grove. Take time for a tasting flight after the tour and you’ll start to see the differences in sake varieties.
This was the first of our many Portland flights. Our uber-friendly limo driver, a wine aficionado, invited us to dine with him and some friends at Chesa, a newish Spanish restaurant opened by Chef Jose Chesa, chef at Ataula. There we tasted a range of tapas and personal-sized paellas cooked over a charcoal oven. And champagne. Yes. More flights. We began to understand the difficulty of keeping up with Portland’s culinary scene.
The next day we spent shopping across the river in the Southeast warehouse design district where the unparalleled import store Cargo has relocated and where we paused for a refresher: more flights, this time of beer and sausage at Hair of the Dog Brewery, one of the Portland area’s 84 breweries. We stopped in for an ice cream flight at the Division location of the famous Salt & Straw Scoop Shop (Oregon Black Truffle ice cream, Foie Gras Oatmeal Raisin Pie ice cream, Strawberry Honey balsamic ice cream, as well as more conventional flavors like Chocolate Gooey Brownie).
At Le Pigeon, we ate one of the best meals of our lives. One of the restaurants that defined Portland as a top gastronomic destination, the place is tiny, service is enthusiastically attentive and the best place to sit is at the counter, where you can watch the cooking. Chef Gabriel Rucker has won two James Beard awards with his French-grounded, utterly original, even lighthearted food—glazed pigeon with couscous and black walnut “tabouli” and fried sunchokes, beef short rib dumplings with “flavors of french onion soup” and black truffle. Spring for the chef’s tasting menu, of course, $95 a person.
Old friends took us on a tasting tour on our last night: Starting at Hamlet, where we sampled flights, yes, flights, of ham and sherry, on to Bamboo, which claims to be the world’s first certified-sustainable sushi restaurant (and another flight of sake), and finally to Kachka to sample the hippest new cuisine (Russian zakuski—think tapas) and, believe it or not, flights of vodka. Things got a little fuzzy after that. Flying too high, I guess.
- Use Uber or Lyft—Portland parking is a headache.
- Order flights whenever you can—the most tastes for the buck.
- Sit at the bar at Le Pigeon—it’s the catbird seat.
— written by: Mary Brown Malouf