Sunday, March 20, 2011

YRS in Portland, Oregon

As promised, some eating and drinking highlights from our recent drive down to Portland, Oregon. We took the Blackball ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, rented a car and drove down Highway 101-E, merging onto the I-5 at Olympia. If you are considering doing this, give yourself a leisurely 5 hours driving time.

I'm not going to praise or destroy every last place we ate at, but I did want to mention our stop at the Garden Bistro in Sequim (just south of Port Angeles). This lonely, unassuming little shack that sits in a parking lot in the middle of town served us amazingly scrumptious sandwiches and chicken chili. With little more than a sidewalk chalk board signalling customers in, we really lucked out in stumbling upon it; clearly the type of place built on its solid reputation among locals for quality lunch food. It reminded me of Victoria's Lunch Kit.

I've driven through Portland countless times along the I-5, but this was the first time I'd stopped to smell the roses in Stumptown. I'd heard much in recent years about the city's progressive urban renewal strategy, it's housing-first policy and green initiatives. All of this seemed evident during our stay. The revitalization of the Pearl District and free downtown streetcar system ought to be the envy of urban planners elsewhere in North America.
Portland is a vibrant, laid back city marked by intelligent planning and well maintained green spaces. I'm not sure Portland will dethrone my favourite West Coast city, San Francisco, but it certainly is now in my top 2.

One of the highlights of Portland and the surrounding region is the micro-brewery scene, arguably the very best on this continent. I've heard there are over 100 microbreweries in the region, so you could spend months sipping your way through the many brews available. We focused our attention on two downtown breweries. Deschutes Brewery & Public House is centrally located and had no fewer than ten brews on tap, two of which where cask conditioned, one of which was gluten-free. In fact, they have a full menu of gluten-free food offerings, with the gf-breads made on premises. We had a bowl of steamed clams with gluten free bread sticks, and it was surprisingly good. But the real reason to visit here is for the excellent brews. If the bar section of the establishment isn't full, I'd recommend sitting here rather than in the vast dining room, which has the ambiance of a family restaurant, screaming kids and all. Deschutes Brewery & Public House on Urbanspoon

Portland's oldest, original micro-brewhouse is Bridgeport Brewpub & Bakery, also in the downtown core, although slightly more off the beaten path. We ordered a flight of beer samples here and all were of high quality. If you love aggressively hopped Cascadia style ales, you will be in the Promised Land at this and other breweries in Portland. I advise you to stay clear of chain breweries, like Rock Bottom. I made that mistake in Seattle, but not in Portland. The tamale pie we had with our beers at Bridgeport was very edible, but again, your prime reason for coming here is for the beers. Bridgeport Brewpub & Bakery on Urbanspoon
Our first dinner in Portland happened by accident. We missed our streetcar stop by several blocks, and when we got off, we happened upon the Leaky Roof Gastro Pub (Goose Hollow). An old Victorian house converted into a bistro, we enjoyed the intimate confines and neighbourhood ambiance at this place. We liked our gourmet burgers and beers for the most part, but the buns were so soft they disintegrated into a greasy mush by the third bite. We were also a bit disappointed by the lack of local micro-brew tap options, however their wine list had a diverse selection of local and foreign vintages. I look forward to returning to this eatery for something other than a burger, because some of the dishes leaving the kitchen look fabulous. Leaky Roof on Urbanspoon

The best dining experience overall was at a Peruvian restaurant called Andina. This was a real treat and may be the best Latin American cuisine I've had outside of Latin America. It's all done with modern flare using lots of local, fresh ingredients. The salsa relishes served with bread are, themselves, highlights. Andina even finds a unique way to serve coffee (in cast iron pots) that has practical purpose and flirts ever so gently with pretence without crossing that line. The food presentations were exquisite, especially the eloquent desserts, and believe me when I boast that it all tasted better than it was presented! The service here was first rate. If you go, prepare to pay first rate prices, but the experience is worth every cent. Andina on Urbanspoon

Dubbed by one food writer, "one of Portland's temples of haute cuisine," and our guidebook calling it a favourite haunt for local foodies, we couldn't pass on the opportunity to dine at Paley's Place in the northwest part of downtown. Chef Vital Paley has won quite a few accolades, including the James Beard Foundation Award (2005). This is another Victorian-era house turned bistro, so if you love high calibre cuisine served in a cozy living room atmosphere, you'll enjoy this place. Overall, this was a good dining experience, but not the best I've had in this genre. My "large" order of rabbit ravioli had no more than five pieces of ravioli! What is it with fancy places and small portions? My wife's pork shoulder was significantly heartier. Both dishes were excellent. The highlight of our dinner was the "American Kobe Beef Tartar" - high grade raw ground beef, with egg yolk on top and onions & capers on the side. I'm not sure why they need to tag this "Kobe" beef, which it isn't. In any case, it melted in our mouths, and matched perfectly with the Oregon Pinot Noir our server recommended. The service was as it should have been in a place like this, and I look forward to a return visit someday. Paley's Place on Urbanspoon

We are indebted to our good friend and fellow food blogger, Melody Wey (Audrey Needs More Wooden Spoons) for our experience at Le Bistro Montage. Prior to leaving for Portland, Melody advised me of this place, and I'm so glad she did because we'd never have found it otherwise. It was not in our guidebook, and is in an odd location on the other side of the river, literally under a bridge amid homeless campers and abandoned warehouses. Montage is a bustling New Orleans inspired bistro that features, among other great comfort dishes: alligator, frogs legs and the best damn mac & cheese you may find on the entire West Coast. The restaurant was packed on the Monday night we arrived, so we were forced to take seats at the counter, which turned out to be lots of fun as we had front row seats to the kitchen. The mac & cheese dishes come in several varieties (I had the SPOLD), with options to add on extras. My wife enjoyed the oyster jambalaya. I also had a spicy oyster shooter - delicious! I couldn't resist trying the alligator bits (battered and deep fried)... tastes like a cross between venison and pork. If you go on Monday, it's half price for a bottle of wine. The one thing I didn't like about this place was our wine was served in water glasses. And when you're drinking a $40 bottle, something just doesn't seem right about that. But it's a very minor quibble. Le Bistro Montage on Urbanspoon

On that side of the river and not far from Montage is a place our guidebook highly recommended - Beaker and Flask. We had a couple of dishes and drinks and felt something was lacking. The food failed to impress and the ambiance didn't have that vitality we'd been experiencing in Portland up to that point. The building looks as though it was once a car dealership, and very much felt that way inside. Beaker and Flask on Urbanspoon

We took a drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway the day before leaving, which is very scenic - some impressive waterfalls along the way. We went as far as the town of Hood River, did some wine tasting, but I have to mention the All Day IPA (session brew ringing in at 4.7% alc) I sipped at Big Horse Brew Pub was near perfect. That may have been the best IPA I had the entire trip. Big Horse Brew Pub - Horse Feathers & Co. on Urbanspoon

I'm not much of a cocktail guy, but the server at Andina told me about this rock star mixologist at a bar called Clyde Common, which is connected to the uber-trendy Ace Hotel.  Apparently this guy's mixes were so famous the New York Times did a piece on him. Naturally, I had to go see what all the fuss was about. His trademark mixes are aged in oak barrels, giving them a richer, smoky taste. I can't tell you what was in my $10 barrel cocktail, but it was pink-red, strong and quite delicious. If I were a cocktail guy, I'm sure I'd be using bigger and badder adjectives and mixology-speak to describe this experience. Clyde Common on Urbanspoon

While in Portland, we stayed at the stylishly elegant Hotel Deluxe, "a contemporary tribute to the Golden Era of Hollywood filmmaking that tastefully balances art deco and art modern styles for a mix of timeless sophistication and serene comfort." We had a fantastic 3-night deal which included free valet parking. The service throughout our stay was exceptional. Can't say enough about this place.