Austin Eats PDX

Austin Eats Portland

by Forrest Preece

I’m an Austin native with almost seven decades under my belt here. But for something like 15 years we have been traveling to Portland to hang out with our friends  during August and I have fallen in love with your city. If I had to choose one other place to live besides Austin, it would be PDX. I mean, c’mon, you are already using our “Keep It Weird” slogan. Every coffee shop in Austin that aspires to one leg of ripped jeans is brewing Stumptown Coffee. We exported Whole Foods to you. But we’re getting Voodoo Doughnuts in a few months. You’ve got Powell’s. We have BookPeople. You have the Northwest Food and Wine Festival and we have the Austin Food and Wine Festival. We have a lot of things to enjoy on each other’s turf (both now accessible with non-stop service thanks to Alaska Airlines).

Austin is on a high point of a culinary renaissance and we have a lot of places that go tastebud-to-tastebud with your top restaurants. But the sheer volume of Portland eateries that blow me out of the water each year is jaw-dropping. (What’s more, they keep on coming!)

Another thing that strikes me is the range of settings that PDX offers. One night a few years ago, we dined at D.O.C. which was like being in a small home with friends and a top-flight chef cooking. In fact, we were seated next to the oven where the man at the culinary wheel produced one of the most delicious and clean versions of salmon I have ever had — on fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, and padron peppers. (I have tried to reproduce that one in my own kitchen, but have only come close.)

Then last year we went to the Multnomah Whiskey Library, where I was treated to the sight of the most expansive and well-stocked bar I have ever seen, set in a posh private club atmosphere. As an extra touch of elegance, my wife was treated to a tableside preparation of her Manhattan which she enjoyed with our salumi and cheese boards.

But getting back to this year: if I had to describe every dish that we ate during our stay in Portland, it would make for too long an article and at my age I tire in a hurry. So I’m going to hit three of the 2015 highlights, leaving out a lot. (Honestly, every restaurant we visited was a highlight.) Here are the expansive, the exquisite, and the emerging.


The Expansive — Nostrana


The first restaurant we visited this year was Nostrana and it set a tone for the whole restaurant scene. A pile of firewood neatly stacked by the front door indicated just how many things on the menu are cooked over open flames and it added a rustic Stumptown touch. Yes, this place was expansive, in terms of size, visual impact, and variety on the menu.

I can see why this chef is a six-time James Beard Award finalist. Every dish was spectacular. To start, we had the Insalata Nostrana with radicchio, parmigiano, rosemary-sage croutons cæsar-style dressing. This was no ordinary salad — it was a taste and visual extravagance, with its purple-red radicchio, fresh grated parmesan cheese, and an obviously house made caesar dressing that added just enough tang to the bitterness of the radicchio. The rosemary-sage croutons mixed their crunch with the other textures to make a mouth feel delight.

Then came the pizzas — first, an octo-pie with braised octopus, marsala currants, tomato, red onion, smoked provolone, and arugula. After that, we tucked into the funghi verde pie — with shiitake and maitake mushrooms, house mozzarella, garlic, arugula, pecorino, and lemon. The crust on both of these pizzas obviously benefited from the wood flame in the oven, displaying crispy fresh-baked goodness. We weren’t through there. The blue truck sweet corn soup with crème fraiche and chives brought rave exclamations and then I had a main course of succulent salmon on fresh Oregon vegetables. Of course, we needed some sorbets to finish the meal in a proper manner. Did I say it was expansive in every way? Quite a treat.


The Exquisite — Le Pigeon.
I confess. We have been coming here for quite a while and I dream about Le Pigeon’s Beef Cheek Bourguignon all year long. When we entered this jewel box of a restaurant with two other couples, I was starting to tell myself, if it’s not on the menu tonight, don’t get depressed — there are other things in life to enjoy — you will survive, and you can drink enough wine to drown your sorrows. But yes, there it was, with époisses risotto, oyster mushrooms, Dijon pickled onion, and sweet herbs. Words, don’t fail me now. The beef itself tasted as always, like they have marinated it in their delectable reduced sauce for a week. Every bite is an explosion of flavor that lingers in the mouth. The risotto underneath has a velvety texture with just enough pungency from the cheese to set off the beef’s gravitas. And the appetizer! A grilled Le Pigeon ratatouille with oven roasted tomatoes, eggplant, baby zucchini, and foie tomato gravy. The mixture of spicy flavors in this delectable dish with a variety of textures made it sinfully satisfying.

The dessert was in the same major league — yuzu sorbet with melon curls and macaroons. It combined a delicate citrus flavor with precisely-formed melon curls on top. Then the macaroons gave me a coconut trip back to my childhood — a heavenly finishing touch.


The Emerging — LeChon


OK, OK, I give. Just when I think my hometown might be catching up to PDX, you hit me with another triumph. On the last night we enjoyed in Portland, we were treated to a trip to LeChon and we dined on its remarkable South American offerings. Now you may be thinking that means a lot of huge meat plates — and yes, they have a smoked and slow roasted Patagonian pork on the menu (which was terrific), a ribeye, pork ribs, chorizo sausage and flank steak.

But let’s take a look at some other dishes on the menu. First we shared the gilled octopus appetizer. The chewy octopus was perfectly paired with chorizo, forest mushrooms, a delicate salsa verde and lemon. We also divvied up the forest mushrooms with farm egg, parmesan and brioche. What a start. Then my Tombo tuna arrived. This huge piece of tuna was sizable enough to satisfy the appetite of a trencherman steak eater. Unlike some tuna steaks I have been served, this one was juicy all the way through and the pineapple chutney and olive gremolata combined for a fine balance of sweet and savory.

A test I often make at restaurants I’m trying for the first time is the quality of the sides — and LeChon passed with flying colors. The burnt carrots dish with goat cheese, honey and chives was delightful as was the combination of candied beets, burnt orange and arugula with pepitas.


The desserts such as beignets with citrus and rum caramel sounded wonderful, but we were too satiated to continue. I predict that LeChon will find a place on the A-list for PDX food lovers. To add one other happy note, our server went to college with a friend of ours who used to dance with Ballet Austin.


No doubt, our latest sojourn through your culinary landscape was a wonderful experience. Besides the restaurants I described, Serrato (an indulgence for my wife’s birthday — rabbit lasagna to die for!), Little Bird (foie gras crepe), Renata (lamb agnolotti and salmon with pimento pepper aioli), Atuala (tapas heaven), Tavern on Kruse (the best value on a high-end prix fixe imaginable), Ox (the mixed grill to end all mixed grills) and a gem called Oso Market all offered distinctive cuisine. But we have around fifteen new restaurants opening in Austin before the end of the year. We love our food, too. The only way for you to make a comparison? Come on down — and we’ll continue flying up there. And let’s both keep on keeping it weird!

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