When a restaurant is imported from the ‘sticks’ to New York, and takes that legendarily sniffy city by storm, you know you’re looking at something a bit special. But nobody in Portland is the slightest bit surprised by the success that chef/owner Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok is having on the East Coast: this is a town obsessed with food, whose restaurants and markets are world-class. They know it, but they don’t make a huge, arrogant song and dance about it.
Portland’s extraordinary geography, attitude and climate – yes, it rains a lot – contribute to a kind of culinary perfect storm: wonderful local produce, low rents, and a unique hippy-meets-foodie entrepreneurial spirit which leads to a culture of egalitarian restaurant dining, a riot of street-food and a city-wide pub crawl of microbreweries. The wines are also deserving of every sentence of praise that’s heaped on them: we spend a couple of days in Eugene, roaming the breathtaking countryside just outside the city, checking out wineries such as the impressive King Estate, Iris and Sweet Cheeks. But even in the heart of Portland, urban wineries are blossoming like noble rot. You can’t stagger far without hitting a bottle (or stone ‘growler’ – no sniggering at the back) of frequently organic wine, or luscious local pinot noir.
As lampooned famously in the TV comedy series Portlandia, Portland basically invented hipsters: that tattooed, beardy aesthetic reaches its apotheosis here. But when the geeks turn to food they do it wholeheartedly. Probably the most Portland of all Portland restaurants is Ned Ludd. There’s no fancy kitchen kit: never mind dehydrators and water baths, they don’t even have an oven. Jason French cooks everything in an inherited wood-fired pizza oven (hence the name: think Luddites) in a room that looks like it was designed by a drugged-up woodsman’s nana. The weekly-changing menu is a poem dedicated to the seasons – vegetables rendered luscious through woodcharring, with fresh sheep’s cheese, maybe, or foraged nettles; smoky local pork with toasty ‘raabs’; flavours zhuzhed by freekeh or za’atar. You might find sausage-stuffed quail or pork-skin noodles. And their ‘cookies and milk’, a cast-iron pan full of gooey ‘cookie’ studded with sea-salt and oozing melted chocolate, served with milk, is a notorious nod to every American’s childhood comfort food.
This is where the now-prevalent farm-to fork ethos first really took root. Unsurprisingly, the weekly Farmer’s Market on the beautiful Portland State University campus makes others look like wan imitations. Stalls are piled high with almost hallucinogenically-vivid produce and countless streetfooders – Portland is huge on streetfood, everything from gourmet cheese on toast to Mexican/Korean mashups – selling insanely delicious on-the-hoof food. It’s here that we meet up with Karen Brooks, queen of the PDX food scene – don’t contemplate a trip to the city without her book, The Mighty Gastropolis. She takes us to her favourite Courier Coffee, a self-effacing little joint where the coffee is handled like platinum: sealed in brown bags, each one handwritten with owner Joel’s name and phone number – plus date and provenance of the crop – in the unlikely event that you’re unhappy with your Ethiopian espresso.
The city makes a big deal about coffee, the bean treated with every bit as much respect as the grape. So successful have local boys Stumptown Coffee become that they too have taken NYC, and owner Duane Sorenson has now branched out into restaurants with rave-reviwed Ava Gene’s. This is Portland-Italian: ingredients and tenets from Italy, creativity and spirit as homegrown as its salumi. With its feather-light fritti, wizardry with vegetables and pastas such as rabbit agnolotti, or Neapolitan-inspired paccheri, Ava Gene’s is Portland all-grown-up.
In this city, simple things become heroes. You want doughnuts? There’s the famous Voodoo, for doughy beasts topped with maple icing and, yes, bacon. But Blue Star is where the smarty pants go – probably the finest doughnuts I’ve eaten: the sheer bliss of their salted caramel, or blackberry compote dusted with peanut butter powder. Or the humble sandwich: the queues outside Bunk are testament to the gorgeousness of its famous pork belly Cubano, house-smoked turkey and muffalettas. Ice-cream? Local gelateria Salt & Straw will entrance with flavours like double bock bacon ale, almond brittle with salted ganache or pear with blue cheese.
But back to Pok Pok – if it weren’t for the queues of people desperate to get their fix of killer chicken wings humming with garlic and fish sauce, we’d have been back time and again – for lemongrass-scented rotisserie game hen, pungent Chiang Mai sausage or cult barbecued sweetcorn dressed with salty coconut cream, and powerful cocktails alive with tamarind, bird’s eye chillis or drinkable vinegar. This sprawling, insanely busy restaurant may look like something from Animal House, but the welcome is warm, the food light-years away from a high-street Thai. Unmissable.
As is Le Pigeon, where Gabriel Rucker mixes haute and dirty with devilish virtuosity. Foie gras profiteroles might be the order of the day in this rammed, communal-tabled, open-kitchened joint – fine dining with tattoos and infectious attitude. I adore my smoked lobster with foie gras vinaigrette (there’s an almost Quebecois love of the fatty liver) miso butter and sorghum syrup. But it’s not all luxury ingredients: cheese might come with home-made peanut butter cookie, nasturtium white chocolate, pickled currants and burnt nut buttermilk. Crazy, but it all works. I love his lower-key Downtown outlet, Little Bird, too.
Every corner you turn in this delicious city offers another surprise, another sensory treat: shops like Meadow, where walls are lined with every possible salt, from volcanic to smoked, in frosted glass jars, curated by a ‘selmellier’. Or Olympic Provisions – I love these guys – a cured-meat-freak’s paradise of everything from homemade hotdogs to silky culatello. A brunch here of vast, fluffy ‘biscuits’ with house-cured bacon and creamy sausage ‘gravy’ is one of the trip’s highlights.
So what if it takes hours to reach this wonderful city? Where else on earth would you find vegan strip bars? Or a city-wide happy hour that means you can often eat for pennies? I’m thinking of avoiding the whole having-toschlep-there thing and simply moving, lock stock and barrel. In a city of food obsessives, I’ll fit right in.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written July 2014
Main image above taken by Philip Scalia / Alamy