Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grazing Through Portland

There is nothing quite so fun as eating your way around a city, even in the middle of a downpour, which is exactly what Brilliant Daughter and I did last weekend. She and I took a three-day girls sojourn up to our northern neighbors to graze and shop, and even though the weather was not very cooperative, we managed to slog through and have a wonderful time. (It always helps to overpack so you can change out of wet clothing frequently.)

Landing on Friday morning, we jumped on the light rail and headed to our accommodations, a great boutique hotel, Hotel Modera, located between downtown and the university district. My first impression was I wanted to move in permanently. The walls of windows, the coolest couches (pic below) and chairs—just how I would want my living room to look. The cool vibe extended to the front desk clerks in their black turtlenecks, as well as the rooms: well appointed but minimal in aesthetic.

We had been expecting the worse, weatherwise, on Friday. All reports had indicated pouring rain, and there was even a severe weather alert on Yahoo. Hah! Nothing. We wore our coats and carried our umbrellas for naught. It was perfect sweater weather. Brilliant Daughter and I explored downtown and stopped into the Red Star Tavern for lunch around 2pm. Great vibe, we were seated right away and had a very attentive waiter. The menu ranged from burgers and pulled pork to cedar plank Alaskan halibut and smoked shrimp salad. Not wanting anything too heavy, we settled on the jerked chicken salad and the beef skewer salad with apples and gorgonzola. blue A pleasant amount of food, well plated, although the beef was slightly undercooked and a bit chewy.

After a bit more shopping, we headed back to the hotel to plot our weekend food adventures. We laid out the basics for each day from the list we had brought, but booked venues, restaurant closings, or some other unforeseen event forced us to alter plans time and again. Not that we did not enjoy ourselves immensely and eat some wonderful food, it's just that nothing much went as planned. Call it serendipity.

One delightful detour was Veritable Quandary. I wanted to eat there based on the name alone. I love it. Not sure what the name has to do with food, but it's intriguing nonetheless. Located across the street from the police station, the place was hopping on Friday night. We sat in a booth in the bar, rather than the dining room or patio, and had one of the best salads ever. A riff on the traditional Salad Lyonaise, this version started with a generous portion of a cornbread base, topped with butter lettuce leaves and a gently, perfectly poached egg. Smoked bacon, pickled onion, and small cubes of a dry aged jack decorated the plate. The dressing, a buttermilk-chive-white cheddar, was not overwhelming and a perfect balance. We made the mistake of ordering only one to share and we both agreed that it would have been preferable to have our own serving. I followed the salad with a creamy cauliflower and root vegetable soup, while BD had the prawn appetizer. Huge, and I do mean huge, prawns wrapped in pancetta, served with grilled chayote and a chilaquiles sauce. We topped off the dinner with their decadent chocolate souffle, which was light, airy, and very chocolately. A great ending to our first day in Portland.

Saturday morning brought sunny skies and a trek to Voodoo Donuts. I normally shy away from donuts, but everything we read about this place meant it needed to be on the must-see list. We trekked 18 blocks only to find a line out the door. This was not nearly as bad as I first thought, as the interior of this shop is tiny. About 10 customers can fit inside at one time. The menu is longer than I had time to read, but the maple bacon bar caught my eye as a necessary evil. I was doomed, however, as they were sold out. I had to quickly settle for the Portland Crème (Portland’s official donut), while BD ordered the Voodoo Donut, a human-shaped donut with chocolate glaze, two eyes and a random pretzel shoved in to resemble a real voodoo doll. I'm sad to report that neither donut was anything to write home about. A standard donut with filling and glaze, it appears that this place is probably lauded for its unusual donuts, with unusual names, and unusual toppings (Captain Crunch or Cocoa Puffs cereal, Tang, and Oreos, among others). Maybe we should have tried more?

The worst part of the trek was that by the time we exited Voodoo Donuts, there was a downpour happening. No coats, we resorted to pulling out our mini umbrellas and walking briskly to the first coffee house we could find, unfortunately a Starbucks. But it gave us cover from the rain in order to eat our donuts, so we were grateful. With no end in site, we had no choice but to return to the hotel, change out of our sopping wet clothes and don boots and coats.

Off to the Pearl District to wander while we waited for the 2:30 showing of District 9 at the Mission Theater. A living-room type theater that houses a McMenamins pub, we had hoped to order lunch and watch a movie as a respite from the rain. After walking all the way over, we found the theater and pub closed and no one in sight. Not wanting to wait 45 minutes in the pouring rain until the showing, we chose to hoof it back to the Pearl District and find sustenance. We landed at the Living Room, another cool theater with couch seating, that has a modern little bar and restaurant. Rather than ordering and watching a movie, we just grazed on tapas and had some liquid fortification (a tasty ginger mojo that I will try to recreate at home). I was wary of BD’s choice of the warm artichoke dip, but it was a homemade version with large chunks of artichoke hearts that was generous and tasty. We also noshed on deviled eggs (one each of shrimp/avocado, caviar and roasted red pepper) and beef skewers. Skipping dessert we decided to check out Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe nearby, another tiny hole in the wall (capacity 5 people). We managed to keep the order to 6 choices, but not for lack of variety. Everything looked delicious, but my girlish figure had to draw the line somewhere. My favorite was the Conquistador Hazelnut Praline. I could use one of those right about now….

Dinner was planned at Higgins, just a short 3 blocks from our hotel, but the Saturday night theater crowd made that impossible. Plan B was 3 Degrees but they wouldn't even answer their phone, so we went with Plan C and called Carafe, a little French bistro next to the Keller Event Center. Tables were available, so we hoofed it over. Barely a quarter of the tables were full, which seemed odd. While the menu had a good selection and the waitstaff was pleasant, the food was less than stellar. My fresh radishes, served with butter and fleur de sel were good, but even a child could fix that dish. The steak and frites, ordered by BD came out with the steak on the raw side, when it had been ordered medium. My special beet salad was good but not spectacular. Even the peach tart tatine was uninspired. Guess that's what you get with Plan C.

Sunday started off with a move to the hip Ace Hotel in the Pearl District. Very retro/industrial, this renovated hotel appeals to the under-35 crowd. Comfortable and affordable, it is within walking distance to Powell's, one of the best indy bookstores in the nation. And to Everett Street Bistro, one of BD's fave restaurants, and after eating there, I can see why. For two years BD has been raving about the steak and pommes frites at ESB. We had wanted to eat dinner there, but again, not in the cards for us, so we settled for brunch. Starting off with mimosas, we went eclectic and ordered the wild mushroom scramble, Belgian waffle with candied bacon, pecans and maple crème fraiche and…of course…an order of frites with lemon aioli. We ate every last bit of every dish. And I could eat those fries every day of the week. Cooked and seasoned perfectly with whole garlic cloves fried alongside, they were divine.

Our last meal of the day was shared with our friend Chris Heidrich of Bootsnall. We met up at Clyde Common, the restaurant adjacent to the Ace Hotel. The concept here is common tables, and the owners liken the space to a European-style tavern. Food runs to "domestic and foreign," which means anything goes, and they do use local farmers, foragers and ranchers, which is always a plus in my book. Because Content 09 (a fashion/music event) was taking place at the Ace and the abandoned laundry next door, the restaurant was full to capacity and the bar was 3-4 deep, making for a rather noisy venue. But we had a good (although not great) meal that consisted of tagliatelle with roasted wild mushrooms, steak and frites, a lamb dish and the caramel fig tart tatine with balsamic. The steak was slightly underdone (again) and the lamb a bit fatty, but overall flavors were nice and the portions good.

Portland appears to be a great food city. I would have loved to try so much more, but time and calorie intake had to be monitored. I look forward to my next visit, during drier times.

No comments: