Over the past few years, a handful of Portland restaurateurs have invented a new kind of dining experience: deeply personal, obsessively ?crafted, and driven more by point of view than by what sells. They helped make local cuisine a driving force in Portland life and a magnet for the foodies of the world. Here are eight of the eateries that defined—and are still defining—a movement.
Fifteen years ago, Kimberly and Vitaly Paley helped jump-start a new Oregon cuisine. Blending New York restaurant savvy and French schooling with casual Portland style, they set up camp in a Victorian house perched over a hair salon in Nob Hill and spent their money on farmers, not décor. Over the years, they’ve won a coveted James Beard Award, earned a reputation as the go-to spot for intimate fine dining, penned a coffee-table cookbook, ushered in packed houses nightly, and even showed up on Martha Stewart. The Paleys have reached a pinnacle that, for many restaurants, becomes a downwardly sloping plateau. Yet this kitchen is still giddy with energy. Hot-shot pastry chef Kristen Murray recently joined the team. And the new daily menu plays the house classics while improvising on inspirations dreamed up that morning. Want to see how the old dog still runs with the pups? Paley’s entry in the meat-craft wars—rosy American Kobe beef pastrami, slow-smoked over hazelnut shells, edged with blackened crispy bits of goodness—may be the dish of the year.
What’s next? The Paley’s are dreaming of—and even scouting new locations for—a raucous, large-scale seafood restaurant. But ideas are cheap, says Vitaly. “If someone steps up with money, we’ll talk.” ?
Tommy Habetz isn’t climbing culinary ladders or waiting for his spread in the New York Times. He’s the new face of a culinary world remaking itself amid economic recalibration and celebrity-chef fatigue. He blithely walked away from the white-tablecloth world (and jobs with New York’s then-rising superstars Mario Batali and Bobby Flay) and now lives his own dream: making dangerously good sandwiches in a gritty shop that shouts anti-pretentious. Yet fame found him anyway. Habetz—and his biscuits with rabbit gravy—recently turned up alongside the world’s great food minds in the lavishly photographed book Coco: 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs. Meanwhile, his powerhouse pork belly Cubano is slated for the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. That title could ?apply to nearly everything Habetz and partner Nick Wood make. From a duck pâté bahn mi to roast beef with caramelized onions, they cook like great chefs—and then stick their creations between two pieces of bread.
What’s new Bunk Bar is already in full swing at SE Water Avenue and Taylor Street. Think basement with a touch of swank, loud (but well chosen) music, and a straight-up bar—a serious oasis for night owls. Most of Bunk’s signature dishes (served without actual dishes, on cafeteria trays) are on hand, plus some new finds, like a french-fry po’boy with duck gravy, courtesy of Habetz’s dream addition—a deep-fryer.
Eight dishes, three outdoor tables, and one little shack blew away Portland’s Thai food scene in 2005. From a humble carryout window, Pok Pok served a whole new experience—fiery noodles, sweet pork wonders, and charcoal-blasted game hens that sent taste buds soaring. The endless lines spawned a second venue—Whiskey Soda Lounge, a kind of Asian spicy food bar—across the street. Owner Andy Ricker offered a prophet’s glimpse of the food-cart scene, showing just how far obsession and a do-it-yourself mentality can take you. Now a fully grown, indoor-outdoor restaurant, Pok Pok has become a Portland icon, and Ricker has gained a reputation—courtesy of a rare 14-page spread in Food & Wine magazine—as the country’s foremost Thai grilling expert.
What’s next? Pok Pok Noi, opening this winter at 1460 NE Prescott St. The game plan includes the original shack menu, with its signature game hens, plus another opportunity to satisfy that deep, savage cry for Pok Pok’s fish-sauce chicken wings (currently, the house chomps through 1,800 pounds of chicken a week). Meanwhile, Ricker’s homemade drinking vinegars are taking wing, complete with a newly formed company, Naam Som, to market the tart-sweet formulas. Italian sodas, look out.
Naomi Pomeroy is a rarity: a girl cook who runs with the meat-worshipping bad boys of the Portland food scene, muscles flexed, elbows flying, but with lace showing underneath. Beast is her tiny, personalized food stage for sumptuous, multicourse meals choreographed in the middle of the room. With no formal stove, a convection oven, and one big imagination, the 36-year-old ships an unexpected parade of elegant pot pies, dandelion pestos, and foie gras bonbons to communal tables set with dinner-party charm. Three years ago, Pomeroy rose from the ashes of her lived-hard/died-young Ripe restaurants to whip up seriously good cooking on her own terms. She’s trying for the star-track now, battling valiantly (if losing) on Iron Chef America and emerging as a rare female chef in magazines like Food & Wine, O, and Marie Claire.
What’s next? Will the queen of pig squeal “no more meat”? Pomeroy’s recent trial balloons—Vegetarian Feasts at Beast—sold out in two hours, at $100 a pop. No doubt she’s chewing over the implications.
At 29, Gabriel Rucker is a Portland original whose ideas have crackled into something electric. Working off-the-cuff in his own world of complex flavor combinations, Rucker goes gaga for guts, toys with French bistro, and reboots American classics—sometimes all in the same dish. Shaved beef hearts with broccoli struts to the table like a steak-house wild child fresh from a roll in a pile of salt, pepper, and red onions. Foie gras, a house obsession, rides out on a raft of brioche toast with a long-fingered, crispy-crunchy pigeon claw reaching out to greet you like a voodoo charm. The voltage extends to the softly lit, Parisian side street atmosphere, where the staff is infectiously excited about the food and wine they serve. Le Pigeon embodies Portland’s rise on the national scene in a single, sharply focused snapshot.
What’s next? Little Bird, a lunch-dinner bistro opening this winter at 219 SW Sixth Ave. Expect Rucker and his merry band of Le Pigeon regulars—wine maestro Andy Fortgang and side-cook Erik Van Kley—to twist the homey French classics and make Le Pigeon’s vaunted limited-edition burger a regular. Fortgang’s pastry-chef wife, Lauren Fortgang, hung up her respected rolling pin at Paley’s Place to join in. This is the place to watch.
John Taboada pioneered a new east-side indie food style with this 33-seat eatery in 2001. He hand-built the interior for the price of a used car, then filled it with a local-farm gestalt, scholarly European village recipes, and his own definition of how a restaurant could be run—freewheeling, food-focused, and tenderly priced. In a city that prides itself on a farm-to-table ethos, nobody embraces the philosophy more completely: 90 percent of the produce is grown within the city limits. You won’t find a more original seasonal menu anywhere. Pear chocolate pie, candied fennel stems, lamb ham—if it’s on the list, it was made in the kitchen. A lawlessness hovers in the air, and that’s part of the magic.
What’s new? Luce (2140 E Burnside St; 503-236-7195), a still-evolving project from Taboada and his wife, Giovanna Parolari, opened this fall with a burst of one-off farm dinners and plans for an Italian eatery up front. But Tuesday’s “Eating With Juan”—a one-plate Mexican village meal created by a trusted Navarre cook—already tastes bold and delicious. Drop by from 5 p.m. “until the food runs out.”
Simpatica Dining Hall, Laurelhurst Market
The sudden appearance of a giant leg of prosciutto swinging from an industrial pipe signaled in 2005 that something different was cooking below the former La Luna rock club. As other Portland food venues were tweaking the genre of the restaurant, Simpatica started from scratch, turning the simple urge to cook for people into a weekend-only supper club, and a raw, industrial space into a living room. No two menus have ever been the same, but each one digs excitedly into the meat lockers of the rock-’n’-roll butchers behind the scenes. Then came Sunday brunch, still the best in the city, with killer biscuits, perfect eggs Benedict, and two-hour waits in the hallway. Last year, owners Ben Dyer, Jason Owens, and Dave Kreifels broke ground with Portland’s first indie steak house, Laurelhurst Market, featuring artisan charcuterie, a notable lack of cigar-chomping ambience, and an eye-catching butcher counter up front. These guys have tapped the Portland spirit and found a gold mine.
What’s new? Dyer’s homage to his Hawaiian roots, Ate-Oh-Ate (2454 E Burnside St; 503-445-6101), should do wonders for shaved ice and kalua pig—and make Spam much more than a punch line. ?
Nostrana is a vision for the times: a local legend (former Genoa co-owner Cathy Whims) cooking the food she loves; sophistication without the intimidation; real food from the best local farms and purveyors; and moderate prices. This is Italian home cooking as it should be—stripped down to let the ingredients shine and swelling with the perfume of wood fire. Neapolitan pizzas served whole and unsliced, as in Italy, are the stars. But almost every category appeals, as Whims transforms an impressive repertoire of regional Italian favorites into a changing daily array of dishes grown and raised on our own turf, like homemade mortadella with fresh Chester blackberry mostarda, or braised lamb with dreamy heirloom polenta from Ayers Creek Farm, hand-milled to order. A breakaway hit when it opened five years ago, Nostrana found its true self in the past year. Now it’s burning brighter than the imported wood oven.
What’s new? Having split from her original partners, Whims created the place she always wanted, down to a bar with local fruit sodas. At $25, the new three-course Farmhouse Dinner is the deal of the moment (Tuesday and Wednesday nights only; reservations recommended).