Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appétit's restaurant and drinks editor, has his finger on seemingly every trend in the country. Portland is one of his regular haunts—no other national critic spends more time prowling the city, ferreting out gems, or celebrating its spirit. Knowlton gets what makes Portland tick, and it's refreshing.
During last week’s Feast Portland, Knowlton and I holed up at Maurice, spooned into green walnut ice cream and remodeled fig newtons, and swapped notes on the twee luncheonette that grabbed both of our hearts and nabbed the #9 spot on his best new restaurants list. What follows embodies a fast-rapping conversation between two under-caffeinated food nuts.
KAREN BROOKS: You burn a lot of frequent flyer miles on Portland. At this point, you might qualify for an Oregon driver’s license. When three local places surfaced on your Top 50 best new restaurants IN AMERICA, it almost felt like insider trading. What keeps you coming back?
ANDREW KNOWLTON: I travel for 4 months of the year (and then try to convince my wife not to divorce me afterwards). I take it seriously, eating out in a city as much as possible. This year, I made 4-5 trips to Portland, which is like a Europe away from New York. I just like it here. I’ve watched Portland grow, and the whole evolution has been exciting. Portland is a poster child for the new modern food city. No one comes here without planning 10 places to eat. Ten years ago, that just wasn’t the case. And it keeps getting richer. Look at a new restaurant like Kachka. Who knew we’d want to be drinking vodka and eating "Herring Under a Fur Coat?”
Two years ago, you snooped out Portland’s Luce, which was barely on anyone’s radar. This year, you found Kristen Murray’s Maurice before most Portlanders heard of it. How did that happen?
I pride myself on finding places. Every year I come to PDX with places I want to consider. But the Top 10 choices often end of being the ones you didn’t suspect or maybe never heard of. When I was here in late February or early March, someone mentioned a weird French luncheonette in downtown Portland. I stopped in for a quick bite, the goat bisteeya, and thought, “Yeah!” I came back for lunch, which turned into an afternoon and a bottle of rosé. Sitting there, I loved the vibe. Sometimes I hit the popular kids, but more often I celebrate places just starting out and root for them.
What spoke to you? What was the moment when you said, This is IT, This is IN, a confirmed slot on my Top 10 list.
You have a gut feeling about a place, and then everything is confirmed. Over the next few months, I went four times. I had lefse with gravlax; little puff pastries topped whole smelt; wonderful brioche rolls with figs and walnuts; that meyer lemon soufflé (right). One afternoon, a cranky customer was in the house, and Maurice was clearly not what he imagined. After he left, the staff disappeared, and Maurice was empty. I kept wondering where everyone went. Later, one of them confided they were burning sage out front to get rid of the bad mojo. That’s Maurice. Such a personal place.
For me, it’s all about the experience. We’ve gotten away from that—a place that can transport you for a couple of hours. Maurice does that. Honesty flows here. You know when someone gives a shit. It’s like one of those places you find on a quaint street somewhere, waltz in, find this eccentric woman in the kitchen, and fall in love. It’s a place with soul. You can’t buy that. Maurice isn’t for everybody. But for me, it’s feels good in here.
Pok Pok wasn’t a concept to Andy Ricker. He couldn’t have opened up any other place at that time. Kristen Murray couldn’t have opened any other place. Maurice is a perfect expression of her. Maybe that’s all you can ask of a restaurant.
Your Best New Restaurants for 2014 look a lot like…Portland, 2007. Very casual, very personal experiences, more ink than a Russian prison, a food cart.
Food trucks first brought eyeballs to Portland. The idea of being laid-back and carefree, opening a dream idea, creating the communities out of “pods.” And then, we saw the great coffee, the bikes everywhere. We saw a culture and attitude about food and life. You can’t overstate the importance of Portland in setting a vibe that influenced the rest of the country.
Traditional fine dining, even progressive menus, were noticeably absent from you list. Was that a matter of personal taste—or a sign of the times?
I just turned 40. The only restaurant I wanted to go to was Le Bernadin, one of the last grand dames of New York dining. There’s 150 somms on the floor. Last year, San Francisco’s Saison was No. 2 on my best new restaurants list. It costs $1,000 for two people. But fine dining has faded. It’s sad. When I was little, I would put on a suit and tie—it made an indelible mark. With the casualization of American dining, some things have been sacrificed. Food has become more approachable, more democratic. What’s satisfying now is a place where you feel a connection. That could be a food truck, a pastry luncheonette next to Sizzle Pie in Portland, Oregon.
You see it everywhere. In the past, LA restaurants, for example, had to have The Big Concept; what an imagined clientele wanted. Now, chefs are going, “Fuck it, what do I want to do?” They cook it and hope people will like it.
Fine dining is being redefined. It’s no longer France or Spain defining what our restaurants should be. It’s all of us, the chef, the diners, the consumers. It’s my mom and dad, who go to all these places that now define a city. In the end, I believe the good places will stand the test of time.
Where will dining be 20 years from now?
A new generation of kids are being raised with restaurant culture. It’s a huge part of their lives. When I grew up, we went to ShowBiz Pizza. I was in my 20s before I tried a raw oyster. My kid averages six raw oysters a week. A few weeks a go, I came home, lit up the grill, and threw a quesadilla together. It looked beautiful. My daughter, Julep, said: “What is this bullshit?!” She’s gonna be a tough customer to please.