Best Restaurants 2011

Best Restaurants 2011: Best New Restaurants

New places, new chefs, and reimagined kitchens.

By Karen Brooks October 14, 2011

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Kyle Webster mans the candlelit bar at St. Jack

St. Jack

Francomania in Southeast

St. Jack opened last winter as SE Clinton Street’s answer to Lyon’s bouchons—those jolly, cramped, offal-loving dens of informality where local wine flows all day and Portland’s porky excesses, by comparison, look blessed by the surgeon general. It turned out better than anyone expected, emerging as the year’s most-talked-about restaurant, an essential hangout where everyone found something to love: adventure, passion, coziness, made-to-order madeleines, lip-smacking cocktails, and a menu with enough rich, rustic lyonnaise offerings to test the mettle of Portland’s most adventuresome diners. That means bubbled-over crocks of macaroni pounded with bacon lardons; flirty drinks shaken at a bar lit by monuments of melted wax; and irresistible microbaked treats, from powerhouse éclairs to perfect chocolate sable cookies, posing under swooping glass domes in an Amélie-cute pâtisserie. In this welcoming retreat, St. Jack embodies Portland’s food scene in a single bite: comfort, craft, and open to anyone. 2039 SE Clinton St;

Eat: Chicken liver mousse, butter lettuce salad, frog’s legs, boudin noir with roasted apples and pommes purée, chocolate pastis pot de crème

Little Bird

Downtown’s high-flying destination 

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A beet salad at Little Bird

As chefs across the US cooked up a homey French revival this year, returning more to the bone than the brain, Little Bird claimed its turf: the sexy bistro with a side of Northwest noir. Taxidermied birds perch near tush-friendly booths, and authoritative wine glasses (to match a smart Francophile list) arrive alongside roasted marrow bones that look on loan from the Smithsonian. Familiar comforts like crêpes and duck confit ride to the table like renegade art installations. Even the burger struts out, with an elegant bistro knife plunged through the heart of its ciabatta bun. It’s the destination of the year, as imagined by Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker, a master of culinary send-ups. Rucker’s longtime aide-de-camp, chef Erik Van Kley, has the keys to the car on most nights, and he’s finding voice in the likes of oxtail terrine, a carnal fantasy dressed in dark burgundy onion jam. Not everything soars at Little Bird, especially service, but any place that appeals to your bandmates and your power-broker parents is doing something exciting. 219 SW Sixth Ave;

Eat: Charcuterie plate, potted duck liver, roasted chicken with pickled peppers, daily fish specials, grilled flatiron steak, ice cream sampler


Modernism’s Rising Star 

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The Harvest composition at Castagna

The recipe for the best dessert of the year: a crazy salad of herbs, a few science moves, and chef Justin Woodward’s bold imagination. Creamy, quietly floral tonka bean ice cream danced with tufts of brown butter cake so shockingly light they almost levitated off the plate. On top, a cocoa-colored tube cracked open and gushed a rich, hot, chocolate-hazelnut liquid over everything, including the fragrant surprise of tarragon, bergamot, mint, and lemon verbena leaves, so that each bite was charged by a different experience. It was a modernist plate three days in the making, and a signal of yet another exciting chapter at Castagna: food steeped in botanicals but grounded in the familiar. Portland’s most risk-taking restaurant has played host to a sequence of respected chefs—most recently, avant-garde forager Matt Lightner, who grabbed headlines—and then a major restaurant deal in New York. Now Woodward, formerly Lightner’s right-hand man, who earned his pastry creds at Manhattan’s famed experimental lab WD-50, is taking his place at the table with impressive technique and dramatic designs. Woodward is still finding his way, but his best dishes signal a young artist in bloom. At $65 for four courses, led by a procession of snacks, a dinner at Castagna is an extraordinary deal. Eat it while you can. 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd;

Eat: Harvest composition (30 herbs and vegetables with a dressing of pickled fennel bud and smoked bone marrow); smoked pork; lamb collar with a salad of roots, stems, and sprouts; tonka bean ice cream and brown butter cake

Salt & Straw

Ice Cream with an Edge

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Honey balsamic strawberry ice cream with black pepper at Salt & Straw.

Portland ice cream shops usually open with optimism, then quickly melt into soup stands. The new Salt & Straw has not been tested by Oregon’s 10-month winter, but judging by late-summer lines more typical of rock shows than ice cream shops all signs point to something more than a passing scoop. Cousins Kim and Tyler Malek tapped the local spirit of craft and collaboration, went their own flavor-crazy way, and are now challenging expectations of what an ice cream parlor might look like: a place that embraces both an iPad cash register and a vintage waffle iron that stamps out made-to-order cones. Each scoop is wildly different, bulging with luxurious texture, daring combinations, and an unmistakable taste of place, perfumed with Steven Smith’s Teas, a changing tap of local beers, Olympic Provisions meat, and chocolate “chips” from budding bean-to-bar stars Woodblock Chocolates. Limited-edition batches are in the works, like a holiday combo of fresh pecans, molasses, and celebratory shots of Oregon’s Stonebarn whiskey. How far will the Maleks push to redefine ice cream on our turf? Bone marrow–and–smoked cherry is already a hit. “I just have to get used to foie gras in ice cream,” says Kim. “Tyler says, ‘Get over it.’” 2035 NE Alberta St;

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Salt & Straw

Eat: Homemade almond brittle with salted ganache, Stumptown single-origin coffee with local cocoa nibs, Li’l Smoky Sundae (sea salt and handmade caramel ice cream, slivers of fermented black garlic, whipped cream, burnt caramel sauce, and smoked bourbon cherry)


Rock-’n’-Roll Ramen

Old Japanese cinema posters shoot, squint, and kick their way off a long wall that leads to samurai film icons, flickering through the door of the back room. Pals, daters, and bar hoppers perch on tall stools that line a seemingly never-ending bar, where cocktails arrive with lurid colors and hand-carved ice. The music is jacked to blistering levels, like a hot peppercorn in your ear. Handrolls are packaged with roasted crab, lamb tongue comes brazenly dunked in gin-spiked ponzu, and the pork-intensive ramen is richer than Paul Allen. Welcome to Portland’s rock-’n’-roll ramen spot, where the drinking is serious and the food is designed but decidedly playful. Does it all work? It’s too early to tell. (Smoked chicken schmaltz has already been yanked from the house noodle soup formula.) But last year, chef Trent Pierce proved to be one of Portland’s most electric talents at the short-lived Fin. Now Wafu, with its nicely curated whiskey flights and sake on tap, is already as spirited as a Miyazaki movie. 3113 SE Division St;

Eat: Ceviche, cured saba with crystalized ginger, aburasoba (brothless ramen with pork belly, kimchi, fried egg)


A Kitchen Reborn 

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Bluehour’s new chef, Thomas Boyce, carves a rack of lamb.

The marshmallowy furniture, the slim-chic bar, the chandeliers floating like otherworldly halos, the loading-dock tables lording over the Pearl District’s tribes of wandering tourists. Since 2000, Bluehour has stood as Portland’s iconic night on the town. But as the kitchen reveled in caviar parfaits, Portland’s food-first, pretense-last revolution passed it by. That’s what makes the late-summer arrival of chef Thomas Boyce so significant: Bluehour is back in the conversation. Boyce is a cook’s cook, fresh from the trenches of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in LA, and he has the skills to, at last, make Bluehour a food destination, aided in part by the raiding of a private cellar to deepen the wine list. Bluehour cranks brunch, lunch, dinner, and late-night menus, and everything needs revisiting, including the service—but dinners are the priority for now. Boyce is already unleashing a fresh voice that mingles rustic elegance with surprising incursions into Korean and Japanese flavors. He knows his way around seafood, and his homemade pastas show the magic of simple perfection. No guarantees, but potentially, this could be the turnaround of the year. 250 NW 13th Ave;

Eat: Crudo (raw fish), terrine of octopus, fromage blanc gnocchi with lamb sugo, braised veal cheeks, chocolate and confection platter

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