In mid-March, the food world entered the Upside Down. Yet somehow, through hell and high water, a wave of restaurants morphed into makeshift takeout outposts. The number of inspiring “I Won’t Back Down” menus floating around right now is pretty remarkable. Some pay homage to the seasons; others dig into the very notion of self and spirit. Portland was always a live-to-eat city, and this much is clear: If we’re going down, let’s savor the moment. On strangely beautiful nights, birds chirping in unheard registers, flowers more saturated than I can recall, I’ve shared creative, contact-free take-home meals with the visages of friends, the food illuminated by FaceTime screen light. However tenuous, the essence of Portland food life still flickers.
Here’s the latest dispatch from my dining room table:
Fine dining, Portland-style, lives on inside a $65 bento box from Nodoguro. For now, the restaurant’s choreographed nights of Japanese food theater and hardcore sushi have been replaced by chef Ryan Roadhouse’s exquisite omakase picnic to go, several nights a week. The multiple components, which change weekly, unfold in a series of nesting-doll boxes placed inside a larger, minimalist mother ship box. One holds octopus sashimi, which Roadhouse transforms from the usual rubber-band experience into an entirely different, achingly tender animal. Another bears curry crab rice, luxe and creamy beneath dark orange, brine-squirting ikura jewels. I wonder if Roadhouse plucked this beyond buttery, salt-cured salmon right out of the Pacific. Am I hallucinating or just emotional? All I know is that every bite is like poetry, filled with joy and grief. On the side: you can order wife/co-owner Elena Roadhouse’s hand sanitizer, made with the olfactory rigor of a Parisian perfume. I dabbed it behind my ears.
Follow @nodoguropdx on Instagram for details. Also check out the Roadhouse’s next-level grab-and-go Japanese eats at their new, next-door Tonari, @tonaipdx on Instagram
Forty blocks away, Coquine is rigorously waving Portland’s farm-to-table flag. We may be in the middle of a pandemic. Her celebrated Mount Tabor neighborhood bistro might not make it. But chef Katy Millard is not about to abandon her unwavering commitment to local crops. Or, for that matter, to lower the bar for the kitchen’s standards, handcrafted to the core. Vegetables, hauled from the farmers market, still get top billing. Fava greens and morels still wave hello from a hillock
of handmade gnocchi. Millard is still Portland’s unsung pasta whiz: Strozzapreti pasta boasts fresh sheep’s cheese–green garlic sauce on the bottom, and crème fraîche, parmesan broth, and buttery lemony bread crumbs on top. The vaunted chocolate chip cookies, rampaging with smoked, toffee-rolled almonds? Still blowing the doors off of Toll House. The only reminder that the restaurant is under siege is its temporary name, “Curbside Coquine.” Even the signature house hospitality refuses to die, as partner-husband Ksandek Podbielski, standing six feet from your car, bows slightly, hands clasped in monk’s pose. His voice may be muffled through a green cloth mask, but his message is loud and clear: “Thanks for letting us cook for you tonight.”
Dinner Wednesday–Sunday; advance preorder required
Over in Northeast, Gado Gado is thinking out of the box, literally. Breaking from the pandemic’s kitchen-to-car-trunk movement, Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly are making pickup an experience: name-tagged bags await inside a music-thumping, disco-balled, candle-shrined canopy tent erected out front. You can’t help but bust a few moves. Inside, lies “Oma’s Takeaway,” a wild collection of the day’s à la carte musings jumping off of Chinese-Indonesian family recipes, but flying on their own astral plane. My recent haul included seafood rangoon, with a spicy salmon-roe-stocked chile mayo dipping sauce that somehow recalled convenience-store nacho sauce. I still can’t stop thinking about it. But also: brisket beef rendang tasting like a new kind of carnitas born in a vat of coconut milk, galangal, and shrimp paste. How the kitchen found headspace to make scratch cream puffs, inlaid with pandan whipped cream and the season’s first strawberries, we may never know. My friend Drew best sums up the night’s virtual-shared meal: “I can’t believe I picked this up in a fucking parking lot.”
Daily menus posted around 4 p.m. at gadogadopdx.com
Listen to Karen Brooks and Katherine Chew Hamilton discuss how the food scene is changing in response to the protests and the pandemic.