Our Restaurant of the Year, República, came out swinging as Portland’s ambitious new frontier of Mexican-forward food—traditional and modern, breakfasts to guisado lunches to choreographed tasting-menu dinners. It was one of five restaurants that blended point of view, personal worlds, and culinary chutzpah into the year's best new dining experiences. This year's standouts included a playful Korean brunch, neo-bistro dishes right out of Paris, a new kind of homey chic, and a singular blend of Chinese Malaysian barbecue and stoner food fun.
One night, new St. Jack chef John Denison—Portland Monthly's Best New Chef of 2021—loomed over my outdoor table, full of anticipation, ready to show his art. He suggested his latest creation, a foie gras and beef tongue terrine. “It’s really good,” he beamed. I shrugged and ordered that old St. Jack standby: steak frites. Denison’s shoulders cratered, deflated. I felt as if I had just shivved a soufflé.
You know how basketball players silently mouth the words “my bad” after missing a critical shot? That’s me. The steak is fine: crispy edged, juicy, boring. The terrine, turns out, is electrifying, backed by green apple salad and mustard in various guises, including the candied seeds. It looks like poetry and tastes like crazy pastrami butter.
Welcome to the new St. Jack. Cling to the old ways if you like, but at age 11, the restaurant is now a must-know, must-go situation. Prepandemic, Denison was head chef at Paris’s casual-serious Ellsworth (an offshoot of cult spot Verjus), and it shows. The mode is now neo-bistro, classically rooted but lighter, fresher, freer.
The menu lets loose some dishes rarely seen outside of France, among them pithivier, an intricate meat-filled pastry dome dating back to the 17th century. This being Portland, limited orders are made daily; keen eaters arrive at the AARP hour, 5 p.m., lest they miss out. Mushroom vol-au-vent is typical of the new school, a garden of seasonal leaves exploding, volcano-like, out of crackly pastry vases. I flipped for Denison’s take on gougères—a gush of hot gruyère cheese hides inside while the top is encrusted in sweet shortbread pastry dough. As one kitchen cook put it, “This is the best Ritz cracker I’ve ever eaten.” In Denison’s hands, it’s only the appetizer. 1610 NW 23rd Ave, stjackpdx.com, @stjackpdx —KB
What is Toki? Depends on the day. A new definition of brunch: Korean, Japanese, TikTok trends? A restaurant of the future where everyone, workers to eaters, feels part of the family? The home of a groundbreaking double cheeseburger hidden, secret sauce and all, inside a pinched bao bun?
This much is clear: Toki makes soulful, craveable things you won’t find elsewhere, and makes them especially at brunch, in a chill, inclusive hang. Hard-whipped Korean dalgona coffee sports a thick, creamy pompadour and enough caffeine to hot-wire a car. The “KimCheese” and pork belly ho-dduk welds an entire force field of thin, crispy cheese onto the bottom of a Korean street food pancake. Fantastic. On the opposite end, a classic Japanese breakfast of mackerel, pickles, rolled omelet, and rice is presented, quietly and lovingly, on a wood tray. Meanwhile, the kitchen is diving into yoshoku, the art of Japanese reimagined Western foods found in the likes of omurice, which parks kimchi fried rice and Spam beneath a sheet of “tornado”-swirled eggs, a crazy-rich butter-egg sauce, and stripes of ketchup and Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce.
Beautiful chaos is what you’d expect from Peter Cho and Sun Young Park, whose acclaimed Han Oak in Northeast is both a house party and a way of life. Toki, opened in downtown last winter, is just emerging from its takeout box beginnings. Already, we feel part of something here, a philosophy, an inspired food culture. Cho’s message to chef Scotty Iijima: “Just make the stuff you want to eat.” So far, it’s working. 580 SW 12th Ave, tokipdx.com, @tokipdx —Karen Brooks
After a pandemic hiatus, some restaurants reopened with virtually the same menu, as if time merely froze for a year. At Oma’s Hideaway, that would spell the end of thinking and being. Since opening in May (itself a reinvention of pandemic pop-up-turned-restaurant Oma’s Takeaway), favorite dishes are routinely ousted like Survivor contestants, making room for new ideas that spill compulsively from the minds of Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly, creators of the acclaimed Gado Gado. The thrust is nominally Malaysian Chinese, jumping off Thomas’s memories of foods and flavors shared with his “oma.” But Oma’s world also flickers seamlessly with complex sambals, stoner food fun, and Indonesian psychedelic rock. It adds up to one of Portland’s best nights out, in doom times or boom times.
Scan the glass barbecue case for daily inspirations, char siu pork to Chinese duck sausages. The buttery, rip-apart roti tastes like some giant croissant in the sky. A cheesy variation may be in the future, oozing with decadent, pungent French Epoisses cheese. Seriously interested.
My latest fixation is Oma’s funky, herbaceous steak tartare crowned in candied anchovies and salted egg yolk, scooped up with jumbo shrimp chips. Meanwhile, a righteous classic cheeseburger hides here, with bonuses: house chile jam and a bun toasted up in lime-leaf coconut butter. Fall’s hot seller? Sweet potato dumplings in green curry. Might vegan dishes be Oma’s next freewheeling frontier? 3131 SE Division St, omashideaway.com, @omashideaway —KB
Say goodbye to Sweedeedee’s famous corn cakes and honey pie. Along with chef Sam Smith, formerly of Tusk and Ava Gene’s, Sweedeedee founder Eloise Augustyn has transformed this former breakfast-brunch spot into a fresh new restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner for patio dining and takeout.
Dinner surprises and delights from the get-go. When was the last time your cheese plate came with honeyed walnuts and house-made seeded crackers, or your salami plate with house spicy olives? Mains might include a velvety maccheroni alla vodka with olive oil–drenched bread crumbs on top, or a homey half roast chicken. In Smith’s signature veggie-forward style, you could build a whole dinner of seasonal salads teeming with herbs and olive oil. Summer brings plump heirloom tomatoes with fresh corn and roasted Padrón peppers; in fall, find borlotti beans with pickles and crunchy veggies. And it’s nearly impossible to choose between pastry chef Mason Suda’s peach-carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, coconut cream pie with salty-buttery graham cracker crust, and corn-blackberry trifle.
The ingredients change often, but they’re always bright and buzzing, delivered against the restaurant’s crisp, clean backdrop and served with natural wine. The salads make a great quick lunch, as do simple sandwiches like eggplant and fresh mozz on oily focaccia. And should you find yourself at Sweedeedee for brunch, new favorites like flaky honey-pistachio rolls and a front-runner for the city’s best French toast rule the menu. Is there anything Sweedeedee can’t do? 5202 N Albina Ave, sweedeedee.com, @sweedeedeepdx —KCH