Thursday, June 21, 2007

Eating in Portland

Fried egg and greens, Toro Bravo

NINE DAYS IN PORTLAND but only four restaurants and two bakeries to report—and that in a cursory manner, if you don't mind.

June 9: after Simon's graduation we all went to Lovely Hula Hands (4057 N Mississippi; 503.445.9910; tu-su 5-10; no reservations accepted)—nine of us, across three generations, all gathered at a big table in a comfortable storefront sort of dining room out on trendy but by no means yuppified North Mississip'.

And here I had the best Spaghetti Carbonara I've had this side of Rome. The pasta was perfectly cooked; the pancetta just present enough; the egg exactly the right consistency. Cooked right, this has to be one of the all-time classic Hundred Best Recipes. Here it is cooked right.

June 10: Party all afternoon: cake and cookies and such. Not the best way to nourish yourself, but it's not every year you can celebrate a family high-school graduation. That evening, pizza ordered in from someplace near, eaten in front of the television set. Cubs won.

June 11: Giovanna and Pavel having gone out for the evening, we took the kids to Toro Bravo (120 NE Russell St.; (503) 281-4464; Tue – Thu, Sun: 5-10, Fr-Sat5– midnight, M closed.). The restaurant's website is under construction, but you can read about the place in an online review.

(This website, by the way, is a promising resource for Portland diners, with 75 or 80 restaurant menus at your disposal, and reviews gathering seemingly endless chains of comments. I'm bookmarking it in my Travel folder.)

Here we opened with pinchos, small appetizer dishes: toasted almonds with sea salt; boquerones in what would be called saor in Venice; and bread with butter and olive oil, along with a glass of white. We went on to tapas: "Singing Pig Greens" (some kind of bitter leafy green) with grilled asparagus, chopped eggs and hazelnuts; salt cod Fritters with aioli; more boquerones with toasted bread and piperade; patatas bravas; soft polenta with red and green salsas; tortilla española (which I only now realize is what Dad attempted, sixty years ago, with his "Spanish omelets"); a lamb chop; and memory fails to recall what-all else.

And I have to disagree with many observations on the website above referred to when it comes to desserts. We had panna cotta which I think must be allowed into the Spanish repertoire, and it was first-rate. We had the olive-oil cake and I liked it very much; try the one in Lindsey's book to get an approximation. Simon had the cheese plate; and we all shared ice cream in sherry, a much nicer thing than you miight think and a perfectly appropriate dessert in a tapas joint.

Toro Bravo is barely open, and it's very popular. But it is neither horribly expensive nor horribly loud; just another fine neighborhood destination. Lucky Portlanders.

June 12: dinner at home: pasta dressed with anchovies and olive oil and black pepper. That Hundred Best list will have to be kept in a bottomless box.

June 13: dinner with two other couples at Castagna (1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd; (503) 231-7373; W-Sa 5:30 on). Here Lindsey and I began with zuppa primavera: broth with asparagus, cardoon, peas, spring onion, lardo, olive oil and parmesan cheeese; she went on to sautéed sea scallops with porcini and fennel; I to lamb chops Milanese with an artichoke, fava bean and spring onion salad. "Milanese" here means battered, breaded, and fried, a curious treatment you might think for lamb chops, but delicious.

Desserts? Hazelnut-praline semifreddo with chocolate sauce; dark chocolate, caramel and cashew tart with rum mousseline. State of the art.

June 14: Braised chard and chickpeas at home, then out for desserts at Blue Hour (250 NW 13th Ave.; 503-226-3394; lunch M-F; brunch Su; dinner 4:30-on). Why? Because the new pastry chef, Jehnee Raines, just moved up from Berkeley, where she'd been at Chez Panisse for a while, and she invited us.

We had buttermilk panna cotta with poached rhubarb and cornmeal shortbread ; a triangular passion fruit and strawberry bombe/semifreddo with strawberries; caramel and deep chocolate tartletwith espresso ice cream; jasmine tea sherbet with pearl tapioca and huckleberry coulis; various cookies and candies; and an affogato with very delicately flavored cinnamon ice cream. With them, a bottle of very lightly sparkling moscato; and with the tartlet, as deep and succulent a dessert as I've had in years, Pavel and I shared a glass of Maker's Mark.

I don't often apply the word "decadent" to the act of eating, but I suppose one can make exceptions. Jehnee is a fine pastry chef, and each of these desserts, with their unique plays on the standard repertoire, was well executed, unblemished, memorable.

June 15: Dinner at home: a beautiful vitello rotellino bought at Pastaworks on Hawthorne Street. Veal flank, I imagine, rolled with pancetta; lots of herb flavor; deep meat flavor. Excellent.

June 16: A light supper at home: risotto. Another Hundred Best.

June 17: Lunch of sorts, not that we needed it, in a wonderful little place called The Busy Corner (4927 SE 41st Ave,; (503) 777-5101; 7am-7pm daily, closed 2-4pm for siesta; Friday dinner by reservation only, at 7:30pm). No website; online review here. What a sweet spot: a corner grocery store in a residential neighborhood, turned into a café-lunchcounter-beerandwinebar, with a few provisions still in place—baskets of potatoes and little cabbages and onions; shelves of olive oils and mustards and soups.

Provender is carefully chosen here. The tap beer is the Italian Moretti, a favorite of mine; among the oils was a liter of brass-green oil from the West Bank. This is a workingclass hangout, and if I lived within twenty blocks I'd be there most days.

Then supper at home: sausages and potato salad, for which I made the mayonnaise (a two-yolk one).

IN BETWEEN ALL THESE PLACES we made the usual trips to cafés and bakeries. My love affair with Portland coffees has cooled since Starbucks's purchase and susequent closure of Torrefazione: Ristretto is too bitter; Stumptown too harsh. The neighborhood Torrefazione has been reborn, after a few months as an empty shop, as Segafredo Zanetti Espresso, and it's pleasant enough, and the coffee is decent—not as bland as Illy, though perhaps not quite as personable as Lavazza.

But the bakeries! We get our bread and gibassiers at Pearl; and our cannelés and bread at Ken's. Any city could do perfectly well with just one of these establishments; Portland has both.

Pearl opened in 1997, quickly establishing itself as a major bakery anywhere. This was a little late in the Bread Revolution, which began in my consciousness with Acme in Berkeley and Gayle's in Capitola—bakeries deliberately trying to bring Paris's Poilâne-style levain to the United States. In Portland we'd limped by with earlier Revolutionaries, some still extant: Grand Central and Marsee's are still in business, I think. Pearl swept the aside, as far as we're concerned.

Bakeries are of course individual tastes. Any town no matter how small needs at least two, just as it needs at least two cafés, and for the same reason: competition discourages complacency. Then the town divides between the two. For positive reasons of taste and interest (and, let's face it, economy) or for negative ones like lack of discernment or simple proximity, townspeople gravitate to one or the other. One will always be blander, to my taste; the other subtler.

To make things more interesting yet, each bakery may develop its own little specialty not to be found at the other. This is why we buy gibassiers at Pearl: Ken does not make them. They are little cakes, I suppose, flavored with orange-flower water and anise and very discreet amounts of candied orange peel and dusted with granulated sugar; and they always take me to Nice when I bite into one. They are delicious with tea.

Ken's Artisan Bakery (338 NW 21st Avenue/Flanders; 503.248.2202) came later, maybe three or four years ago. I ran into the owner on Monday when I stopped by for a three-kg boule to bring down here to Ashland, and we had a short conversation. I admire him; you can see why by reading his thoughts On Tinkering and Repetition. His bread is, I think, together with Steve Sullivan's at Acme, the best there is in the United States, unless Joe Ortiz himself is manning the bread oven at Gayle's. (Bread is a living creature and responds to the zen-mind as well as the hand of its maker.)

Cannalés are—well, what are they? Something like popovers, long cooked ones, crisp on the outside, soft inside. They get their name, I suppose, from their method of manufacture: they rise or extrudee or are channeled (canalized) from small individual molds. Lindsey, who should know, says they're hard to make. Jean-Pierre Moullé, one of the co-chefs downstairs at Chez Panisse, always wanted her to make them; they're perhaps a Normand specialty. They are delicious and I know of no other place to buy them.

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