Portland: Where Rothko and Restaurants Rule the Days
Racing around to Portland restaurants has become an annual June ritual of late, but with a rare Rothko exhibit in town until May, my partner and I were rarin’ to go to the Rose City sooner than usual this year.
Outings to the Portland Art Museum, the Lan Su Chinese Garden, and OMSI would provide immense stimulation for the eyes, while visits to bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants around town would again prove to be a feast for all the senses.
Rothko and Other Sites in the Rose City
Marcus Rothkowitz was born in Russian-controlled Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia) in 1903. Fleeing Czarist Russia, his father and eventually two brothers emigrated to the United States, settling in Portland. Marcus, along with his mother and his sister, came to the U.S. in 1913. Rothko would eventually graduate from Portland’s Lincoln High School, move to New York and become an artist, and have his first solo show in 1933—at the Portland Art Museum.
Now, nearly 80 years later, the Portland Art Museum is hosting an exhibition of 45 of Mark Rothko’s paintings, dating from the late 1920’s (including some early figurative works) to shortly before his death in 1970. One of America’s foremost artists of the twentieth century, he was typically described (much to his dismay) as an abstract expressionist. Standing before some of the large canvases, it’s hard to not be drawn in to the bold colors and the emotions that lie beneath them.
The Rothko exhibit will be at the Portland Art Museum until May 27. If you wait until the last-minute, you can also catch the start of the Portland Rose Festival.
We were too early to enjoy the glory of the International Rose Test Garden, but we did visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which is an oasis of tranquility inside the city. If you have time, you might choose to take tea here, overlooking the pavilion and the lake.
And for childhood fun, we went to OMSI: the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Here we watched Born to Be Wild, an IMAX movie about orphaned orangutans and elephants, and the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them. We also enjoyed a tour of the USS Blueback submarine, the U.S. Navy’s last non-nuclear, fast-attack submarine. The submarine was featured in The Hunt for Red October, and a tour is more fascinating than expected in learning about the seamen’s life below the sea. (Tough conditions, but the food was actually pretty good, according to the guide.) Other highlights at OMSI were an interactive wellness exhibit and an intriguing LEGO art gallery.
Restaurants Provide a Feeding Frenzy in Portland
(Note: Check the gallery, above, for lots of food photos, and more.)
The ever-increasing number of quality restaurants always makes Portland a culinary destination. Seattle’s great, no doubt. But our southern neighbor has been on the rise. In fact, for two years running, Portland has outscored Seattle in the number of nominations for James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Northwest Award.
One of the chefs is Chris Israel of Gruner, where I took a solo meal. I was struggling with order options, watching what was coming to other tables. Some portions looked small, so based on my server’s recommendation, I went with the much-talked about Gruner burger. This big boy exploded like a Mount Hood eruption, juices almost hitting the people at the adjoining table. Good flavor in the house-ground beef, though overall the burger was just a little too salty for my taste—perhaps due to the otherwise delicious Nueske bacon. The Fontina cheese was a nice addition. And I liked the fried smashed potatoes (and homemade ketchup) on the side, though three seemed just a little skimpy.
Another of Portland’s Beard-nominated chefs is Cathy Whims. Based on past experience, I knew that Nostrana is a fabulous place for Italian food, so I decided to try her new Oven & Shaker. It’s a fairly simple concept made even simpler at happy hour, when you can enjoy low-priced pizzas. How about a Nostrana salad (love the radicchio) with a Margherita pizza ($7) and one with bosc pear, taleggio, speck, and leeks? The pizzas are cracker thin, so they’re not as filling as they look. Tasty and with interesting topping options, though I recall liking the pizzas at Nostrana even better.
Incidentally, Naomi Pomeroy is the other Portland Beard nominee. I enjoyed a meal at her restaurant, Beast, during a previous visit. The same with Le Pigeon, whose chef, Gabriel Rucker, was last year’s national winner for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year. This time I checked out his new restaurant: Little Bird. It’s more of a quintessential French bistro—and it’s extremely popular, so reservations are highly recommended. My food was fabulous, particularly my porcini and black garlic soup with sage pesto, and a charcuterie plate highlighted by foie gras brulee. Amazing. So many chefs and food lovers I met in Portland rave about this charcuterie plate, and Little Bird in general.
Staying with the bird theme, another meal was at Aviary, which suffered from a kitchen fire last year but is back in business. Even with a reservation, the wait was long, but that helped me build up my appetite. The food was pretty solid, full of interesting flavor combinations—often with Asian influences. I enjoyed hamachi tartare, chestnut soup, zucchini charlotte, four cup chicken, and my favorite dish of the night: crispy pig ear with coconut rice, Chinese sausage, and avocado. This dish had lots of interesting flavors and textures. I’d like to replicate it at home, though I’d probably use regular rice instead of coconut rice for less sweetness.
I managed to save just a little stomach space for ice cream at Salt & Straw, just down the block from Aviary. Their line was long pre-dinner, and it only got worse as the night wore on, winding around the corner at the eleven o’clock hour. But I waited and was rewarded with scoops of pear with blue cheese, and honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper. This was some of the best ice cream I’ve had in ages. (Yes, I sampled their famous bone marrow and smoked cherry ice cream, but I’ll take my bone marrow straight out of the bone with parsley, thank you.)
After Oven & Shaker and Salt & Straw, it made sense to make one other “ampersanded” stop: Beaker & Flask. This late night stop offers even more fabulous food, accompanied by fascinating drinks. I enjoyed my Salt & Pepper—with gin, Peychaud’s bitters, grapefruit, lime and salted rim—and noshed on three dishes: (1) pork cheeks with braised peppers and onions, pickled octopus, and aioli, (2) fried chicken livers with radicchio, Brussels sprouts, squash, chestnut cream, and sherry gastrique, and (3) roasted cauliflower with candied hazelnuts, Calabrian chiles, and parmesan broth. That parmesan broth was packed with flavor, and my favorite dish of the group.
Late nights with drinks mean mornings with coffee, and what better place than Coava? The setting is special, the beans are the best (and always changing, depending on supply), and the workers know what they’re doing. I tried a drip coffee (La Guachoca, from El Salvador, strong with caramel and cacao notes) from their metal filter, as well as an Americano (San Rafael, from Guatemala, more fruity). Both were great. Afterward, I sent a Seattle friend who’s a finicky coffee drinker, and he’s already addicted, now ordering Coava’s beans by mail. Many people say this is the best coffee in Portland, and their awards just might prove it.
At Coava, I had a Nuvrei croissant. It was flaky, but a little soft and airy. (Maybe it wasn’t as fresh as it should have been, delivered and sitting in the case?) Far better was the almond croissant with chocolate that I got right at the Nuvrei bakery. I also tried a croissant from Little T American Baker, which was crispy on the outside, but not quite flaky or buttery enough. Better here was the kouign amman. And best was the chocolate doughnut, which the worker recommended as the best bite for anyone who likes chocolate.
I ate that doughnut right after a brunch nibble at Mi Mero Mole—the new Mexican restaurant by Nick Zukin of the beloved Kenny & Zuke’s, where I’ve had a pastrami and chopped liver sandwich in the past. At Mi Mero Mole, after much contemplation (and dismay that menudo was off the menu), I settled on a quesadilla of lengua en mole Coca Cola. The quesadilla was well-prepared, and “light” enough for me to enjoy the lengua filling, but the mole was just a touch too sweet. The worker appreciated the feedback, saying the mole is a work-in-progress. Mi Mero Mole es muy interesante, and worth watching.
For a bigger brunch one day, I went to Accanto. It’s a pleasant, cheery space for a daylight meal. Nettle soup was a good starter, followed by tripe alla Romagna with poached eggs and my favorite dish of the meal: duck hash with root vegetables, broccolini, and more poached eggs. The root vegetables were cooked just right, each bite providing a slightly different burst of flavor.
One final meal to discuss: dinner at St. Jack. This corner restaurant is extremely cozy, especially the two-top in the front window. (It was a little weird to watch the workers sit on the sidewalk smoking toward the end of the night.) It’s another Portland restaurant serving solid food, from a perfectly cooked mackerel salad starter to fried tripe with caper and red onion mayonnaise to a very rich and delicious fisherman’s stew (the trout roe in the stew completes the dish). Best of the night, though, was the Lyonnaise onion tart, with caramelized onions, leeks, and goat cheese—topped with a poached egg. The sweetness of those caramelized onions could have almost qualified this as dessert, but since the restaurant is a patisserie by day, I saved space for a fun coconut gateau with meyer lemon curd, coconut, tarragon sorbet, and blood orange supremes.
Oh…and to go? Next to Little Bird is Bunk, where I asked for a road-worthy sandwich, concerned about durability and perishability. My muffaletta was massive (see the coin for scale in the photo gallery, above), making my next leg of my trip a stomach-filled one—much like my entire time in Portland.
Rest at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower
Featuring another ampersand, the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower consists of two buildings diagonally across from each other: the Hilton Portland main building with 455 guest rooms and suites, and the Hilton Portland Executive Tower with 327 boutique-style guest rooms. The Executive Tower would be our base for stay, providing comfort and convenience. It’s an easy and free ride from the Amtrak station to the hotel (we actually walked it in about 15 minutes) using MAX Light Rail, which also provides easy 45-minute ride to the airport for $2.40. There’s no need for a car in Portland, as it’s a very walkable city, with public transportation easy to negotiate for more distant places. And just steps from the Hilton you’ll find the Portland Art Museum, Pioneer Place Shopping Mall, food carts, and plenty of restaurants.
If you don’t want to go out, there’s a restaurant in each of the Hilton buildings. Porto Terra Tuscan Grill & Bar is in the Hilton Executive Tower, while Hilton Portland is home of Bistro 921. In fact, Bistro 921 is where I was introduced to Hilton’s new national breakfast menu. Check here for photos and description of some of those dishes, as well as a few of the lunch offerings at Porto Terra.