I’m not sure what the sequence was. Let’s say it was this: we were going to Bellingham, Washington for Christmas (as we usually do) and just before we left, Tom Sietsema, of The Washington Post, ranked the best food cities in America and put Portland in at number one. Since Portland’s in between Bellingham and Los Angeles, it seemed like a good idea to maybe stop over there for a few nights before coming back. I pitched it Craig. He said “sure.” And then the great work began, the work of figuring out where oh where were we going to eat.
Let me come right out of the gate and say that we made a mistake. A big one. We didn’t go to Kachka, despite everyone telling us to go to Kachka, because we really weren’t craving Russian food. And then it was just named one of the best restaurants in the United States on Eater. I guess that’s the price you pay when you don’t heed smart people’s advice.
Also, we didn’t go to some famous Portland restaurants (like Le Pigeon, for example) because they were closed while we were there.
But we made good choices! For example, that first night, we ate where we were staying–the Ace Hotel–at their in-house restaurant, Clyde Common.
If you remember my last trip to Portland back in 2011 (a work trip for my cookbook), Clyde Common is where I ate with my photographer Lizzie. I enjoyed my meal so much there then, and Clyde Common is still considered an iconic Portland restaurant, so this was kind of a no-brainer. My pictures of the food are really bad, so trust me that we really liked what we ate.
The next day, we grabbed coffee at Stumptown in the hotel and then made our way across the street to that most beloved of bookstores, Powell’s Books:
With the weather being what it was while we were there (cold and rainy), Powell’s earned more than one visit from us. You can easily spend all day there, and we did essentially do that on the Tuesday we were there. I loaded up on a bunch of books that I then shipped back home. (Including obscure books I never thought to buy before like Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother and a book of short stories by James Purdy, one of John Waters’ favorite authors.)
From Powell’s, it was off to our first Portland brunch. If you read up on Portland, you’ll quickly learn that Portlanders take brunch very seriously. There were a lot of places to choose from. I decided to defer to Tom Sietsema’s list of Portland faves (since he named it the best food city in the U.S.) and we made our way to Sweedeedee.
It’s a cute little place where you wait in line, order your food, and then you wait for a table. Luckily, despite a 45 minute wait for a table table, two spots opened up at the counter which they nicely gave us right away. My brunch pick was smoked trout with eggs, Yukon gold potatoes, and a flavorful salsa verde:
Craig went for more of a traditional breakfast with bacon, eggs, and thickly sliced brioche:
Neither completely floored us–though everything was so lovingly made–but what did floor us, and what quickly became an essential Portland bite (one you really shouldn’t miss)–was a slice of their salted honey pie (in the foreground):
The pie had two layers: a dark brown layer on top, and then a lighter, but somehow more intense, honey layer underneath–everything lifted up by salt. It was pure heaven. (Craig’s berry pie, which you can see in the background, was pretty good too.)
That night’s the night we should’ve gone to Kachka. We spent the day walking around Portland–down Mississippi Avenue, over to the Southeast where there was another Powell’s (which we also spent time in, we’re nerds)–and then off to dinner at Aviary.
I picked Aviary because it was listed as #5 on Oregon Live’s 101 Best Portland Restaurants, which seemed really carefully researched and written by food critic Michael Russell. Restaurants 1 through 4 were all closed or booked while we were there, so Aviary seemed our best option for Monday night’s dinner.
I absolutely loved the oysters with tomato granite and horseradish (sorry for the blurriness):
And the charred octopus with molten ricotta pudding was a totally unexpected combination that really worked:
But overall, something about the space (very spare and neutral) and the eclecticness of the menu, made it feel like it could exist in any city anywhere. Which isn’t really a knock against it, it just amplifies my view that we should’ve gone to Kachka–which seems much more unique.
Luckily, if uniqueness was what we were looking for, we stumbled upon it the next day when we had brunch at Maurice (see lead picture). What a quirky restaurant. Close to our hotel, and right next to Powell’s, it couldn’t have been more convenient.
Everything about Maurice was adorable. From the hand-written menu, to the four women working there who flitted from behind the counter (where eggs were poached effortlessly on an electric stove) to the dining room, where dainty portions of food were served on precious little plates. This was a restaurant straight out of Portlandia, but a less aggressive Portlandia–like Portlandia as written by Jane Austen.
As much as we loved the feel of the place, and the energy of the staff, the service was painfully slow. Instead of letting it bother us, though, we just leaned into it. After all, it was cold and rainy outside: where else did we have to go besides Powell’s books? So we accepted that it would take a very long while to get our shaved carrot salad with parsley leaves and prunes:
That was light and lovely; as was this dish of small shrimp on toast with beets, written on the menu above as Smobuzl with Skagen (at least that’s how I see it).
The red beets with smoked salmon and pear was a definite highlight:
Look how artful everything is, everything “just so.”
And because Maurice is a bakery, we couldn’t leave without a pastry. I opted for this:
I forget what it was. But I loved it.
And then, before we knew it, it was our last night in Portland. This dinner I was more confident about: Ava Gene’s was named the #5 Best Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit in 2013. (Wow, we were really into #5 restaurants on this trip.) It was also singled out in the Tom Sietsema article and it was restaurant of the year in Portland Monthly, also in 2013. So this seemed like a winner for sure.
And a winner it was. The atmosphere was warm and lovely and it felt very Portlandish to me (whatever that means):
The menu was pasta-heavy, which is always a plus for me. We started with burrata, dates,
marmellata squash, and nuts:
Then Pane with sheep’s milk ricotta, squash, walnuts, chiles, which was weirdly similar but no less delicious:
The star of the show, though, and the BEST THING WE ATE IN PORTLAND (oh yes, all-caps worthy) was this salad of apples, root vegetables, and ricotta:
I can’t tell you how good this was. There was something so beguilingly delicious about it, I had to ask a server for more info about what we were eating. He explained that the thing that made it so good was the olive oil; “Olio Nuovo,” I believe he said it was. Fresh-pressed with lots of green bits still in it, which mixed with the ricotta which mixed with the salad, and it was all so heavenly. I need to get some Olio Nuovo stat.
As for the rest of our meal, it was very good. I enjoyed my fussili with kale pesto, though it reminded me of something I could make for myself at home:
And Craig felt the same way about his pasta, which looks like pappardelle with some kind of ragu:
For dessert, we shared the panna cotta with pine cone syrup:
That pine cone syrup tasted exactly what you’d want a pine cone syrup to taste like. Woodsy, piney, wintery.
It was a great final bite to our favorite dinner in Portland.
On our last day, that Wednesday, we grabbed brunch at Tasty & Alder which came recommended by several friends.
The griddle banana bread with cajeta knocked our socks off:
Salty, sweet, excellent.
But then a service snafu sort of spoiled our brunch. We each ordered the cowboy breakfast which came heavily recommended by the waiter: skirt steak, baked beans, salsa.
Indeed, it was a tremendous plate of food–both in taste and size. Only, despite ordering two, we only got one. So I gave it to Craig and then tried to flag down a waiter to see what was going on with mine. That took some effort, then by the time they put the order in for my Cowboy Breakfast (turns out the waiter never heard me place my order), Craig was pretty much done with his plate. So he sat for a long while we waited for mine to come out. By the time it did, we were pretty ready to go, so I rushed through it. As a nice gesture, though, the restaurant gave us free Brussels sprouts which were indeed tasty (and alder):
And that was pretty much it for our trip to Portland.
Do I think, like Tom Sietsema, that it’s the best restaurant city in the country? Well, without getting myself into too much trouble, I think L.A. is a better restaurant city than Portland right now, at least based on these meals. (Hey, I’m not alone, Bill Addison at Eater says the same thing.) Recent meals at Night Market Song, Cassia, Bestia, and Broken Spanish were all more memorable and exciting than anything we ate in Portland, salted honey pie and Ava Gene’s salad, notwithstanding.
That said, we had a swell time on our three-day jaunt and I’d love to go back to Portland in the spring, when the weather’s nicer and we can experience more of the local bounty–and also more of the outdoorsy stuff. There’s only so much time you can spend at Powell’s.