I would declare Portland a great food town, scream its praises from the rooftops, solely based on the culinary treats I enjoyed this weekend, if it weren’t for one thing: Vegans EVERYWHERE!
We hadn’t been there but 45 minutes before we had our first run in. When we arrived in Portland we went directly to the Pine State Biscuits stand at the farmer’s market for some delicious sustenance, unfortunately due to the lines it was nearly half an hour before we were fed. Sun-baked and hungry we found a nice patch of grass and nearly-literally inhaled our “Reggie”, a biscuit sandwich of fried chicken, cheese, bacon and gravy. As we ate, I noticed a tiny middle-aged man looking malnutritioned and eying us angrily as we grubbed down (truly no other word for it). With the bug eyes and pale cheeks of a person who shuns animal products, he spooned his “Yummy” (that’s the stand’s name, seriously) vegan curry into his mouth with out moving his evil glare. Now I might take the occasional moment to glare at a wayward vegan, but this was over the top and uncalled for. Luckily the glory of my biscuit was unaffected–it was perfectly crispy chicken, creamy, wonderful gravy and a warm fluffy biscuit, there was not much to complain about, other than the wait. As good as it was, I’m not sure it was worth the wait. I know, I wait for food all the time, but there was something unending about this line, uncomfortable about the location of it, it was simply unpleasant.
There was little else to complain about at the market though, as we danced from stall to stall picking up vegetables and meats that are harder to find at our markets: Padron peppers, venison pate, saucisson sec, buffalo shortribs, rockfish, all sorts of delights. We popped back to our hotel for a quick rest and it was back out.
You can tell a lot about a city by walking through it, and on our walk from the hotel to Ten-01, we found a lot of Vegan Organic delis, vegan pizza and even a vegan shoe store (one of two I spotted this weekend). Luckily Ten-01 was as far from vegan as possible, so we sidled up to the bar and picked our beverages. Following a recommendation, I had a delightful drink that was perfect for the afternoon–it was not on their happy hour menu, but the bright yellow of my Ile-de-France was a sunny way to make me happy. With champagne, cognac and yellow chartreuse, this was enough to cheer me back up after having been dragged, empty handed, kicking and screaming, from the food section of the Powell’s Books next door. Since it was happy hour, we ordered a few of the $1 oysters to go with. I often say an oyster is best undressed, but I had to admit that the jalapeno mignonette these were served with was perfectly nuanced to match and to never overwhelm the oyster. I asked where these were from. “Penn Cove” The server answered, “In B.C.” Oops. She shouldn’t have kept going. “Penn Cove’s in Washington” I answered, possibly before I could modify my voice tone. As the embarrassed server slunk away, B asked me “Is it hard knowing everything?” Yes, folks, it is!
After the rather large beverage at Ten01, we continued on to Higgins, a pleasant walk through the sunshine away. Here we had been told to order the charcuterie plate and cocktails, so we obliged. With a heavy wooden bar, mirrored behind and just a little dusky, even in the light of day, this place oozed old school charm. After being told there was no cocktail menu, I ordered a Martini. It was the only appropriate drink for this place. Okay, or a Manhattan, maybe. Places like this often serve stale food–menus that don’t seem to have changed with the ages, but that was not the case here. First sign things were going well was the bread brought to us with their house brand olive oil. While I behaved myself and did not drink this straight from the bottle, I cannot lie: I did debate it. But the real treat was when our housemade charcuterie plate arrived on its elegant marble slate, thinly sliced pieces of preserved meat here and there, the dark red of the salami, the bright white of the lardo, like a checkerboard painted by Picasso. Each piece was spectacular, totally unlike any other and incredibly flavored. There was no over-salting or under-flavoring. I was floored. Peeling that thin slice of lardo (cured pork fat), one side cool from the marble, and letting it melt softly onto my tongue, disappearing into a meaty memory, was so extraordinary that I am having trouble describing the feeling without making this blogpost very dirty.
Leaving Higgins and feeling decidedly sorry for the vegans at this point, for living life with out ever knowing the pleasure of eating lardo, we hopped in the car for a trip to Pok Pok. I had heard of Pok Pok for years and was especially interested in trying this authentic food since a recent journey in search of good Kao Soy in Seattle had left me, literally, with a bad taste in my mouth. While we waited in the sun by their outdoor to-go shack, I popped into the dining room to use the ladies room. I came back out. “It smells like Thailand in there” I tittered excitedly to B. Moments later, having poked his head in, he smiled in agreement. It is hard to say much about Pok Pok that hasn’t already been said, so I won’t dwell here, but suffice it to say, next time I get a Kao Soy and green papaya salad craving, I’m pointing the compass southward.
Finally it was time for the main meal of the night. Depositing the car back at the hotel, we walked over to B’s friends house, across the street from our next destination, a tiny Japanese/Korean restaurant called Tanuki. “No Sushi, No Kids” read the sign out front. I like a restaurateur who can declare their desires, much like the “We cannot accommodate vegetarians” note on David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar menu. While they don’t take reservations, I had emailed with the chef and let her know we were coming in. They offer omakase (Chef’s choice) on the menu, you can just pick your price and they’ll serve it up. We asked what a good amount was and she seemed to feel at $25 a person we would be more than pleased and quite stuffed. Accompanied by an unpasteurized sake, we worked our way through courses of some of the best uni I’ve ever had, skewers of scallops and beef, an incredible blood sausage and more. Despite our repeated requests, the courses came quickly at first, which was overwhelming. When they finally slowed down, it became clear they were done with us–a noodle dish was followed by a rice dish, and then with the arrival of the second rice dish in a row we waved the white flag. As we lingered over our final courses, I listened to the interaction the girl at the next table was having with the waitress. “Do you have anything vegan?” she asked. The waitress ran back to check with the chef. “Just the edamame and the rice balls” she reported back. The vegan started to get indignant, as her friend clearly got more embarrassed. The friend ordered two meaty dishes. The vegan begged for special treatment, and upon realizing she wasn’t going to get any, decided to just not eat at all. The friend, I noted, didn’t seem to have a qualm in the world about digging in. Perhaps the sign out front should read “No Sushi, No kids, No vegans.”
We were no longer walking at this point in the night, but rather waddling, distended tummies leading the way. I sized up the Teardrop lounge, begging myself for the stomach space for just one fabulous cocktail. When it came time to place my order I asked the waitress for something “digestif-y” to cure what ailed me. She passed it onto the bartender and while she was too busy to tell me what was in it, this raspberry and blackberry garnished cocktail was a miracle worker. No longer feeling painfully full, as we finished our beverages, I turned to B, “You ready for Voodoo Donuts?”
Yes, we walked to the donut shop and stood in line for 15 minutes in the middle of the night for two fabulous donuts. Yes, they were pricey, and no the donut itself might not have been that much better than any other donut, but what can I say, the maple bacon donut was good. I’m a sucker for a maple bar in the first place, and adding bacon certainly didn’t hurt anything. Our other donut seemed to involve chocolate and peanut butter as well as its defining characteristic, the Rice Crispies on top. It was good. The crunch of the crispies on top of the soft donut, it was, in fact the perfect way to end a night, strolling through downtown Portland, crunching on doughnuts on the walk back to the hotel.
Bright and early the next morning, we were back at it again, this time at Beast for a four course, $28 brunch, set menu, no substitutions. As we sat, coffee, water and juice arrived promptly, helping to cure what ailed ya, just before you turn over your menu and see that for $22 more dollars you can add a wine pairing. They bring you up, then they knock you right back down. Yes, please, we said. As everyone arrived I noticed a girl being brought in to her group by her boyfriend who then left. “Maybe he’s vegan?” I said to B. We discussed the entertainment that a vegan trying to eat at Beast would offer, but we soon realized we should have kept it down: another woman in that group WAS a vegetarian, methodically picking the bacon off our brown butter crepes and the shortribs out of our hash. I rolled my eyes as I indulged in the tender meat, wrapped in flavors of the poached egg and hollaindaise sauce atop it. Course three was a brilliantly arranged cheese plate with perfectly dressed greens, followed by a sweet corn pannacotta with blackberry sauce that gave new meaning to seasonal food–as in that dish WAS summer, in all its glory.
With no rest for the weary, we had one final meal to go to before ducking out of town. Two years ago, on a previous trip I had attempted to go to Le Pigeon and had been turned away, as they would be closed by the time my 2.5 hour wait would be over. This time I smartened up and made a reservation for one of the seated tables. The fresh, creative flavors of our hamachi crudo with shrimp and shiitake salad brought to mind Anchovies and Olives, while the unabashed lack of subtlety of the steak over duck fat potatoes reminded me of Quinn’s. In truth, though, Le Pigeon exceed both of those in craft and in presentation. Each dish that was brought to us was surprising, it challenged flavors and the visuals were unlike any other. Our dish of peach and beef heart came with the beef inside the peach and the outside wrapped in what I’m guessing was caul fat, afloat in a delicate consomme. Remember earlier when I mentioned I didn’t think my Pine State Biscuit was worth the half hour wait? Well, I have to say that my Le Pigeon meal was worth every day of the two year wait.
As we drove out of Portland waving goodbye to the temples of carnivorism and the vegan delis alike, I thought about how I always joke with the guys that work where my day job does the catering. “If it weren’t for us having to do vegan menus every day, that much more money would go into your meat dishes” So Portland, perhaps if less thought was going into vegan food, you could aspire to even greater levels of culinary delights. In the meantime, I gotta say, I’m not complaining.