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The bar in Little Bird in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Andrew Harper

Portland Restaurant Discoveries

By Andrew Harper

The Hideaway Report | December 7, 2017

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One of the great draws of Portland is its cuisine, whether from a gourmet food truck or a Michelin star-quality restaurant. Here, restaurants tend to be informal, though people dress stylishly when visiting the most expensive addresses. Oregon’s agricultural areas produce an array of delicious fruits and vegetables, of which chefs take full advantage. Local and seasonal produce, as you might expect, takes pride of place. Seafood also tends to be excellent. And, of course, wines from the Willamette Valley, most famously Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, now compete with the best in the world.

I found several commendable restaurants on this recent visit.

Castagna

Blistered Romano beans, sea beans and butter from <em>Castagna</em> in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Andrew Harper
Seared tuna with pattypan, sea beans and Green Zebra tomatoes from <em>Castagna</em> in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Andrew Harper

Ever since chef Justin Woodward took the helm at this fine-dining restaurant in 2013, he’s earned accolades, including four James Beard Award nominations. The white, black and wood décor is simple, verging on plain, but the jewel-like food presentations firmly held my attention. We chose the seven-course Dinner Menu, as opposed to the 12-course Chef’s Tasting Menu, and though the portions were quite small, we left feeling thoroughly satisfied. I particularly liked the smoky and citrusy blistered Romano and sea beans, delicate and fresh kohlrabi-wrapped albacore tuna with marigold, and a complex dessert of sourdough ice cream with local grapes, Thai basil and caramelized white chocolate.

Castagna
1752 SE Hawthorne Boulevard. Tel. (503) 231-7373

Higgins

Heirloom tomatoes and burrata with basil, balsamic vinegar and garlic-infused olive oil from Higgins in Portland, Oregon Photo by Andrew Harper

Two concierges recommended this Portland classic, which helped start the local seasonal-cooking movement in the city, but one food critic acquaintance called it “totally irrelevant.” Certainly, my salad of heirloom tomatoes at the peak of perfection with sweet and creamy burrata cheese wasn’t cutting-edge, nor was my main course of Oregon rockfish with grilled squash and tomatillo relish over basmati rice. But forced to make a choice, I’ll take delicious over relevant any day. The only problem was the service. After the fish arrived, our waiter studiously neglected us, and I had to flag down a woman pouring water to get our check.

Higgins
1239 SW Broadway. Tel. (503) 222-9070

Little Bird

The exterior of <em>Little Bird</em> in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Andrew Harper
Chicken-fried trout with fried caper flowers, radish slices, chives and pickled carrots from <em>Little Bird</em> in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Andrew Harper

Le Pigeon, across the river, has earned impressive awards for chef Gabriel Rucker, and it’s certainly worth adding to your Portland dining itinerary. But in search of more options downtown, I opted to try its sister restaurant, Little Bird, within walking distance of Powell’s Books, Pioneer Courthouse Square and the Lan Su Chinese Garden. This upscale French bistro occupies an old storefront space with powder-blue walls and a black pressed-tin ceiling. The food feels modern but unfussy. I loved my terrine-like appetizer of cream cheese-wrapped golden beets with al dente flageolet beans, watercress and walnuts, as well as my main of chicken-fried trout topped with fried caper flowers, radish slices and dill. An ideal lunch choice.

Little Bird
215 SW 6th Avenue. Tel. (503) 688-5952

Nomad.PDX

Heirloom tomatoes with frozen horseradish, basil, pineapple and tomato water from Nomad.PDX in Portland, Oregon Photo by Andrew Harper

After years of operating it as a supper club, chef Ryan Fox, whose résumé includes time at Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas and Portland’s Castagna, opened a permanent location for his molecular gastronomy restaurant in February. Its small Ash Bar serves inexpensive à la carte dishes, and at tables in the restaurant section, guests dine on a multicourse tasting menu. We booked a seat at the U-shaped counter facing the open kitchen. At $135 per person, it’s one of the best values for this sort of experience anywhere in the world. Chef Fox told us that the recipes were “nostalgic” for him, hearkening back to his Ohio roots. He plans on moving to a “crazier style of service” next, and I must admit I would love to see what he has up his sleeve. Some of the most beautiful dishes we tried included surf clams with ribbons of compressed cucumber, brown butter crumbs, jalapeño foam and ice plant; lutefisk-inspired salt-cured halibut in rich halibut cream with garlic meringue chips; and red wine-braised oxtail with blackberries under a veil of Parmesan cheese with shiso and magenta leaves.

Nomad.PDX
575 NE 24th Avenue. Tel. (503) 206-4085

Ox Restaurant

Oak Hall at Ashford Castle - Photo by Andrew Harper
Ragout of fava beans, zucchini, escarole, basil and mint with aged goat cheese and toasted garlic-anchovy vinaigrette from <em>Ox</em> in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Andrew Harper

Chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton won the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest, and Ox draws crowds nightly. Since reservations are not accepted, we had the choice, on the Tuesday evening we visited, of sitting at the bar immediately or waiting 90 minutes for a table. Our waiter gave us friendly, attentive service, and the bartender offered sensible advice about the wine list. I was excited to try the restaurant’s “Argentine-inspired Portland food,” prepared mostly on a dramatic wood-fired grill. The expensive skirt steak was tender and flavorful and the highlight of the meal. A salad of radicchio and green beans in a charred-onion dressing with ricotta salata and bottarga tasted fine, but the dressing — more ricotta salata than charred onion — weighed it down heavily. And a summer ragout of favas, zucchini, escarole, basil and mint was too acidic for my taste. If you want to try the Dentons’ cooking, you might have better luck at their newly opened SuperBite, which accepts reservations.

Ox Restaurant
2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Tel. (503) 284 3366

 Sneak Peek

This article appeared in The Hideaway Report, a monthly newsletters exclusively for members.

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Andrew Harper Photo Our editors write under the Andrew Harper byline so they can travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who they are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.

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