Friday, May 7, 2010

The best food in Portland, bar none

Portland has a reputation as a great food town, which is presumably why the International Association of Culinary Professionals chose it as the site for their 2010 convention last month. As I wrote earlier, you'd never know that from the food that was served to us, which pretty much had me screaming for something edible by the second day. But the first day was great because we were on our own, traipsing the town, and enjoying this Land of the Nice.

The first day we landed, the weather was beautiful, and even Mt. Hood sported a little mushroom cap of clouds (above). 

 Food was in the air, and we were convinced we had landed in culinary nirvana. After checking in to our hotel (the fantastic RiverPlace) and scoping out the convention hotel, our first stop was at a nearby row of carts parked in an empty lot on SW 5th between Oak and Stark. The smell of good food hovered in the air and lines were snaking out across the sidewalk on a Monday afternoon. Something was going on here that we definitely had to try. We traipsed over with happy steps and checked out the offerings.
Culinary nirvana in a cart

JH, as always, was firmly in favor of breakfast, as this involves eggs, and there is little that he likes better than eggs, ice cream, and doughnuts. He should look like the Michelin Man and have a nosebleed cholesterol count, but his is a constitution that continues to defy logic and science. So we hauled ourselves up in front of the BrunchBox, a tiny little container with two more of those nice Portlanders stuffed inside. JH got a breakfast sandwich with a vegetarian sausage and scrambled eggs, and it was very good.

My Reuben veggie burger, though, was off the hook. Sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, Swiss cheese, and a really crispy and hot veggie burger nestled up together to form the best burger I've ever had, with the exception of one of Grandma B's circa 1965 burgers barbecued on a hibachi that today has all the sensory baggage of Proust's famous madeleine. That juicy burger brushed with some sort of bottled sauce was probably the only thing I remember eating with supreme and unbridled passion in my childhood; unfortunately, it was a one-shot deal and Grandma never managed to recreate it in spite of my persistent begging. But that was then. Back in Portland, dressing was dribbling down my front, messing up my new scarf, and making me look disreputable, yet I was beyond caring. That's what hotel washbasins and those little bars of soap are for anyway, right?

Nostrana Restaurant
We then wandered up to Powell's, Portland's gigantic bookstore. Four floors of an enormous building with nothing but used and new books filling up the place. JH suddenly knew where he'd be for the duration of my convention. After a couple of hours of picking out books, we realized that we should probably head out for our dinner reservation at Nostrana, and since on the map at least it looked pretty close, we ambled down toward the designated area. Nostrana was nowhere to be found. I buttonholed yet another nice native, who pointed out that we were looking for SE Morrison, but were on SW Morrison. Oh. Is the restaurant far away, we asked. About 30 blocks. No streetcars going out that way, and besides we were early, so what the heck, let's walk it.

Over an hour later and after about five total hours of walking that day, we straggled into Nostrana's welcoming arms. Deborah Madison had recommended this place highly, and Deborah knows her stuff. This is -- without exception or qualification of any kind -- the best food in Portland, perhaps in the Northwest. Nostrana was even a finalist for this year's James Beard Foundation award, it's that good.

Scamorza cheese gone to heaven
We mentioned that Deborah had told us we had to eat there, and suddenly the red carpet rolled out, the waiters stood a little taller, and soon the chef herself, the remarkable Cathy Whims (left), appeared. If this is VIP treatment, please sign me up for life. Cathy learned under two of the cooking world's greatest culinary mavens, Marcella Hazan and Madeleine Kamman, and her restaurant is an ode to Marcella. The name of her restaurant comes from Marcella's autobiography, Amarcord, and even the menu has little clues to this influence, like "Marcella's No. 2 tomato butter sauce," sprinkled about.

The chef sent out some starters that included roasted olives with possibly the most amazingly delicious lemon peel I've ever tasted. The peel melted in my mouth and was slightly sour, slightly salty, slightly oily, and totally delicious. I could have made a meal out of just those peels, some bread, and a nice wine. Next up was a sampling of three little dishes called La Cucina Povera, or the poor kitchen. 
Our culinary hero, Cathy!

 The ingredients may have been humble -- nettles, leftover risotto, raw asparagus -- but they were sublime. The nettles were especially delicious, chopped finely and baked in a tender custard that had me longing for much, much more. We had a series of other generously sized "small plates," but the one that knocked it out of the park was the scamorza cheese melted in their pizza oven over roasted shiitake mushrooms and served with bruschetta (right). The smoke from the oven infused each luscious bite. It was no longer just food -- it was a sensual experience.

A homemade pasta dish and a lovely rhubarb crisp followed, but in all honesty we were too full to really appreciate them. Next time. Next time for sure.

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