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With its gourmet food carts, micro distilleries, top-notch wineries and dine-out culture, Portland has become a food lovers dream destination.
First published April 2011.Portland is a gustatory phoenix, reinventing and adding to its culinary repertoire again and again. In the ’80s, the city was the epicentre of the microbrew craze; this past decade saw a surge of small-batch artisan distillers making award-winning spirits. Recently, the buzz has been about Portland’s food-cart explosion: there are over 600 carts now, offering up an array of thrifty food from escargot (made in a repurposed school bus) to authentic Northern Thai khao soi gai noodles (from a mid-century Airstream trailer).Portland’s funky carts and trendy distilleries, may be getting all the love, but it’s the city’s restaurants that blow us away. Perhaps it’s because Portland is a perfect culinary storm: take a plethora of organic farms within 40 minutes of downtown, forested foraging just outside city limits, scores of top-notch wines a stone’s throw away, a community of intrepid young chefs and an avid dine-out culture. It makes for a big city restaurant scene where you don’t have to spend a mint to get a great meal, and you certainly don’t have to dress for dinner.Here, three new restaurants that celebrate to the buy-local ethos and serve up some of the city’s best fare, from casual to elegant.Tasty n Sons 3808 N Williams Ave., Suite C, 503-621-1400Enter the cavernous industrial-chic space of Tasty n Sons and the first thing you’ll see is a 10-foot-tall blackboard listing the restaurant’s local purveyors. Take a few steps up to the long wooden bar overlooking the bustling open kitchen and grab a seat at the row of stools; it’s the best way to preview all the dishes on chef John Gorham’s long, breakfast-centric menu.Gorham, who made a name for himself at the venerated Spanish tapas restaurant Toro Bravo, creates a similar vibe—low key, long menu, shared plates, stellar locavorian fare. Instead of tapas, though, Tasty n Sons takes an around-the-world-in-40-breakfasts tack. Dishes like sweet savoury Burmese glazed pork curry on sticky rice and the shakshuka, a rich Israeli red pepper and tomato stew with baked eggs, can spark wanderlust in just one bite. There’s a behemoth of a Bloody Mary menu (go for the Belladonna—made with locally crafted Krogstad aquavit) and bite-size chocolate doughnuts drizzled with vanilla-laced crème anglais for dessert. One might loll about all day if it weren’t for that permanent line of hungry brunchers waiting for your seat.The newly added dinner menu includes the same breakfast fare, plus a long list of starters that are perfect for sharing. Standouts include the Mexican seafood salad with tender octopus bathed in a briny, mild chili-tomato sauce, and the light-as-air hush puppies with nippy jalapeño dip. But the dish most Portlanders come for is the legendary Toro Burger—a big, beefy grass-fed burger topped with housemade bacon, Manchego and smoky red pepper romesco sauce. A solid two-napkin affair, and at $9 a certified steal.Castagna 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-231-7373Castagna has been operating from the same spare, sophisticated space in the bohemian Southeast’s Hawthorne District for years, but things changed dramatically when lauded chef Matt Lightner took the helm in the fall of 2009. In a town where fleece sportswear is normal dinner attire, highly conceptualized plates of gastronomy might sink like a stone on anyone else’s watch. But Lightner’s work is positively buoyant here. The 30-year-old trained in stellar kitchens, including Mugaritz in the hills outside San Sebastian and Noma in Copenhagen, and the modernist influence is easily detected. Still, Lightner’s careful local sourcing (and foraging) gives his food a definitive sense of the Pacific Northwest.Once seated in the hushed cream and mink-hued dining room, you’ll be presented with a rather cryptic menu listing four courses with off-the-wall descriptions like “Herbs: Dungeness crab, seaweed, herb infusion.” The conceit is mildly irritating in its vagueness, but to the servers’ credit, they are expert at patiently answering questions (trust us, you’ll have many). It’s best to just let go, dive right into the four-course tasting menu, and watch the theatre unfold.The “Herbs” dish, for example, is a stunning arrangement of wild ice plant (a rare succulent) and other herbs you’ve never heard of bathed in a herbal broth that suggests both a facial and the most restorative soup you’ve ever tasted. “Pickles” is a vibrant mix of tart and crunchy vegetable ribbons set on end in a shallow bowl with rich brown butter infusion. “Figs” is actually a rare roasted elk loin on a slate slab surrounded by flavours of the forest: crushed licorice root, juniper and juicy fig pulp. The menu changes constantly, but you can count on each dish being clever (if occasionally a tiny bit twee). The wine list is likewise wonderfully eclectic in its selections.Laurelhurst Market 3155 E Burnside St., 503-206-3097Not your typical steak house. Wunderkinder Benjamin Dyer, Jason Owens and chef David Kreifels are taking the traditional steak house model and turning it on its ear: an old-fashioned butcher shop by day, casual eatery by night. Whole steers are sourced locally, broken down into primal cuts at the restaurant, and served in an unfussy, industrial space that feels more convivial brasserie than suit-and-tie venue.The beef dishes here are astounding; from the brawny bavette steak with Belgian frites and sticky-rich marchand de vin sauce to port and prune-braised short ribs, expect the lush, carnal pleasure of perfectly cooked meat. Non-bovine fare is just as memorable: the salt-cured foie gras torchon is a buttery revelation when spread on brioche toast points with a dab of housemade peach preserve. Seafood lovers will dig the giant bowls of briny mussels steamed in Belgian beer.The wine list includes a mix of fairly priced wines from France, Spain and Oregon, including Andrew Rich’s elegant ’07 Malbec, a gem that was born to partner with beef. And, this being Portland, there’s a killer cocktail list—check out Smoke Signals, a bourbon highball with smoked ice and pecan water.
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