This season head to the Pacific Northwest to Seattle and to sister city Portland where farm-to-table and locally sourced has long been a given, not a new found fad. These cities are serious about food and committed to local wines, distilleries, craft brews and their cocktail culture.
This is as foodie and cocktail driven a scene as you'll find in New Orleans -- with less heat and more rain -- and as bar star and chef driven as New York -- with the best bites and booze for a fraction of the Manhattan price. So get ready to tipple and dig in. Forks and corks up an off!
Driving from Seattle to Portland with my Seattle-based mate was a bit of an homage to the '90s. He's always been obsessed with Mariah and I a bit of Madonna wanna. Like a vintage VJ, he dissected every M & M song on the ride in, while I shimmied to the dashboard. In between beats, he gave me the low down on Portlandia, the new TV show about Portland, its inability to let go of the '90s and the local obsession with putting a bird on it. And so the scene was set.
A Quick Tipple
After a quick check in to the uber chic Nines Hotel, not to be confused with The Nineties, in downtown Portland, we set out to explore Portland's forks, corks and cocktails. Our official culinary and cocktail tour kicked off the next morn, but we started by shooting from the liquid hip that night. I ran to Clyde Common, home of the famed Barrel Aged Cocktails. It was the first libation I wanted to touch my quenched lips in Portlandia. At the bar we were privy to a Barrel aged Manhattan and a circle of thirsty locals as serious about sipping as we were.
Clyde Common's bar manager and liquid luminary Jeffrey Morganthaler put the barrel aged process on the cocktail map. Just as individual spirits are barrel aged to perfection, Morganthaler pushed the classic cocktail envelope by barrel aging the complete cocktail as a whole, a Manhattan in this case in Madeira oak casks. After a few runs, he found five-to-six weeks to be his sweet spot.
The finished product is a Manhattan with a soft and sensual finish with hints of smoke, caramel, char and wine thanks to the casks. I topped my Manhattan with his bourbon renewal cocktail, which I'm still thinking about. It's by far one of my favorite cocktails ever.
My friend, an ex-Portlander, suggested Saucebox after our initial liquid line up, one of his blasts from the past. We started with a lip puckering lilokoi sour that went down way too fast. We borderline fought over it. Then we went with their "suggested taste" menu, which had an odd amount of opa; the final bite of beef cheeks managed to redeem the meal. Cocktails came throughout including a full sake flight and rum-driven drinks served in pineapples, which were impressive throughout.
Breakfast, Or Portland Puts An Egg On It
Monday morn, we were ready to embark on a 24-hour booze-infused foodie fest. After a fresh and very detoxifying juice at Portland's Monday morning farmers market and a coffee at a local downtown café, the kind that the Pacific Northwest is known for -- with a staff that made LA look un-inked -- we made our way to Northern Portland, but not before passing many, as in an inordinate amount of homeless youth.
Apparently, they are well supported by the city, which is why they head there in droves with a guitar, a dog and an odd sense of entitlement. They were well-dressed Portlandia-style, with kilts and dreads in their beards and had an attitude as if their artistic and anti-establishment pursuits were our, the passersby responsibility. I'm all about raging against the machine and I'm a huge fan of supporting artistic endeavors, but they were rude, righteous and appeared to be able to make a living -- but opted not to. Once we climbed through that crowd's sidewalk sneers, we were off.
We popped across town to Northern Portland Tasty n Sons, which opens at 9 a.m. for breakfast, usually with heaving lines on weekends. We realized then that many things in Portland not only have a bird but also an egg on them, especially at Tasty's where dishes are topped with the almighty egg.
We started with chocolate doughnuts with crème anglaise, which were so good we wanted to slap everyone in the restaurant. Insane! One small bite is so full of flavor. That and coffee would have done me. My main was the polenta and sausage ragu with mozzarella with, you guessed it, a fried egg on it. How my heart didn't stop mid-meal is a miracle. It was the dish to have.
On our way back in to town we stopped at Cascade Brewing and Barrel House. Our noses were pressed against their brewery window at 11 am, awaiting an opening. My "I'm not in to beer" buddy quickly changed his beverage mind once he dipped in to their sours, which change flavors seasonally and are served straight from the barrel.
They sat us down for a flight of 10. Their fruit-driven sours were standouts; Cascade's Apricot, based on a Belgian tripel, and the Cascade Kriek, a Northwest-style sour red ale fermented with fresh whole Bing and sour pie cherries, were two faves.
Lunch, Or It's A Bird
We beat the culinary crowds with a rezzie at Little Bird, a French-inspired bistro and sister resto to famed Le Pigeon in town. Rumor has it that Pigeon would make X amount of their burgers per day. Once done, that was it. No more. Customers would fight to be one of the first in to get their burger on. It's is now served at Little Bird. So, I went for the once coveted, Le Pigeon burger with asparagus with a friend egg on it (yup) and the potted duck liver to start. I was feeling very French.
Dinner, Or Tears Of A Cocktail Clown
Naturally a bit thirsty after all the egg activity, we nipped in to the Teardrop Lounge before dinner. This would be my go to if I lived in town. It's one of the best cocktail bars you will ever experience anywhere. There's a definitive nod to the classics and an incredible amount of creativity that went in to with their house cocktails. The best part is that there's a good bit of whimsy and a great attitude throughout, sans the speakeasy pretension that some classic cocktail standouts can tend to serve alongside their drinks.
This past summer was all about the piña coladas at Teardrop. I went along with the sexy bartender's subtle suggestion and was completely blown away by the flavors. It's a true sign of excellence when something so simple is so sublime. Menus change seasonally. So this fall and winter, try the "Need for Tweed" with scotch, Cynar, malted pumpkin, chocolate and chipotle bitters and absinthe.
I had to be dragged out of Teardrop, kicking and screaming on the inside. Yet dinner at Gruner, which means greener in German was hardly a concession as they celebrate the Pacific Northwest's bounty. We started with an exceptional foie gras torchon made with riesling jelly and pickled cherries. Opting for family style in order to play the culinary field, it was a feast of polenta croquettes with raclette cheese, a Gruner salad, charcuterie and a mix of house made sausages and Hungarian style chicken. It was exceptional with a buzzing local crowd.
Celebrating the fact that our hearts were still beating, we tippled back at Gruner's newly opened KASK bar next door. The Prospector cocktail won our hearts over with Lairds Applejack, lemon, clover honey, sparkling wine and Angostura bitters. Good to the last drop, no egg necessary.
The Farmer and His Wine
Once back in Seattle, we opted for a revisit of a previous fave, Herbfarm, which is a celebration of the area's food and wine. If you want to learn about wines from Washington, Oregon and Canada's Okanagan, there's no better way to tackle your studies than to indulge in a nine-course themed meal with five to six Pacific Northwest wines brilliantly paired throughout.
I particularly liked the Washington barbera from Columbia Valley's Tranche Cellars and, from the opposite side of the vino fence, a late-harvest Riesling with an apricot nectar from Dunham, another Columbia Valley stunner that lent a great finish to our basil-driven dinner.
Be sure to arrive early as proprietor Ron Zimmerman's wine cellar is museum-worthy with over 1,000 Washington wines. With champagne cocktails in hand, you go from cellar to tour the garden and its herbs with Ron's wife Carrie. Then it's show time. It's theater for the foodie savvy soul.
A Food For All Seasons
I finished my visit in Seattle at Art Restaurant Four Seasons. It's by far the city's best hotel and one of my faves anywhere. We settled in to our seats just as the red-orange sun -- yes it was sunny in Seattle -- was setting over the water before us in the big bay window. Clearly this was the epicenter of Seattle's lifestyle as the silhouette of a power couple sat down shortly thereafter. Yes, it was Bill and Melinda Gates, but a few feet away from our foodie fest.
Bill got busy with his reds -- I loved him even more for that -- while we bathed in the cocktail menu, which has a market section inspired by Seattle's Pike Place, the oldest farmers market in the US and right next door to The Four Seasons.
The menu, true to form, is seasonal. We had gorgeous watermelon saketinis made with sake, fresh watermelon juice and their house made limoncello, the perfect summer drink with a balance of detox and retox. It will whiz down so quickly you will swear it was stolen. On the opposite side of the cocktail fence was their savory signature showpiece, the Seattle Steam made with Basil Hayden's bourbon, house made Sour, Lagavulin Scotch, Dubonnet and finished with a sea salt rim. It was a rustic and savory must!
We then dug in, starting with fresh succulent six Juan de Fuca oysters with flavored vinegars, followed by the most delicate Dungeness crab cannelloni and a clam chowder with pancetta and olive oil that blew us both away. Then it was the miso baked Alaskan black cod and the Oregon lamb done four ways. It was an excellent, thorough and truly tantalizing tasting.
The meal was seamlessly paired throughout, starting with Illahe, an Oregon voignet. Then it was an L'Ecole 41, a Columbia Valley, Washington State chardonnay, followed by the reds, Meiomi, a Sonoma pinot noir and finally the big bold reds that I adore. We had the stunning Amavi cabernet, a Washington red from the famed Walla Walla Valley and Bill's drink of choice throughout his meal. You can't put a price on good taste.
The wines throughout were a beautiful representation of the many celebrated vineyards that aren't widely known outside of the region. With 250 bottles in house, I must say they have a stunning selection. It was a nice departure and an exquisite experience to drink outside the box and explore their local wines. I suggest you do the same. Trust that the staff will take you on a well versed wine ride. Oh, and the vanilla bean dusted donut holes with fruit compote had us all but high-fiving Bill and Melinda as we walked out. It was a flawless finish to the perfect foodie fest.