Between creamed rabbit, beef cheek, and mussels with lemon fries, I have eaten well the past four days. It's not hard to find a decent meal in Portland, OR -- it's mecca to up-and-coming chefs who can't afford the restaurant rents in NYC. These three meals were so remarkable that I had to write about them so that visitors or residents of the city don't miss out on the party they could be having in their mouths.
All three restaurants have adventurous menus, use local resources and have a good buzz about them, but where they differ is in their longevity on the scene: one's been around since 1994, one opened five years ago, and the last one opened in December.
Wildwood (in the Northwest area of town) is the veteran of the pack. I sat at the bar (it's my favorite place to eat) and shared asparagus spears accessorized with pancetta, pea vines and fried egg, prosciutto-wrapped gem lettuces with amish butter polenta, clams with sun dried tomatoes and saffron and pork scallopine with my dining companion. The bartender and chef had no problem giving me gluten-free items (to go with their very generous wine pours).
James Beard Award winner Cory Schreiber started the restaurant and current head chef, Dustin Clark, took over in 2006, maintaining the farm-to-table emphasis of the menu, which rotates to use the freshest ingredients from local farms (which, in a scene that could be from Portlandia, are listed on the website). The latest addition to the offerings is a fresh cocktail menu full of innovative delights.
The next night, we ventured to Little Bird sans reservation. We decided against the hour-plus wait and headed from downtown over the river along Burnside to five-year-old Le Pigeon, Little Bird's sister restaurant. Le Pigeon is the brainchild of James Beard-nominated chef Gabriel Rucker, who fled the unimaginative San Francisco food scene (which still unfortunately exists in that city) to set up shop in Portland. His "whimsical French" menu is updated periodically and best for experimental eaters who don't mind meat.
We had a much shorter wait until two seats were open at the bar. The best part of sitting at the bar in this petite restaurant is that it's not bartenders behind it, but chef Rucker and his two cooks. Who doesn't love a free show during dinner? We started with the Creamed Rabbit with polenta and black truffle and Foie Gras with eel, rhubarb and oyster, followed by the Beef Cheek Bourguignon and a burger sans bun (they had no problems accommodating my gluten-free needs). Only five burgers can be ordered each night, but that's based on the buns, so I, being order #6, was in luck. I wish I'd had room for dessert (and my co-diner couldn't stop raving about his love of the profiteroles), but alas, there was no stomach space to spare.
Having learned my lesson, I called in advance to make reservations at Little Bird for Sunday night. The theme is also rustic French, with a slightly more approachable menu. I'd already looked at the menu online, so I knew I would order the steak tartare as a starter, followed by the mussels appetizer as my main. (I'm always willing to change, hear what the specials are and be spontaneous, but this happens to be one of my favorite meals so it was a pretty sure thing.)
The tartare, served with a raw farm egg on top, was perfectly seasoned and well-minced (I can't stand chunky tartare) and the mussels were cooked perfectly in a creamy broth, and served with lemon fries, also a delight. My dinner date had grilled lamb belly and the grilled trout, and raved about both. Sadly, again, no room for dessert ... but I look forward to coming back to the quaint bistro with tin ceiling tiles and friendly, courteous waitstaff.
This is just the beginning of food exploration in PDX ... coming up: Beast, Castagna and Toro Bravo. (Please let me know if there are other must-tries!)