Letter from the Editor: Portland and the Pioneer Spirit Vol: 73

April 30, 2011

A year ago, we headed to Portland for the IACP awards and in the process found a city of pioneers. Because Portland was separated from the rest of the country—both geographically and culturally before railroads and modern transportation came along—self sufficiency comes naturally. In the Portland culinary scene, this translates to micro distilleries, micro coffee roasters, and in Portland restaurants, house-made everything. This time, we saw some really creative in-house charcuterie; Chef Alex Yoder at Olympic Provisions reworks impressive chorizos and sausages into Mediterranean-influenced small plates; at St. Jack, Chef Aaron Barnett reinvents stuffed pork trotter with a practiced technical hand, while young and eager Sommelier Joel Gunderson pairs Barnett’s updated French bistro classics with creatively sourced, affordable wines.

What stands out is the simple pleasure of neighborhood restaurants made possible by low start-up costs and the normalcy of a 30-seat, owner-operated restaurant (a pipe dream in a lot of the country). Each restaurant has its own “thing” —Beast serves set menus at only two nightly seatings with Chef-owner Naomi Pomeroy (and her bevy of equally chic and lipstick-ed ladies) at the helm. A trio of (refreshingly modest) New York-trained chefs—Sarah Pliner, Katherine Whitehead, and Jasper Shen—head up Aviary, breaking the boundaries of traditional chef roles in the process by collaborating on the menu. And Sommelier Leah Moorhead has a knack for spot-on pairings with their unusual creations.

With the freedom of the owner-operator comes a wide variety of cuisines for a smallish city. Peruvian restaurant Andina has weathered the economic storm and is still packed every night. Chef Gabe Rosen streamlines izakaya dishes at Biwa (who else would have us eating steak tartare at 10am?). To see how he achieves ultra-thin Gyoza wrappers, check out our technique feature.

Portland loves her comfort food. Chef Lisa Schroeder built her business around the idea of your (ideal) mother’s food with cleaned up technique at Mother’s, perfect as Mother’s Day approaches. And Chef Christopher Israel takes German food in an Italian and French direction at Grüner, with big comforting plates of spaetzle. Chef Ethan Powell’s southern roots come in handy at casual, Cajun-influenced EaT: An Oyster Bar.

Italian food is going strong here, like in the rest of the country. Chef Cathy Whims sources more than 90 percent of her produce locally and sustainably for Italian restaurant Nostrana, and she makes a moist-crusted, Neapolitan-style pizza on par with some of the best we’ve tasted around the country. At Ken’s Artisan Pizza, Chef Alan Maniscalco takes pizza in a nostalgic Italian-American direction. And Portland oldie but goodie Genoa is modern and technique-driven in the hands of Chef David Anderson.

Ballsy, sophisticated food for the comfort food-loving climate is a challenge—and a welcome discovery here. Hotel Chef Andy Arndt at Aquariva at the Avalon Hotel & Spa creates innovative New American cuisine in a gorgeous Lake Oswego-adjacent setting. June sources not just produce but also grains like frikeh from mostly local producers, and Chef-owner Greg Perrault unleashes the full power of his inventiveness on the goods—sweet and sour radishes anyone? And we think cocktail pairings are pretty bold too. At Clyde Common Chef Chris DiMinno and Mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler join forces to tailor dish to cocktail and cocktail to dish.

We were rained on with the best of them in Portland. But despite the rain, these people live and breathe the outdoors, unlike some on the East Coast who take good weather for granted. What drives chefs to Portland seems to be the quality of life, which for most of the hospitality industry is a bit of a Big Foot—people claim to have seen it but nobody’s really experienced it.

We were happy to stop in Seattle on our way back to New York and catch up with some past rising stars and chefs from previous tastings at their new restaurants—Chef Seif Chirchi at Revel, Chef Vuong Loc at June, and Chef-owner Renee Erickson at The Walrus and the Carpenter. And we checked out a newbie to the culinary scene at Book Bindery with Chef Shaun McCrain and his American food grounded in French technique. As happy as we were to drive by the Fremont troll under a bridge, staying in the Pan Pacific room with its breathtaking views of the Space Needle was a major highlight! As always, we love hearing from you! Be sure to become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to stay posted as we travel. We’re headed to Austin, Chicago, New York, and Portland again in the next few months, so reach out and give us your give us your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we should check out in those cities.

Antoinette Bruno