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Deliciously Different Portland

Consuming cuisine and culture in the Pacific Northwest metropolis.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Leslie A. Westbrook

Since it was built in 1940, the White Stag sign has served as advertisement for a brand of sugar, an apparel company and a gift retailer. Today one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, it didn’t actually reflect the “Portland Oregon” lettering until 2010.

 

could not have conjured a more stunning descent into Portland: a blazing orange sunset and inky mountain silhouette (of snow-capped Mt. Hood) on one side of the plane, the Willamette River winding below on the other. Portland not only boasts a plethora of cultural attractions and James Beard Award winners and nominees, but the famous chef/cookbook author was a Portland native. I was here to expand my mind and (possibly) my waistline.

LET THE EATING BEGIN

My first night I checked into the charming Woodlark Hotel, a trendy modern spot cleverly housed in two historic buildings. I popped into Bullard Restaurant (on site) for a late-night bite at the bar; the bartender smartly suggested a great butter lettuce, watercress and fennel salad. I sipped what turned out to be my favorite glass of wine during my visit: Goodfellow Family Cellars “Clover” Reserve Pinot Gris. I chatted with other travelers and checked out Abigail Hall, a happening, super-atmospheric bar also within the hotel.

FROM FRIED DONUTS TO FRIED CHICKEN

The next morning I popped over to Blue Star Donuts before the obligatory visit to the ginormous bookstore, Powell’s. A very nice person gave me a little piece of yellow paper with directions to the floors and rows to find what I was looking for — a necessity for this aptly named “City of Books.” I spent the rest of my morning perfectly content roaming the fine Portland Art Museum, with its excellent contemporary and Northwest Coast art collections.

Lunch at Bistro Agnes was lovely, but I wish I’d dined at the new and popular Maurice, a charming “pastry luncheonette” spot where the chef/owner works in full view. Happy hour over a perfect margarita with Cultural Manager Donovan Edwards, who is curating cool events at the hipster, youth-oriented Hoxton Hotel, was enlightening and fun.

AN UNEXPECTED LUNCH, PLUS OX

I had befriended my PDX airport Uber driver, Raman, who invited me to lunch. He drove me to a nondescript shopping center about 30 minutes from downtown. There we dined at the Portland Seafood Company, a restaurant originally founded by Portland legend Bob Farrell of Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlours fame. Raman had been pals with Farrell, as had our waitress. I ordered the very fresh and tasty pear, pecan and blue cheese salad with grilled Columbia River steelhead.

“It hits all the notes,” said the waitress, who’d worked for the company for 25 years. “Sweet, salty, piquant, crunchy.”

Indeed it did, and I was happily surprised.

I explored Mississippi Avenue and a great chocolate and salt shop, The Meadow, before getting semi-lost on a very long walk to my final meal of the day: an early bite at the bar at the highly regarded Ox, where I chowed down on a tasty mushroom, spinach, foie gras mélange followed by halibut collar in a tangy Asian sauce. Bartender Andrew provided good banter.

WELL-KNOWN FAVORITES DON'T DISAPPOINT

Breakfast was a quick bite at Mother’s and more walking. I moved to The Heathman, a historic hotel in the heart of downtown.

I crossed the river (again) to meet an old friend, Portland architect Bob Schatz, for a dynamite lunch at the popular and well loved Thai/Vietnamese street fare spot Pok Pok (the original one on the east side of the river). Pok Pok was definitely a favorite for the amazing array of Asian flavors and fresh herbs in the dishes we enjoyed.

For an early dinner at Nostrana, the Italian place everyone loves, I took the recommendation of a stand-up comedy couple I shared an Uber ride with and ordered the radicchio Caesar salad (awesome) and gobbled up the ridiculously delicious bread along with a simple thin-crust pizza with house made mozzarella . . . served uncut with scissors.

LAN SU: A FAVORITE RESPITE

The following morning I took a delightful stroll through verdant squares flanked by old churches and museums to the terrific Farmers Market at Portland State University, where wild mushrooms, tasty baked goods, heritage popcorn, homemade jams, bright yellow daffodils and more delighted the senses.

Later that morning, in the old Chinatown section of Portland, I encountered Portland’s homeless just a stone’s throw from the riverfront, Voodoo Donuts and the Portland Saturday Market. I’d come to tour the sublime Lan Su Chinese Garden. The contrast to the nitty-gritty street scene actually enhanced what was one of my favorite experiences. I loved the oasis of calm in the walled complex with its lovely and perfectly named two-story tearoom, the Tower of Cosmic Reflections. On the upper level, amidst Chinese fashion and furniture and overlooking the garden pond, I enjoyed a transportive lunch of dumplings, noodles, almond cookies and tea with a friend in town for a writers’ convention.

The Portland Saturday Market has been going on for more than 20 years, and is popular with tourists and locals alike. I grabbed a sinful pork/fried cheese sandwich from Pollo Bravo at Portland’s first food court, Pine Street Market, and rode the trolley back to the Heathman.

NATURAL WONDERS IN WASHINGTON PARK

On my last day, I needed nature. I took a hike through the Hoyt Arboretum in Washington Park to the Portland Japanese Garden where I enjoyed lunch in the Umami Café. The limited menu offers interesting teas (all explained), unique Japanese sweets and simple, small rice bowls.

From there I walked to the International Rose Test Garden, then rode the free shuttle up to the Visitor Center and hiked the Magnolia Trail where the trees were in blossom.

Last year, Portland was rated one of the best thriving cities for young entrepreneurs. The city’s housing affordability is also a factor. You know you really like a place when you get home and look up rentals online and start fantasizing about a cool little pied-à-terre in downtown Portland (about $150,000). But then reality sinks in: There’s the rain and gray weather, which might, for some Californians, make Portland a better vacation spot than permanent way station. Either way, remember to pack an umbrella.

TRAVEL PORTLAND
Comprehensive information, including events, attractions, restaurants and lodging. www.travelportland.com

WHERE TO STAY
The Woodlark
New boutique luxury hotel with stylish public spaces and rooms.
813 SW Alder Street
503.548.2559
www.woodlarkhotel.com

The Heathman Hotel
Classic boutique hotel with stellar service, great downtown location and a two-story lobby lounge with 3,000 books signed by the authors.
1001 SW Broadway
503.241.4100
www.theheathmanhotel.com

The Hoxton
New trendy hotel boasting bars in lobby, basement and rooftop.
15 NW Fourth Avenue
503.770.0500
www.thehoxton.com

EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
Culinary treasures can be found on nearly every block of this foodie-friendly destination. A small sampling to get adventurous gourmets started:

Ox
2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway
503.284.3366
www.oxpdx.com

Nostrana
1401 SE Morrison St.
503.234.2427
www.nostrana.com

Pok Pok
Various locations
www.pokpokrestaurants.com

DESTINATIONS
Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Ave.
503.226.2811
www.portlandartmuseum.org

Lan Su Chinese Garden
239 NW Everett
503.228.8131
www.lansugarden.org

Portland Japanese Garden
611 SW Kingston Ave.
503.223.1321
www.japanesegarden.org

 

Bars are as synonymous with Portland as books, hipsters and the Willamette River, and the city that helped give rise to the new cocktail culture has an excellent example in Ox Restaurant, where handcrafted libations and cuisine reflect the Pacific Northwest palate.

The Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University draws a crowd every Saturday rain or shine.
Photos by Jamie Francis for Travel Portland

Sugar n’ Spice and Lemon Poppy Buttermilk Old Fashioned donuts courtesy of Blue Star Donuts.
Photo by Leslie A. Westbrook

05-01-2019

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