Sunday, November 11, 2007

HFF On The Road: Portland, OR

Sometimes certain things conspire to make a place "it." For a variety of reasons a city becomes the right place at the right time. Boston in the 1770's. Paris in the 1890's. San Francisco in the 1950's. London in the 1960's. The entire nation of China right now. The reasons for these municipal zeitgeist are difficult to distinguish much of the time. Why did Kerouac and Ginsberg and friends pile into North Beach? Was it really just the absinthe that brought the glitterati to Paris? Is it really just the combination of a command economy and a willingness to heavily exploit one's own citizens that has made China such a rollicking economic success?

In the last case, yes.

Portland is the "it" place right now. For a city of its size (it's tiny--29th largest metro area in the country) it has been getting a shit tonne of press, particularly for its food but also for its urban planning, its strip clubs, and its general tourist awesomeness.

All I can really say is that Portland is the first city in the US to honestly make it onto my "places I'd live other than the Bay Area" list. Everything about Portland was easy and friendly. The airport was easy to navigate. Public transit was well-integrated, simple to figure out, and cheap. The city is an orderly grid. People are very very nice and overly helpful. There's no sales tax. I'm told rent is relatively low. The only significant problem is crippling unemployment, but as a tourist we don't deal with that.

Girlfriend Charlie and I found ourselves in Portland on a mini-vacation because it just seemed right. Good food, good hospitality, and cheap airfare on Southwest.

We booked two nights at the Heathman Hotel, pretty much universally declared the "nicest hotel in downtown Portland." And even with that distinction, the Heathman cost pretty much the same as the Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf. This proved to be a recurring theme in Portland--everything was cheaper than you expect. Besides being the nicest hotel in Portland, the Heathman's restaurant is also considered by most to be the ground zero restaurant for Northwest cuisine, sort of the Chez Panisse of Oregon. And yet entrees at the Heathman mostly top out in the upper twenties, laughably cheap by upper-echelon San Francisco standards.

Did I mention everyone was friendly? As an example, the service at our hotel was very attentive and hands on without being obeisant. When I commented on the friendliness and helpfulness of everybody to the concierge delivering our room service he thanked me and then hoped that it wasn't "overbearing." That's right, they wanted to make sure they weren't being too helpful.

So what did our Portland culinary journey consist of?

First day gave us breakfast at Mother's, a bistro in the waterfront district. Despite an overly-friendly server who sat down cross-legged at the table next to us, dirty cuffs and ancient white socks exposed for all to see and informed me that the salmon hash I was about to order was what many people consider "the best breakfast in the world." The food was quite good. Fresh French press coffee. Really nice creamy sockeye salmon and potato hash that, while nothing overly remarkable, was very well done. Charlie had "Mike's Special Scramble" with prosciutto, garlic, tomatoes, basil, and provolone--portions were very generous.

Side note: the French press is big in Portland. Every finer-dining restaurant we stepped into or glanced at the menu seemed to offer coffee in either individual or two-person French presses. The option of French press coffee (the best way to drink good coffee) is only just beginning to work its way into Bay Area dining and is far from ubiquitous.

Back at the hotel we snacked on fresh pears given to us as part of our welcome gift at the Heathman. We headed back out into the trendy Pearl District (think SoMa without the skank) and ended up at BridgePort brewing company for dinner. The food was surprisingly good. A couple appetizers--salad of fresh local beets with spinach was well made and my appetizer on special of trout and potato cakes was delicious. The trout had a brandade-like texture with a crisp panko-crusted exterior. For entrees, Charlie had the turkey, fig, and sage meatloaf. It was quite good, but neither the figs nor the sage was particularly prominent. I had the mac'n'cheese with butternut squash and Swiss chard. Really tasty. Excellent in fact (and an enormous portion), though the cheese was not sharp enough to balance the sweetness of the generous chunks of butternut squash.

Day two saw us eating breakfast in the Heathman dining room. The food was definitely Northwest Cuisine in the sense of being California Cuisine only with Northwest-centric ingredients. My hangtown fry was really good. Fluffy scrambled eggs folded with potatoes, onions, peppers, bacon, and Willapa Bay oysters. Charlie had the seven grain porridge with hazelnuts, brown sugar, and some of freshest tasting raisins I've had.

What is a novelty here (like French press coffee), found only at the Parkway and Cerrito, is a standard in Portland: pub theaters showing second-run movies. There are maybe a dozen in Portland. We found our way into one, the Bagdad on Hawthorne, for lunch. That's the other thing, they're also fully-operational pubs and not just theaters serving food. Charlie had decent but overcooked halibut fish and chips. My curry tofu bowl was tasty, but heavy on the salt and more like a Thai peanut sauce than a red curry.

Dinner was at Le Pigeon and was transcendently good. See the upcoming separate post for that write-up. Before dinner we dropped in at the Doug Fir, a seminal Portland music club, for a cocktail. Charlie's sage margarita was excellent, as was my gin/campari/grapefruit concoction. The Doug Fir offered excellent happy hour food deals, as did many restaurant in Portland.

Our last day in Portland found us with a serendipitous bonus. Breakfast was room service from the Heathman Restaurant--hearty ginger and pumpkin pancakes, nicely cooked scrambled eggs with bacon and toast, and housemade almond-cashew granola with a pile of fresh fruit. Nothing was sacrificed in quality, plating, or temperature despite being room carried upstairs on a tray and eaten in bed. Anybody who dismisses room service as a frivolous indulgence has never actually gotten it. Or at least they haven't gotten it in a hotel with a cushy European pillowtop bed, complimentary French press Peet's coffee, and waffle robes. Pretty much the best thing ever.

We had no real plans for lunch, we were just aimlessly shopping around town when we stumbled on an authentic conveyor-belt sushi establishment, Sushi Land. What is a way of life in Japan is barely on the radar in the U.S., many establishments opting for the gimmicky (and more expensive) sushi boat style restaurant. Real conveyor belt sushi should be a touch sleazy, dirty without being unclean, and offer the vast majority of its dining options for a dollar or so. Sushi Land fit that bill, with 90% of the dishes costing $1 or $1.50. Quality was as good as most mid-priced non-conveyor establishments. After seeing the automatic rice-ball maker, I was inspired to consider the many other business models that could be streamlined using the conveyor belt method. Lap dances being the most logical. We gorged ourselves on instant gratification sushi before wending our way back to the hotel to get our bags and head to the airport.

So why was Portland so awesome? It's difficult to say. The relatively cheap prices helped a lot, coupled with the lack of sales tax and the friendly service. But Portland was also just very low stress. Perhaps the lower rents make everyone happier. When you make rent after one busy weekend at a restaurant or after selling a dozen pair of jeans in your retail shop that makes life a helluva lot simpler. Having a younger, relatively homogeneous (77% white), educated population might play a roll in restaurants' success as well. These are people who like to waste money on frivolous stuff like dining out, sunglasses, designer suits, and fancy hotels. Ah well.

So yeah, go to Portland and eat and shop. It's pretty much the best place ever. But don't feel like you have to go to Powell's City of Books. It's just a big book store, which is cool, but come on. It's a big book store.

No comments: