Saturday, September 1, 2012

Pound for Pound: a culinary tour of the Pacific Northwest

I recently spent just over a week in Portland and Seattle, ostensibly for work. When I travel for work I lug a massive pelican case – picture something you’d put an AK47 in - full of solid brass sconces to show my clients. It generally weighs in at about 56 pounds. This is perfect, because lugging all that hardware around helps offset the pleasure of the spike in caloric intake from eating out every day.

Portland can’t outdo Bay Area culinary culture, but it has a distinct identity and a rain-drenched palette of local ingredients to pull from. Hearty dishes, lots of meat, rich craft brews. Food trucks populate every vacant lot, perfect for a city on two wheels. Rather than mobile munching, I hit brick and mortar eateries this time. I started with Besaw’s.

Saturday: Bunches of brunches

Besaw’s is a venerable institution in Portland: a saloon that weathered the prohibition era, it draws a massive crowd on weekends, especially when the weather is fine. Coffee urns flow on a sidewalk table perking up tousle-haired diners while they wait for a table.

We were seated in the quickest twenty minutes a dark walnut table. Massive plates heaped with all shades of autumn floated by and dropped beside bloody marys. A subtle palette of flour, cheese, egg, and meats. Creamy hollandaise sauce, caramelly home fries, ruddy bacon, toast tanned to perfection.

I rarely eat brunch – to me one massive meal is a lost opportunity for another wholly different meal somewhere else. Plus traditional breakfasts seem to me to be at cross-purposes, their soporific effect fighting any effort to be bright eyed and bushy tailed, or at least present. But Portlanders love their brunches.

I passed the omelettes, short stacks and miscellany of pork product, but feeling indulgent, constructed my own breakfast sandwich: scrambled egg and cheese on scratch biscuit. The biscuit was the quintessential Besaw’s moment: buttery, crumbly, rich and satisfying. I spiked my sandwich with a bit of Aardvark’s hot sauce and fresh pico de gallo - I’m a California girl after all. The fresh red tomato and bright green cilantro were a burst color and taste, the perfect pallet for my palate. Now that’s what I call home-cooking.

Sunday: Backyard BBQ

Some of my favorite people live in Portland, and it just so happened they were hosting a BBQ to celebrate their dog’s 14th birthday when I was in town. I ate more animal in my week in the Pacific NW than I normally do in a month, and this is where it started. (No, not the dog). We stopped by the local posh hippie market and picked up fresh ground beef patties from the deli mixed with cheddar cheese, bacon and herbs. I cocked my head quizzically as I passed the rack full of gluten-free baked goods (I understand allergies, but I can’t help but notice how allergies seem so trendy these days) and grabbed some honey-sweetened buns, and a bag of salt and pepper chips.

Buzz the wonder dog
Our smiling host was flanked by a hot grill and a fresh keg of his healing herb-infused home-brewed cream ale. The backyard garden was lush with hothas and well-drenched grass. The table overflowed with green salad, fresh cut watermelon, grilled roasted asparagus and mushrooms.. We caught up with old friends and new while everything sizzled to perfection. The dog of the hour did not have any of the German chocolate birthday cake, but we all made a wish as we blew out the candle. The grass was green, the night was warm, and everything was delicious.

Monday: The wild, wild Northwest

I happened to be in town for my oldest, dearest friend’s birthday. He recently moved to the Pacific NW after a lifetime in LA, so I’d asked around for restaurant recommendations. Wildwood, billed as typical northwest cuisine sounded perfect, a way to explore the things that made my friend’s new home unique.

The late light still blazed sparking the maple leafs outside the window as we took our table. A wave of cedar swooped over the main dining room tables, and pierced ceramic vessels glazed with muted blue and soft black dropped warm light over each table. The menu looked wonderful: we played my favorite game while awaiting our local craft brew and sparkling water: wiki-searching the unfamiliar ingredients on the menu. I verified the origin of grana padano, and my companion clarified the nature of a coulis. I asked the waiter about boudin blanc and ascertained that scapes and shoots denote the same green tendrils of the garlic plant.

Ceramic lighting by Los Angeles artist Heather Levine
We started with a green salad and turnip greens soup. The soup was delectable to eye and tongue, a vibrant color with Morrocan pepper sprinkled over a swirl of crème fraiche. The salad has slivers of castelvetrano olive, a favorite smoky fruity flavor.

I did not find that the food was typically northwestern. But then one might argue that wildwood was ahead of the curve that is now the norm: local ingredients from small farms and seasonal changes to the menu. It was good. The fish was perfectly grilled, set over scapes and turnips. I scrape the persimmon colored sauce off the top of the fish intuitively. The kimchee mayonnaise did nothing for the fish (why add fat to a light fish, simply grilled?) but it did something interesting with the turnips and scapes the fish propped atop. The table bread, and olive oil I requested, were served a tad too cold, and I was disappointed in the shaker of plain salt.

We finished our meal with a cup of tea, and chocolate chip cookies. An impressive sight, their burnt edges recollecting childhood Tollhouse moments.

Tuesday: Tip to tail

Painted bright saffron, the Olympic provision company sits on the ground floor of the old converted building west of the river. I generally eat vegetarian and my animal of choice is fish, but I make no claims to be anything other than an omnivore. But I left it to my client’s choice, so here we were at a charcuterie. I scanned the salads and the single vegetarian sandwich on the menu. A smear of cream cheese just didn’t sound appealing, so I dove in head first and ordered the bratwurst.

We started with an appetizer of fried almonds. I had county fair visions of fried Twinkies, fried Oreos, fried butter (I’m not making that one up, either). When that pile arrived I knew it didn’t matter was my sandwich was like. Nuts make me crazy, and I am a connoisseur of salt. The almonds were sautéed in olive oil and fat grains of salt clung to them like they were in love.

My client ordered the Italian sausage over polenta, and my bratwurst was served with a side of house made potato chips and red cabbage slaw. The thick-crusted bread perfectly held the sliced sausage, and the whole grain mustard floated on its surface. It was here that I was primed for the future epiphany that every food is bettered either by mustard or by red pepper sauce. I asked for more mustard and had another bite.

Wednesday: Sleepless in Seattle

I drove to Seattle on the solstice, the relentless sunshine beaming in the driver’s side window the whole three-hour drive. Clouds are amazing in the northwest: they are so high, but contained, like a soft barrier of ceiling holds them in. Expansive but finite, unlike the Big Sky clouds in Montana that stretch on forever, or the whisps of the Southwest desert.

I arrived at my generic but well-appointed downtown hotel room and Yelped. It was time for a lighter meal, and some serious veggies. Meet my road go-to: Vietnamese. It was almost nine (and still light out) when I sat down to peruse the massive menu, and I was famished. The restaurant had gotten great reviews and the dishes, not just your typical pho and bun, sounded wonderful.

Elephant's ear - Saigon, not Seattle
I ordered spring rolls with grilled tofu and coconut to start, and a pineapple seafood stir-fry that included Vietnamese celery. When I was in Vietnam I cooked with an ingredient called elephants ear, a local vegetable much like celery but with more porous cross sections. I wondered if it could be the same here. I scanned the dining room: there were three other tables, all of which were Vietnamese. That was a good sign.

Granted I was ravenous, but those were the best spring rolls I’d ever had: the crisp curls of fresh coconut made it. The stir-fry was light and simple. I used copious amounts of sambal to spice it up. Pineapple stir-fry was one of the outstanding dishes I had while I was in Vietnam. I had never cared for sweet and sour in Chinese cookery, but the pineapples here were different: small - the perfect size to split with a friend - and pale yellow with a tart sweetness, rather than the deep syrupy gold of Hawaiian or Dole. They were the perfect compliment to peppers, greens, cashews. At Longs the pineapple was sweet, but beautifully complemented with cooked tomatoes and warm cucumber.

I was meeting a friend for dinner the following night, and seriously considered inviting him here to try: lily blossom halibut, turmeric coconut rice cake, cognac scallop pomelo salad. Next time. And the time after that.

Thursday: Storming the Bastille

My good friend in Seattle has the same culinary adventurousness as I. A new place is always better than somewhere we’ve been before, and anything is fair game (fare game?) He suggested Japanese near my hotel downtown, but I was keen to explore the edgier neighborhoods of Seattle. He countered with the proposal that we meet in Capitol Hill near his place and wander to find a hole in the wall café. Behind our text conversation though, he must have been canvassing his workmates, because he pinged me back with two options in Ballard. I dismissed Tex Mex – which I almost always do the farther I am from that particular border – and made a reservation at Bastille.

It was typical bistro inside – white subway tiles that amplify conversation to an ear splitting level, moody vintage lighting fixtures, a sweeping wooden bar. The menu standards were there, too. Moules frites, check. Croque Monsieur, check. But there were other piquant dishes on the menu and while I’m no expert in French cuisine, there were ingredients that I never would have pegged for typical French.

I was sure I was overdoing it, and ordered a carrot salad with coriander and exotic spices, and the socca galette, a chickpea pancake with frisee, radishes and olives. The veggies come from the restaurant’s rooftop garden. We sat on the patio, the scent of the ocean drifting towards us on the evening breeze. The light lingered through our entire meal, lulling us with summery promise. My friend entertained me with his always bright conversation, and we noticed that the family dining beside us on the terrace was French. This was a good trend I was riding in Seattle.

Before I knew it I had two petits plats before me, which I was sure would be the death of me. The carrot salad had a round slice of soft white cheese atop it, the color deeper at the irregular edge where the rind held it together. The shreds of carrot were liberally coated in oil, which was spiked to a bright red with warming spices. Smoldery bits of dark dried olives flecked the dish. It was delightful. The galette was something else entirely. About the size and texture of a dense crumpet, the galette propped up a mountain of light curly lettuce, and olives and anchovies hid in the midst of it. It was luscious.

I asked our waitress about the provenance of the dishes, since I really had no idea where such a lovely combination would come from. She mentioned the galette was Parisian street food, but said she’d ask the chef. A few minutes later a tanned young man in his mid thirties in a double breasted white coat stood before our table and with an “uh” said he thought we had some questions. I felt like I should have some well articulated ponderings steeped in knowledge of traditional and contemporary French cookery, but that is probably just the byproduct of watching Julie and Julia recently. 

I wondered where the dishes were from, if they were, say Norman (wrong) or Breton (no), and completely misplaced the relationship of Nice and Marseille in my mental map as he talked about the combination of ingredients of the galette, and the Moroccan influence on the salad. He mentioned you would get a simple shredded carrot dressed in vinegar in most Parisian restaurants, but that he took it a step further. I don’t know that he was any more well-versed in the spice trade’s influence on his menu that I was, but it was a totally unpretentious exchange of information and a chance to commend the man responsible for a delightful meal. My friend’s croque, by the way, was served in a miniature cast iron dish, bubbling wickedly and oozing cheese. I demurred a bite of his croque, sticking to my pescatarian pretensions only as a means to stuff myself on every last morsel of carrot and frisee.

Friday: Return to Eden

Photo: Thomas J. Story
I have two fallbacks on the road: Vietnamese food and the venerable Whole Foods market. When the heft of my portions outstrips the heft of my sample bag, I go for simple, nourishing and predictable. The Whole Foods deli is my version of home cooking: give me some quinoa with edamame, broccoli crunch, herbed tofu, Indian style cauliflower.

And give me some fresh fruit. I can’t say no to Cripps pinks apples, even when they are flown all the way from Chile. (One day I will visit Chile if for no other reason than just to eat them locally). Taylor gold pears. Rainier cherries. The tiny deep red points of local strawberries, so small they could be the tips someone’s sliced off the bland overgrown mega-berries from a conventional market. Blackberries, which can be one of life’s biggest disappointments, but are divine revelation when they’re good. The nectarines and black velvet plums, mostly from California, were just coming to season and were golden and amazing. I picked up a basket of figs bought from a tiny market on MLK.

I did not make it to a single farmers market, which are legendary in the Pacific Northwest. But I ate a harvest’s worth.

Saturday: I want to move here

It was my last day in Portland. So much to do – so what to do? I hit Camamu Soap in their new location in Sellwood, and then stopped in on the local cabal of my the Dharma Punx. And then I ate pizza.

I kept noticing the pizza places in Portland. The baking crust smell wafted out storefront windows beginning early in the day. I don’t go much for pizza. I'm an Angeleno. Who craves cheese-slathered bread in the semi-desert? But up here it was looking good. Maybe it’s the climate, maybe it’s the obvious pairing with beer.

I’d heard a few places mentioned by locals during the week, but wandering outside the blocks around the Laurelthirst pub waiting for the band to start I was drawn by a simple heart shaped sign. I looked in and discovered Dove Vivi, which translates as "where I live." I scanned the menu and knew I was home: vegan options, kale salad, castelvetrano olives.

We put our name in around 7.15. It's rare that I wait for a table, but it gave my friend and I a good chance to talk. It turned out that this was the fantastic place he was trying to remember.  The waitresses, unintentionally but uniformly clad in heathered tshirts in sorbet shades paired with gray or black jeans cuffed above a luminous stretch of ankle terminating in clogs or Chucks, hollered the names of to go orders at the bar, some with tumblers full of wine. We caught up on our days, and then I begged my friend to check on the wait, and to request some olives to munch on.

We were seated some time later, oliveless, by the plate glass front window. I reminded the waitress to bring us some olives as good naturedly as I could – I was seriously hungry – and we perused the menu while sipping water decanted from a large mason jar. Older couples, families with young kids, girls who looked destined for a night out sat at the other tables - the place only seats about ten parties. I shortlisted the vegan with herbed tofu ricotta, and the veggie, a classic which we decided on as a baseline on which to assess the pizza.

Our kale salad and herbed olives were delivered with a sincere smile from the waitress. We munched the sweet green flesh of the olives between bites of thin dark strips of kale flecked with ricotta cheese. Both were richly dressed in good olive oil. My appetite whetted, I wondered aloud if the thick crust pizza would take forever. I was optimistic since they didn’t call it Chicago style and there were no warnings on the menu that you should expect a 45 minutes wait for your pizza. Then again, no one warned me I’d wait 45 minutes for a table.

When the waitress asked if I was feeling better I answered "yes!" wholeheartedly, mentioning that I might lick the plate. She suggested I hang on to it and dip my crust in the dressing. I was really starting to like this place. A heavy cast iron dish touched down moments later. Thick with tomatoes and veggies, thick with cheese, all resting on a deep pillow of crust. Perhaps it was Portland’s distinctive twist on the cornmeal crust. Chicago style never impressed me. This was divine.

I dipped my crust in the sheen of herbed oil on my salad plate. A single slice filled me perfectly, though I wanted to stuff down one more slice for the road. Instead I wrapped the rest to take with me on the plane the next morning. It was back to LA after a wonderful week, but I got to live one more day in the Pacific Northwest.

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