Tuesday, May 24, 2011

PDX: A Wishlist

I think the first night I met Damon, he told me I would love Portland. Culinary destination, snowy mountains and clean streams nearby, wine country, oceans, and bikers galore, Portland grew over the years to be Damon's dream city. When markets grew frenetic, work became taxing and life just felt overwhelming, Portland was Chicago's perfect anithesis.

I've been long overdue. For the past three years, I've been crossing never-before-visited cities off my list: Ann Arbor, Las Vegas, New Orleans, plus countless little spots in Wisconsin and Michigan that are a short drive away after a weary work week in Chicago. But ultimate getaway town Portland, just hadn't made the cut. Until now. Credit card deals that were too good to be true (as it happened they were true) and the itch to get out of our concrete world were too overwhelming come late March. So we scratched: bought tickets and sealed the deal for four nights at the Ace Hotel in downtown Portland. Food trucks, wineries, music and sleep were on the horizon.

We took off prepared: an excel spreadsheet, 45 lines deep with restaurants, cocktail lounges, breweries and gardens to visit. We had been gathering recommendations from pretty much anyone who would be interested to give them: Bon Appetit, Imbibe, friends like Jessi and her blogger posse (click on each of these, they're gems!), Terri from Schubas' friends, a girl I bought a new chicken from just two weeks prior, anywhere. It was a full wishlist, but treated as just that. "We can't get too crazy Jo," he knows me so well. I inherited the genetic disposition to over schedule and typically find myself planning for too much with too little time to relax and breathe.

A delayed connection in Dallas had us spending our Thursday night dinner plans at TGIFriday's, watching the Bulls clinch game six. As we checked into the Ace at 1 am, the stools along the Clyde Common bar were turned legs up, patrons long gone, shakers cleaned, ovens off. Rats. It's just a wishlist. Just a wishlist.

Friday we hit the ground running. Literally. 7:10 am found us jogging along the Willamette, then we rented bikes and found gardens, breweries, shopping and a good nap. Dinner that night was the one firm reservation of the weekend. Beast is a 26 seat, prix fixe, open kitchen, communal dining gem of a spot. It's a sort of dance to be in such an intimate space and watch Chef Naomi and her team create and present, then create and present as we nod and chew and give thanks. We strolled over to the McMeniman's Kennedy school, a 1920's elementary school turned bar/hotel/restaurant/soaking pool. How is it that every spot thus far can just seem so...Portland? We danced our dinner off to TBT at the Wonder Ballroom, with loudly tapping feet and spins to bluegrass banjo, violin and guitar in overdrive. Thrash grass is one good dance party.

On Saturday we settled into a more manageable pace. Kenny & Zuke's a causal Jewish delicatessen round the corner from the Ace provided the perfect breakfasting spot to meet a dear friend en route from Seattle to San Fran as she was driving her life down just that weekend. Afterward, a long shot from a google search turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend. Hidden stairways weave throughout Washington Park, scurrying up through and between the graceful old houses precariously perched above the Rose Test Gardens, we toured the back allies of one of the most beautiful bits of Portland. Next time someone asks for foodie recommendations of where to go, I'll give them this. With all the food places I had to visit, stairs were what I craved already on day 2. Phew. After feeling exercised and digested what's next? Pok Pok. Thai street food elevated to James Beard excellence, drinking vinegars (honey and grapefruit), black grilled prawns, huddled over a picnic table with formica pale green roofing loosely juxtaposed to keep the drizzly afternoon cold out.

More naps, more breweries to discover and then another surprise, not on the wishlist. At a friend's wedding last summer, Damon made friends with some folks that are always looking to recruit new transplants to join them in the getaway city. We noshed at Farm Cafe, D and I much too full to give the menu a proper tasting but toasted hazelnuts in rosemary and Tabasco was a true highlight, while cooling my mouth on a GINger fizz, ie gin and tonic splashed with ginger liqueur. They took us around the corner to the Roadhouse where the jukebox is loaded with free plays of Ella Fitzgerald, Slayer, Beach Boys and Cat Stevens and a whiskey with beer back is $3.75. Portlandia hit it right on the head. This is where young people go to retire. Potato Champion's poutine and PB&J fries had been mentioned by two cab drivers and our new hosts as the best food truck food in the city and knowing we would head out of the city early Sunday morning, they had to be sampled post-Roadhouse.

Sunday cracked open with thunder and a constant drizzle that everyone told us would surely inhibit our fun, but we wouldn't hear of it. We hopped in an obnoxiously red rental and whisked out to the Dundee Hills to find the land of Pinot Noirs. Arriving too early for tastings, we cruised along the hillsides, stopping at one of D's favorites, Torii Mor for a breathe of fresh rain in a Japanese garden. I had in my head that I needed local honey, for what better gives one a taste of the land than a combination of all the sweet flowers and fruits that can grow in one place? We found Beverly's roadside stand, in front of her house. "We've been keeping for, gosh 40 years and you've gotta be crazy to do it. Sure all of us have been hit by that disappearance of hives but you just get new ones and move on." Her honey today was raspberry honey, her second favorite to a legume that grows as a purple vine, "but nobody grows that anymore. These wineries have pretty much eaten up all the good farming land out here." Luckily that monoculture hasn't hurt the bees too much. Our one tasting of the day was at Domaine Serene, a suggestion from our Saturday hosts, and judging from the package that's due to arrive at Damon's office by the end of this week, we were quite impressed with their selection. Wine fridges should never be as empty as his has been as of late.

We asked the folks at Domaine for a lunch spot and stumbled upon one of the best meals of the weekend. Surprising find number three not on the wishlist. Red Mills' Market is precisely the kind of place I could see myself owning, loving, running. A small selection of charcuterie and cheeses, wood-fired pizzas and craft sandwiches, local brew and wine for carryout or to be enjoyed with lunch, and shelves full of McClure's pickles, more honey, olive oil (who knew Oregon grew those too), kiddie foodie placemats, and pottery. Kitchen herb pots with six little herbs tucked in a hand-thrown pot line the sidewalk outside. I'm enamored. D & I couldn't leave without dragging those two brew mugs with us, plus a teeshirt or two, a set of 4 breeds of bull coasters, and a little ginger-sea salt chocolate. It was perfect. The kind of perfect where you're so comfortable and so happy you say, "if this is what it means to be with you, I want to be with you forever" and then realize what you've said, blush and look back up to see the biggest smile returning your gaze. It was a good find.

So, we got romantic. And whenever D is feeling romantic he thinks about the Oregon coast. Off we went 2 more hours spent in the car but cruising through thick pine forests didn't for a minute feel like a chore. Radio coverage was too sparse, trees too thick so a quiet, thoughtful ride was had to the shore. There it was still drizzly, still chilly but wide open beaches and huge monolithic rocks in the distance make you just want to run in the cold air like a happy dog does in a big open field. We ran, arms out wide, hoods up to cover our red ears, and grins wide. This is vacation. We called a real estate 800 number to find out about a little cottage on the market and after hearing 1.8 million decided that this item on the wishlist should probably stay there for a few more years.

Clyde Common was waiting for us upon our return. And only after a nap and long shower did I feel ready to enter back into the civilized world. Bon Appetit wrote up Jeremy's Barrel aged negroni and at one sip, I felt like we were just back in Chicago, comfortably perched at L&E. But the reminder of Portland sprung back to my mind at our food's arrival. Spring is much further along in Portland so asparagus, peas and fava beans were a welcome fresh bite.

Sunday morning we opted for a light, healthy breakfast: hiking up on Mount Tabor with Voodoo Doughnuts and Stumptown and a sun-shiny morning to send us on our way.

What a runaway. I hardly cracked my list, and have a whole slew of places to discover for next time but I wouldn't have had it any other way. I'm including my wishlist below, just in case any of you may be inspired to have your own getaway in lovely Portland and need some recommendations. It can sit there, ready for me to pick it up again when the next cheap flight comes my way. But I won't forget that the highlights were the unknowns, the unanticipated conversation with a farmer, the little herd of piglets running away from our car as we cruised up to Torii Mor, running/flying on the beach in the cold, salty air, the moments I found myself just looking at Damon, thinking my own thoughts and smiling. Good life happens in those unexpected things that aren't part of a wishlist.

the Wishlist: (those underlined are the places we actually made it to)
Breweries: Bridgeport, Deschutes, Rogue, Amnesia, Green Dragon, Belmont Station, Hair of the Dog, McTarnahan's, Lucky Lab
Bars: Kennedy Shool, Gilt Club, Teardrop, House Spirits Distillery, The Bye and Bye, Holoscope
Restaurants: Clyde Common, Pok Pok, Ping, Broder, Screen Door, Nostrana, Beast, Kenny & Zukes, Bunk Sandwiches, Le Bistro Montage
Food trucks: any at SE Morrison & 12th, Potato Chamion (PB&J fries), Crown Q, Schnitzelwich,
Wineries: Tori Mor, Domaine Serene, Erath, Anne Arnie, Cristom