So I arrived in Portland on Saturday afternoon, just in time for an impromptu wine tasting on the patio of the new Hotel Modera near the Portland Art Museum. Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs – score! This northwest region in Oregon produces some of my very favorite wines. I had sort of forgotten I would be in Pinot country. And though nothing I tasted really blew me away, I did get tipped to a cool wine shop/art gallery off of Fremont. It was unseasonably warm, and I was unseasonably relaxed.
After a brief siesta, we headed down to the Pearl District to get some drinks. I’d read about some celebrated mixologists at a place called the Teardrop Cocktail Lounge, so I was eager to check it out. However, when actually confronted by the insane descriptions of some of these concoctions (Exhibit A: The Reuben – corned-beef rye, krogstad aquavit, mustard seed tincture, swiss cheese tuile, sauerkraut cube, 1000 island rim, mini pickle), I opted for wine instead. I’m glad I did – they had a “whole cluster” Pinot Noir from Belle Vallée that had one of the most incredible bouquets I’ve ever encountered. Impossibly floral and earthy and wonderful. I’m already trying to track down another bottle.
We had late reservations at the Park Kitchen around the corner, which was one of the primary reasons behind my trip to PDX. Chef Scott Dolich was the only candidate who wasn’t from Seattle to be nominated for Best Chef Northwest by the James Beard Foundation this year (congrats to Holly Smith, who I guess is technically located on the Eastside). And even though there are a number of rising stars in Portland at the moment that I’m dying to check out, I figured I should pay my respects.
The restaurant was cozy and warm from the open kitchen in the back. A very intimate and romantic space. The menu is divided into small hot plates, small cold plates and large plates, so my partner and I decided to try a little of everything. We started with the salt cod fritters and housemade malt vinegar, as I’d heard this was a favorite dish that always remained on the otherwise seasonally rotating menu. These perfectly fried, golfball-sized spheres of potato and fish were both fluffy and surprising filling. The malt vinegar was potent, and I loved it.
We were actually seated fairly close to the kitchen, so the room temperature had gone from warm to hot while we were pondering the menu. We decided on a couple of cold plates to cool us down. The watermelon salad with feta and heirloom cucumbers did not disappoint, with huge chunks of juicy watermelon (the best I’ve had all season), and inch-square blocks of hard feta that were less tangy and more mild than what you would usually find on your local gyro. Next up was a plate of marinated mussels, with fresh corn and lobster mushrooms. The mussels were served cold, which dramatically reduced the chewiness I often associate with ripping through viscous bivalve guts (I’m a total sucker for mussels). For the main course we shared a SuDan Farms lamb “with nightshades”, which in this case meant an array of sauces and creams composed of tomatoes, eggplant and bell pepper. The lamb was rare and rich, the sauces were inventive, and the plate was a huge success (although I was slowing way down at this point… I could really only manage a couple of bites).
But when would I ever be back…? So we powered through and ordered up a piece of fennel cake with blackberry ice cream. It was a bit sweet for my taste, especially given the candied pieces of fennel on the side. But I did enjoy immensely the piece of bittersweet “Xocolatl de David” chocolate compliments of sous chef Dave Briggs that accompanied the check. It was a beautiful night, and we strolled back to the hotel where I promptly entered a food coma. At least until the next morning…