Sunday, October 31, 2010

ATX to PDX: A trip to Portland, OR

Mom, in the background in the white jacket with the flipped up collar, hanging with the girls in the dorm of the Old Shriners Children’s Hospital in Portland, OR. On the back of the picture, she identified the bathing suited beauties as Potts and Rowland with a note about how much fun the girls were. 

Soon after graduating from high school, my mom boarded a train bound for Portland, OR. Aside from a cousin who lived there, Portland’s main draw was that it was as far from the hills of Alabama as she could get. That alone was reason enough to pack her bags. In rural Alabama in 1961, little more was expected of her than to get married and start a family. I realize now how incredibly brave she was to take such a leap.

Coming from a small town, Mom thought Portland the epitome of a big city. She took a job working as a nurse’s aid at what was then known as the Shriners Crippled Children’s Hospital (they've since dropped crippled from the title). The hospital offered accommodations and she lived in a dorm with other young, single women who worked there. Mom described the hospital to me as the most majestic place she had ever stepped foot in. Since she didn’t learn to drive until after she got married, Mom rode the bus to get around Portland. She told me of feeling so elegant stepping off the bus and walking up to such a grand building. 

From a young age, I remember her telling me of the hospital and how beautiful a city Portland was – describing its lush greenery and her delight in looking over her shoulder and seeing Mt. Hood towering in the background. To a child, Portland sounded like the most magical place on earth. I vowed when I grew up that I’d go see the city Mom told me of. 

So it took a while to get there but I finally made it…

I can only imagine how much Portland has changed since the early 1960’s when she lived there, but I’m happy to report that no matter the changes, it’s still as lovely as Mom described. Even in October when the winter gloom has already begun to set in and despite that it was gray and overcast for most of the trip, the scenery was still amazing. Eric and I aren’t usually good tourists- our idea of a vacation is a cool hotel with proximity to as much good food and drink as we can consume- but I’m glad we didn’t skip the guide book stuff on this trip. We took the time to drive out of Portland to check out the Willamette Valley, a central coast beach, and the Columbia River Gorge. All were absolutely stunning. 

My only regret of the trip is that I waited too late to go. 

I had planned to look up the old hospital that Mom so loved to take a picture for her. I knew from research that the Shriners Children’s Hospital had relocated to a newly built facility but Wikipedia reported the old hospital building as listed on the National Historic Register in 1989. I was just sure it would still be there. Sadly, I was wrong. When we pulled up to the address listed, we arrived at a distinctly new senior living apartment complex. I stopped in at an adjacent store just to make sure we hadn’t made a mistake on the address but the lady behind the register confirmed that the old hospital was torn down a few years ago.

My heart sank when I heard the news and I dreaded telling Mom. That day was she and my father’s anniversary so I waited until the next day to call and break it to her. She was so disappointed. And so am I… I really wanted to see that old hospital that holds such strong, fond memories for Mom. I’d just settle for an picture at this point. I’ve searched in vain on the internet but I can’t find any images. The building is still listed on the National Historic Register’s website but alas, no picture. 

On a happier note, we'd heard that Portland was a food town and found the reports to be entirely true. My usual pre-trip ritual of exhaustive research turned up a very long list potential dining options. Because we were making such a quick trip, it was especially agonizing to whittle down the list. Much love to Fearless Critic Portland - due to its guidance, we hit up some really great places. If you're not the nerdy, research-oriented type, have no fear. A friend of Eric's and fellow chef who has visited the city informed us that it would probably be harder to find bad food in Portland than good. He was right... 

Here’s a quick pictorial review of the trip highlights:  

As soon as we stepped off the plane we were both ravenous so we headed strait to Park Kitchen. We had considered Park Kitchen for dinner as the menu looked fantastic but since it was one of the few dining options open during the day, we decided to do lunch instead. I’m sure the dinner menu is even more amazing than the lunch menu, so in my humble opinion, this spot is not to be missed. In fact, it was Eric’s favorite meal of the whole trip. My props to the pastry chef- all three!!! desserts I tried were terrific!

The Ace Hotel provided friendly, centrally located accommodations and the comfy bed pictured above. Just in case you tend to wake up in hotel rooms disoriented and groggy, not knowing where you are, they've helpfully woven the hotel name and city you're in on the blanket you slept under. The Ace Chain rehabbed the former Clyde Hotel, which was the setting for a scene in Drugstore Cowboys. The hotel ambience has much the same vibe as the movie- very cool and atmospheric. Bonus: Stumptown has an outpost in the lobby but if you don't care to stumble downstairs in your pjs, they'll also deliver coffee to your room. Score! 

We stopped in at the brick and mortar outpost of Pearl Bakery for breakfast on day 2 of the trip. I love a bakery that already has sweet confections out with the usual breakfast goods. Some of us like a little treat after breakfast. In addition to the delicious pain au chocolat I chose to accompany my coffee, I picked up a raspberry brownie and macaron. Alas, I was sad to find that they didn’t have any bouchons that day- Molly at Orangette raved over those bouchons. I’m sure they would have been divine but I made do with the brownie. Pearl also has a booth at the Portland Farmer’s Market at Portland State University, where the pic was taken.

By fortuitous happenstance, while searching for a winery in the Willamette Valley to visit on our trip, I got an excellent recommendation. I volunteered for a wine dinner at Central Market's Cooking School, featuring Pine Ridge wines and food prepared by the winery's executive chef, Eric Mackzo. I learned that Pine Ridge has a sister winery, Archery Summit, in Oregon. Chef Eric recommended checking it out as they're known for their pinot noir. We're really glad we did. Archery Summit's winemaker and general manager are both women- a female wine maker in itself is unusual so it's practically unheard of for a winery to be entirely female led. That bit of information made the wines taste even better to me but all bias aside, they stand on their own merit. Archery Summit's wines, except for the Cuvée Pinot Noir, aren't widely available outside of the area due to small allocations. They do have a wine club where you can purchase all of their bottlings and now we're impatiently awaiting our first shipment.

After driving through Willamette Valley, we rode out to Oregon's central coast and stopped at Neskowin Beach. A local man told us they were expecting a storm to roll in that evening and that the beach we were standing on would be covered by the sea and the huge rock outcropping in the picture would be an island by morning. It was windy and cold, not exactly the beach weather a Florida girl thinks of, but worth braving the elements to see. The beach's wild, craggy gorgeousness blew me away (figuratively, not literally- we left before the storm came in).

Beast! This was the dinner I was most looking forward to, albeit with a bit of apprehension because the joint has received some major hype. And it sooo lives up to the hype- it's not at all overblown in this case. Naomi Pomeroy, the lady chef who runs the place, calls her cooking style “refined French grandmother,” a description that is a bit tongue-in-cheek and yet surprisingly apt. It looks like she’s having a blast in the small open kitchen in which she prepares the amazing dishes. While we were dining, she was dancing to the awesome Talking Heads soundtrack playing as she plated up courses.

Cute pig logo on the back of Beast's menu
Dining at Beast is an experience- from the communal tables (make friends early or you're in for a long, awkward evening), the very set menu (no substitutions allowed!), to the leisurely pacing of six courses with accompanying wines that spanned 3 hours.

I think chef's menu speak for itself.

The honey Beast featured in the cheese course was so divine, we headed out to the Portland Farmer's Market the next morning to track down a jar. We haven't lived on the West Coast for some time now and forget how plentiful the produce is so we're always astounded when we see the bounty of the markets. 
We ooohed and awwwed over all the gorgeous specimens and briefly contemplated purchasing another small suitcase to fill up with the chanterelles above. Ultimately, we decided that the regulations on intra-state transport of produce could cause too many complications. Eric is still pining over those mushrooms.
It was the flowers that got to me, though. Every other booth, it seemed, was full of lovely blooms. I wanted to take them all home, each and every one. But especially these artichoke flowers. Along with a handful of the grapefruit-sized artichokes sitting next to them. 

After our trip to the market, we stopped by another market, Laurelhurst Market, for lunch. Market seems like a bit of a misnomer because, though there is a meat market that also serves up tasty sandwiches by day, at night the place turns into a packed out, well reviewed dining destination. We'd love to have gone for dinner as well but time didn't permit. 

While researching our trip, I checked out a blog I love, Frolicfor Portland destinations not to be missed. Chelsea, the blogger, is a Portland resident. The list on the site was from a few years ago so I emailed asking if there were plans to do an update soon. The lovely Chelsea replied back promptly and said that she had been meaning to do so and would soon. In the meantime, she sent on some good tips and let me know that the scenic drive along the Columbia River Gorge was gorgeous and a must see. As usual, she has impeccable taste. Multnomah Falls, along the route, was especially breathtaking.

(click on the menu to see a larger view)
Our last meal in Portland was at Castagna, whose 29 year old chef staged at Mugaritz and was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2010. I've not been to Mugaritz (yet- I'm holding out hope) but if Chef Lightner's food is a tribute to his training, it must be as fabulous as I've heard it to be. When I was brought my chosen dessert, my jaw practically dropped. 
The crappy photo doesn't do it justice but that apple with a tarragon skin was a revelation. At that's before I even got to the brown butter ice cream (no elaboration need, I'm sure).

Stumptown, Bridgetown, the Rose City... whatever you care to call it, Portland, OR has something special going on. It receives as much praise and press coverage as Austin for being such a cool town. Accolades aside, I would have gone even if it were some podunk, backwater burg. I'm so glad I got to see the city that made such an impression on Mom, and consequently me.


  1. Well, that's it. I'm going to have to get to Portland sooner rather than later. Sounds like you had a fantastic time! Amazing sites and meals. Great photo of the falls!

  2. We did have a great time- and so would you! Go soon! You'd go crazy over their farmer's market- I can just imagine all the amazing, delicious dishes you could make with their produce. Did you see those parsnips? They're massive!

  3. Your trip to Portland sounds really memorable though it is sad about the hospital. I've visited that city only once but remember vividly the smell of pine in the air. It seemed positively everywhere! It is a very lovely city.

    I'm amazed by your pics! Are these really from an instamatic camera?

  4. @Stevie Isn't Portland gorgeous? I want to go back soon.

    No Instamatic. I've looked into one but the film seems pricy to me when you can approximate the look pretty well with camera filter apps. Some of these pics were taken with my iPhone using the Polarize app. Some are DSLR pics run through the Polarize app. I wanted all of the photo borders to match up and I like the muted effect the app lends. Polarize usually does a pretty good job but I often reprocess phone pics through another app like RetroCamera to punch up the colors and contrast a bit. It's amazing what you can do with a phone camera these days, huh?