Very positive article:
THEY come but they don’t go.
In the way New York drew artists in the ’50s, this city at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers seems to exert a magnetic lure on talented chefs who come from almost anywhere else and decide to stay right here. About the hardest thing to find in Portland these days is a homegrown chef.
Portland may seem an unlikely place for such status, a city destined to play second string on the West Coast to San Francisco and Seattle. But in the last five years or so Portland has grown and evolved.
At first it was a sort of underground stop for food and wine lovers who had heard word of small, fascinating restaurants run by young, talented chefs serving a bounty of local produce. It’s underground no more. Portland has emerged from its chrysalis as a full-fledged dining destination.
This is a golden age of dining and drinking in a city that 15 years ago was about as cutting edge as a tomato in January. Every little neighborhood in this city of funky neighborhoods now seems to be exploding with restaurants, food shops and markets, all benefiting from a critical mass of passion, skill and experience, and all constructed according to the gospel of locally grown ingredients.
In close proximity is a cadre of farmers committed to growing environmentally responsible produce with maximum flavor, delivered to restaurants and to the gorgeous farmers’ markets that dot the city. There are local fisheries and small beef, lamb and pork producers. Not far away is the Hood River Valley, with its myriad fruit growers who supply glistening, fragile berries and stonefruits of every stripe and color.
World-class wine is produced in the Willamette Valley, the center of the Oregon wine industry, just a half hour’s drive away. Portland has six micro-distilleries making any kind of spirits you can name and, if you’d like a chaser, more breweries than any other city on earth. Just as important is a receptive populace, demanding yet eager to be wowed.
Portland also has what anybody in the restaurant business will tell you is most important of all: affordable real estate. Just as young, passionate chefs flocked to the East Village and Brooklyn in the 1990s, chefs have gravitated to Portland because it lets them have a vision and take risks without lining up corporate backers and lawyers.
“This is one of the very few places on the West Coast that has been an affordable place to live,” said Andy Ricker, who in 2005 opened Pok Pok, which started under his obsessive eye as a ramshackle Thai takeout shack and now has a hip little dining room as well. “There are a ton of people here who are going at it in sort of an indie rock way, mostly because they can.”
Mr. Ricker is a perfect example. Originally from Vermont, he spent years cooking around the world before following a girl to Portland in the early 1990s. He got a job at Zefiro, an Italian restaurant that set a standard for Portland cooking back then. Restless, he left the business and became a house painter, saving money and traveling to southeast Asia for three or four months at a time. He also bought two houses and sold them, taking advantage of a rising real estate market so he could finance his vision of a southeast Asian restaurant without having to satisfy financial backers.
Now, he’s won acclaim for dishes like juicy game hens roasted over charcoal and stuffed with lemon grass, garlic, pepper and cilantro, and local pork loin marinated in coconut milk and turmeric, and served with peanut sauce.
“You could never open a place that was completely a shot in the dark in San Francisco or New York because the costs are so prohibitive,” he said.
Costs were a major concern to Vitaly and Kimberly Paley, who arrived with an earlier wave of restaurant immigrants in 1994. Eager for a fresh start after working in some of Manhattan’s most illustrious restaurants, they toured the West Coast, finally settling on Portland.
“We sold our 500-square-foot New York apartment, and with the money, we bought a house with a swimming pool, two cars, and had enough left to open a restaurant,” Mr. Paley said.
Today, Paley’s Place, a warm and intimate dining room on the first floor of a Victorian house in northwest Portland, is recognized as one of the top restaurants in the Northwest, if not the country, and Mr. Paley has been celebrated for applying French techniques to the Northwestern palette of ingredients. Just as important, Paley’s Place, along with other seminal restaurants like Zefiro, Wildwood, Higgins and Genoa, has served as an incubator for much of the talent that is making its mark today.
Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, a kind of new-wave bistro, learned the basics of making stocks and working the grill during two years at Paley’s after he arrived here from his hometown, Napa, Calif. He passed through a few other kitchens, then last year he was given an opportunity to take over one of his own. He transformed a little storefront restaurant into Le Pigeon, an informal, slightly manic spot with seasonally changing, nonconformist dishes like braised pork belly with creamed corn and butter-poached prawns, sweetbreads with pickled watermelon, and just about anything that can possibly involve tongue. His signature dessert is apricot cornbread with bacon, topped with maple ice cream.
“I used to think of Portland as a stepping stone, but I fell in love with the city,” said Mr. Rucker, who’s all of 26. “Rather than going somewhere with a really established food scene, I felt as a young chef that I could really have a lot of possibilities.”
Like many of Portland’s top chefs, he has established firm relationships with the local farmers. “I can call and have loads of chanterelles or huckleberries delivered right to my door,” he said. “When you have people as passionate about growing a watermelon as I am to use it, it’s great.”
Passion is an important word here in Portland, and so is politics, especially when applied to agriculture. Many of the older farmers came from the Bay Area in the 1970s with a vision of sustainable agriculture, and they have continued to adhere to those principles. Chefs around the country pay lip service to the philosophy of seasonal cooking, but in Portland they seem to take this idea especially seriously, following the examples of influential chefs like Mr. Paley, Greg Higgins (from upstate New York) of Higgins, Dave Machado (Massachusetts) of Lauro Kitchen and Vindalho, and Cory Schreiber of Wildwood — that rare Oregon native, though he’s now retired.
“They did a great job establishing the expectation among Portland’s dining community that restaurants were going to be using local and seasonal ingredients,” said Ken Forkish, who, inspired by the French baker Lionel Poilâne, came from Maryland in 2000 to open Ken’s Artisan Bakery and, last year, Ken’s Artisan Pizza.
He found Portland tough going at first. Even standard fare — rustic fruit tarts and croissants — was not that familiar here six years ago, Mr. Forkish said, but he believes the population has quickly become more worldly.
“Partly it’s because of all the new places that opened,” he said, “but there’s also been a steady influx of new people who expect these things.”
One recent arrival is Tony Soter, a longtime Napa Valley winemaker who last year moved here with his family. They are living in Portland as they build a house on their property in the Willamette Valley. The Soters have 200 acres on an east-west ridge with orchards, herds of sheep and goats, and 10 head of cattle.
“Napa is country only in name,” he said. “This is the real deal out here.”
Mr. Soter and his wife, Michelle, come from the Portland area originally. And though Mr. Soter spent most of the last 20 years in California, working with Spottswoode, Shafer and Araujo, along with his own winery, Etude, the Soters grew tired of the gloss of Napa. They longed for an environment more in tune with their own values and a place where Mr. Soter felt he could make more balanced European-style wines than he could in California.
The local wine industry has played a crucial role in the rise of Portland’s food culture. Visiting wine celebrities are drawn into the gravitational pull of Portland’s restaurants, but, aside from that, wine regions naturally inspire a surrounding culture that is highly sensitive to cuisine.
Pascal Sauton grew up in Paris and had cooked in Philadelphia, New York and Colorado before he visited Portland 11 years ago with his wife, Julie Hunter, and decided he never wanted to leave. “I loved the fact that there were four distinct seasons, and the wine valley was a big factor,” he said. “The climate, and the whole feel, was European.”
After cooking at several different places, the couple opened Carafe in 2003, a joyful, informal bistro that is half French — Mr. Sauton’s wide, friendly face is as unmistakably French as a bottle of Beaujolais — and all northwestern. To walk through a farmer’s market on a summer morning and to see beautiful golden chanterelles and organic cipollini onions, sweet cherry tomatoes, pattypan squash and bell peppers in purple, ivory and orange, is to have some idea of what you might find on Mr. Sauton’s lunch menu. You’ll even find glorious local corn on the menu, something you would never see in France.
“Well, we bend the rules a little,” he said.
In the winter, he gets tarbais beans from local farmers for his cassoulet along with leeks, celery root and winter squash. Winter is serious business for a chef dedicated to seasonal cooking, yet Portland chefs have worked closely with farmers to assure a steady supply of produce through the dark months. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, greens and cauliflower are in the winter pipeline; seasonal cooking also forces creativity.
“It’s a time to slow down and really make some focused dishes that will stay on the menu for a while, maybe do a braise or a confit or dumplings,” said Jason Barwikowski (Michigan), the chef at Clyde Common, a bustling restaurant that opened this year in the Ace Hotel. Mr. Barwikowski arrived in Portland after working in Wyoming, where he was able to combine cooking with a love of snowboarding, rock climbing and fly-fishing. Things haven’t changed all that much except that the level of cooking is higher.
“I still snowboard and fly-fish and rock climb and ride bikes,” he said. “Half an hour in any direction and you’re in the mountains or woods.”
These other attributes of Portland — the outdoor life, and its deliberately casual, relaxed atmosphere — may in some ways limit what its restaurants can accomplish.
“Portland may be over-hyped in some ways,” said Dave Machado, who after 16 years in Portland is a respected old guard chef. “A big city with an international component is always going to have crisper service. We have a regional class of service here.”
At the same time, Portland’s population is growing and real estate prices are climbing, leading some to fear that the city will lose its cherished renegade spirit. But Mr. Paley, for one, scoffs at that notion.
“I think Portland innately will make sure that people always have opportunities,” he said. “Portland is a free spirit.”