Monday, August 13, 2007

Two of Portland's Finest: Park Kitchen and Wildwood

Everyone in Portland seems to be either between the age of 21 and 35 and tattoo-laden or homeless with a fondness for opiates. “Hipsters” toil as bellhops, cabbies, and convenience store clerks, and know where to go for great espresso and experimental cuisine. I knew I was not in Los Angeles when our cabbie asked about the quality of the escargot at Paley’s Place. (I replied that Paley’s felt tired and its French food not as good as last year.)

Central Portland is compact, eminently walkable, and teeming with rebellious and surprisingly unpretentious young creative types, many of whom have escaped the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Everyone seems to be a budding rock-n-roll musician and has a passion for food, wine, and coffee. In this environment, there is no shortage of idiosyncratic restaurants and cafés to try and following Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps here did not lead us astray, excising of course his weekly foray into every city’s catacombs.

The Portland dining scene is exemplified by a great respect for quality local ingredients and experimentation. But when the subject turns to wine, Portland becomes provincial and manifests a bratty inferiority complex relative to its much larger southerly neighbor. To wit, Portland restaurants will not serve domestic reds other than Willamette Valley pinot and some Washington cabs and syrahs. However, in the quest for (self-)respectability, Portland restaurants seek the approval of the avuncular French, and offer a broad array of Burgundies and other regional wines.

Park Kitchen

On a recent Wednesday night, we enjoyed the youthful Park Kitchen, which is in a former garage across NW Eighth Avenue, a misnomer, since it is actually a boulevard whose wide median is the verdant North Park Blocks, which makes for a picturesque setting. Park Kitchen is an attractive restaurant with large glass front windows, leading in to a bar behind which is a comfortable dining room and an open kitchen. The restaurant’s walls were painted a breezy light green that Marisa found compelling. Not a single employee appeared to be over the age of 30.

Park Kitchen was not afraid to exercise its creative license and for the most part also exercised restraint. Its chef-owner, Scott Dolich, and chef de cuisine, David Padberg, both had stints at Wildwood, perhaps Portland’s version of Chez Panisse, which as I discovered, gives its cooks plenty of room to stretch out as long as they have the requisite chops. These apprenticeships clearly paid dividends, and I could tell just by watching these chefs that they relished cooking with the Northwest’s agricultural bounty, a terrific platform for their recipes.

Park’s dinner menu offers several small plates and half a dozen larger plates. Among the smaller plates, we enjoyed a fresh salad with grilled flank steak, blue cheese, and best of all, sherry roasted onions. I typically avoid the oxymoronic “steak salad,” but our waiter recommended it. The flank steak was good, but the combination of the blue cheese and robust sherried onions made the dish a standout. I also liked the anchovies served with “new wheat” that was purposefully picked before fully grown, squash and walnuts. The dish was less than coherent, but I love anchovies.

Best of all was the moist, delicious roasted sliced duck with cherries and pan-fried spätzle, which we enjoyed watching the chef prepare. The flavor combination of salty and sweet made this dish the hit of the evening. The only real misfire was the tempura of green beans and bacon, served to resemble Belgian fries in a paper cone. Greasy and starchy, every bite tasted fatty. The crisp green beans would have been delicious on their own; there was no need to gild that lily. Moreover, the fried morsels of bacon tasted like a full-on cardiologic meltdown. I could feel my arteries clogging. We skipped dessert in favor of a walk through Portland’s red light district for the black magic of Voodoo Doughnut’s bacon and maple glaze.


After the fiasco at Paley’s, which I had foolishly hyped as Portland’s Bistro Jeanty, my ingenious wife, took over the reins and chose a late lunch at Wildwood, a 13-year old specialist in the “cuisine” of the Pacific Northwest. We sat at end of the long counter in front of the wood-burning oven and watched and conversed with an assistant chef, a 28-year old army vet from Porterville, Calif. with tattoos of cutlery on his arms.

Our Wildwood lunch was great because the restaurant employed an Alice Waters approach and somehow obtained guttural Mario Batali results. This success is a testament to the restaurant’s founder and head, Cory Schreiber, who provides a technical foundation to his less experienced, but gifted assistant chefs, collaborates on recipes and dishes, and then puts them on the menu. It is also a testament to the Portland foodie culture, which has growing centripetal force on the west coast. Wildwood’s confidence extends to its wine, and it has no problem selling California wine. So after three days of much Willamette pinot noir and gris, I was relieved to have a glass of Qupe marsanne.

We started with two well-proportioned salads with outstanding local produce. Marisa’s salad, my favorite, had a foundation of mizuna greens and Cypress Grove goat cheese, and two items that distinguished it. Sliced baby fennel, a terrific supporting actor, was small and had a fresh, subdued flavor relative to the adult variety which tends to dominate. The baby fennel provided excellent balance to the lead, which were fresh local apricots roasted in a skillet in the wood burning oven. Their warm succulence and sweetness made the salad a hit.

I usually avoid gazpacho, because it ends up being cucumber-heavy pico de gallo. But as the other assistant chef dispensed a most tantalizing bowl of gazpacho, our interlocutor noticed our malevolent leering and quickly brought us a sample to prevent a scene and our disgrace. The gazpacho was outstanding for its freshness, balance of flavors, and smooth texture. A final touch of cayenne pepper on top enlivened it nicely.

Upon arrival, we watched the chef prepare a very colorful skillet of vegetarian risotto for roasting in the oven, and of course we inquired. The chef with pride claimed the dish as a collaboration between Schreiber and himself. So now I had to order it, despite my scepticism about risotto dishes and their notoriously high failure rate. The vegetables were local carrots, squash blossoms and summer squash along with some walnuts. The chef roasted it all in a skillet with white wine and toward the end added some mascarpone to give it a light creamy texture. The dish was a beautiful, resounding success.

While I defensively ordered the risotto to avoid any guilt and awkwardness since we were within three feet of the chef who claimed the dish as his own, Marisa asked the guy to recommend his favorite item on the menu. Skillet-roasted mussels was his answer, or to be specific, a large order of fresh small mussels from nearby Olympia, Wash. served in the skillet in a pungent muck of garlic, white wine, and saffron with plenty of grilled bread to sop it all up. This dish was the tipping point when all the pedantic talk about local produce terminates, and you put your head down and do not come up for air until it’s over. This is when a meal becomes guttural and Wildwood’s dainty Alice Waters veneer is stripped off. And this is Wildwood’s singular achievement.

Park Kitchen
422 NW 8th Ave.

(503) 223-7275

Wildwood Restaurant
1221 NW 21st Avenue

(503) 248-9663

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