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
On a recent Wednesday night, we enjoyed the youthful Park Kitchen, which is in a former garage across
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
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
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
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
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.