Postcard from Tom: Portland's small and personal eateries

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema finds a lot worth eating in Portland, Oregon, a culinary destination with a flavor all its own.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 11:10 AM

On the face of it, Portland, Ore., shouldn't be one of the best places in the country to dine.

Unlike New Orleans or San Francisco or Chicago, Portland doesn't claim any classic dishes. The ethnic presence in this city of nearly 600,000 people is small. Fancy destination restaurants tend to go against the cultural (read: casual) grain of the populace. As Karen Brooks, a longtime observer of the food scene here, puts it: "There are no Thomas Kellers out here, and there's not going to be. The money doesn't exist here."

Superlative ingredients do - and always have - however, as anyone who spends even a minute at the Saturday farm market near Portland State University can attest. Passion underscored by a certain modesty is in abundant display, too, evinced in part these days by the nearly 600 food carts that dot the landscape, hawking fare from fish and chips and Vietnamese pho to Cuban sandwiches. (Not to be missed: the strapping Schnitzelwich, a breaded pork cutlet seasoned with paprika and horseradish and packed in a fresh roll, from Tabor Czech Food's red hut.)

Regarding restaurants, "small and personal" is the current mantra for Portland's top toques, a group that includes Chris Israel, the chef of the delightful Gruner, which specializes in enlightened German and other cooking. "New York is very theatrical," he says. "We're more do-it-yourself."

Farmers appear to work with restaurants on an unusually helpful level here. David Kreifels, chef-owner of the innovative Laurelhurst Market, a joint butcher shop and steakhouse, recalls a farmer asking him, "What do you want me to grow for you?" (Land was cleared to grow iceberg lettuce for wedge salads.)

Another plus for chefs and customers alike: Unlike so many cities, Portland boasts fairly easy access to real estate. "If you have an idea here, you just grab a storefront," says Brooks. Together with Gideon Bosker, she's writing a book with a tentative title that sums up my sentiment about the landscape after spending three days here this fall: "The Mighty Gastropolis: How Portland's Rule-Breaking Chefs Hand-Crafted the New Urban Cuisine." The book doesn't come out until 2012, but here's why I already agree with the authors' thesis:

From the vantage point of a window table at Gruner in Portland's West End, it's easy to imagine oneself on some smart neighborhood corner in Berlin, Vienna or Zurich. An old stone church looms across the street. Inside the restaurant, a former design store, beechwood tables, espresso-colored banquettes and black brick make a minimalist statement. The menu, meanwhile, revels in liverwurst, sauerkraut, braised meats and accents running to caraway and paprika: "Alpine-inspired cuisine," its creator dubs it.

The talent behind the flavors is Chris Israel, one of the city's foremost chefs. His first restaurant, the Mediterranean-themed Zefiro, opened in 1990 and was widely credited with helping fuel Portland's early restaurant revolution. The chef's Asian-influenced Saucebox followed five years later, also to rave reviews. (Zefiro closed in 2000.)

"When I thought about opening another restaurant, I was looking for a way to distinguish myself," says Israel, 51. He also saw Gruner and its Teutonic lilt as a challenge: "People have a hard time with that cuisine for some reason."

The only difficulty I have with his interpretation is limiting myself to just one soft pretzel roll from the bread basket. Or keeping my fork out of the way of my companions'. Thin radish slices cover a plate, an edible pinwheel in red and white crowned with fresh herbs and drizzled with pumpkinseed oil. A rich terrine of rabbit and foie gras is tempered by a garnish of pickled plums. If forced to choose just one appetizer, though, I'd opt for the light, meat-stuffed ravioli floating in a clear golden broth of veal and beef stock flecked with minced chives: elegant comfort food. Honoring its theme, Gruner stocks myriad gruner veltliners (plus Riesling and pinot gris) and serves intriguing cocktails that make use of distinctive spirits and herbal liqueurs from abroad.

Israel has always had a signature chicken dish on his menus. At Gruner, braised dark chicken meets spaetzle and chanterelles in a hearty entree enriched with creme fraiche and given some crunch with crispy shallots. There's wine in the mix, too, which is why the chef refers to it as "coq au Riesling." Of course there's choucroute garnie, and it's as good as any I've encountered in Strasbourg, built as it is from winy sauerkraut, caraway-spiced bratwurst and lean pork tenderloin. In this delicious company, grilled trout with a dab of spinach and boiled potatoes is a bit of a wallflower.

Desserts are simple successes. Plum torte is a small raft of neatly arranged fruit dusted with confectioners' sugar and served with a drift of vanilla whipped cream, while fried-to-order doughnuts are filled with jams that lean to the seasonal (or with chocolate when the weather turns cool).

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