Thursday, December 04, 2008

The November pastry case at Pix Patisserie, up Division street from my apartment. Note the rosemary, and the slice of brie on top of the chocolate dome--a dessert called the "Royale with Cheese."

Finally, food in Portland. I always wait too long to blog, after I've consumed countless delicacies and memorable meals. With all of this swirling in my head and only a few minutes, I'll just share an incredible, beautiful, seasonal pastry that I had yesterday, while out for work.

Called the "Ichabod Creme" (hee hee) at Pix Patisserie, this gorgeously decadent treat begins with a buttery shortbread tart crust, topped with a chewy caramel layer studded with toasted pumpkin seeds and pecans. On top of that is a thin layer of spiced almond cream, and "pumpkin creme brulee" (a.k.a. spreadable heaven). THEN there is a tangle of deep dark chocolate ribbons swirling around the top like a bee hive, and garnished with star anise and curried pecans. Exotic autumn deliciousness...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hawaii Part 2--Noon

Walking around the back streets of Waikiki, I felt like I was in Asia (with perfect timing--who wouldn't welcome a spontaneous trip abroad?). Vendors are squeezed tight against one other, with alleys and walkways leading to discount souvenir shops selling fabulous costume jewelry amongst other useless things. Signs everywhere in Japanese, illegible to me, on the walls near the shopkeepers who are fluent.

Sure, on Kalakaua Avenue it's all Louis Vuitton and Dior, but I like the fact that there are real ramen counters and dive bars in there. I asked the concierge at our hotel, who turned out to be from Japan, where she would go if she wanted authentic ramen close by (I had a cold, and was obsessed with soup). She responded, "well, that depends what I'm in the mood for," and proceeded to describe three different restaurants specializing in different types of ramen (miso-oxtail, pork, or shoyu/sesame). I was impressed. We ended up eating Thai food that night, but still...

The COOLEST thing on the backstreets that I found though, was Henry's Place--a fruit stand on Beachwalk drive. Like the vendors that I loved in Singapore, Henry's sells chilled fruit--pineapple, watermelon, papaya, etc. cut and wrapped up for your convenient, palate refreshing pleasure. I love that! (Okay, don't look to close--yes, those are cans of Vienna sausage--it's Hawaii! Gotta love it...).

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I woke up this morning craving rice. Eggs and rice. Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice. When I went back to Oahu at the end of September for a wedding, my friends and I had some variation of that breakfast almost every day for a week. It was so ono. A couple times were at the hotel buffet, but the more memorable moments were in Honolulu's old-school coffeeshops. The first was Anna Miller's out in Pearl City where I had breakfast with my cousin and her new born baby. Looking like an American family restaurant at first (pies in the front case, kitchy aprons on the waitresses), but feeling like Hawaii a few steps in (local serving staff, and classic local-style dishes on the menu). I had fried rice and eggs and man, have they perfected that dish--tiny bits of ham (or spam) in there with the green onions and shoyu.

Later that week we stayed in Waikiki, and couldn't resist breakfast at the famous Wailana Coffeehouse across from the Hilton Hawaiian Village (where we were staying, conveniently). The FLUFFIEST banana pancakes were had there, along with, of course, the eggs, and, I'm sure, somebody got rice. Somebody ALSO got half a papaya that cost $5, which I couldn't believe (a $10 papaya!).
This morning, brunching on my favorite breakfast sandwich in Portland*, I flipped through New York Times travel section. It was all about visiting New York on a budget. It seemed to be written not only for tourists, but for New Yorkers who had forgotten what it's like to explore their home city with fresh eyes. What really struck me though, were not just the restaurant recommendations, but the specific dishes that were noted throughout the section (in multiple articles). BRUNCH dishes such as a quinoa-octopus salad, and the "Dominican Farmers Breakfast" of "mangu, fried cheese, fried eggs and fried salami." The creativity of these options intrigued me, but not only that, is the presumed sophistication that the editors expect from their audience. Mangu was not even defined. It turns out to be a dish native to the Dominican Republic of mashed plantains, but it seems that most New Yorkers already know that. Another article, specifically focused on the frugal angle, wrote about another breakfast experience--"we indulged in that classic New York brunch of dim sum at the shiny Pacificana, where the vast spread of dumplings, radish cakes, and really, really good chicken feet came to a puny $11.75 a person." Radish cakes! Chicken feet! He wrote about these things in all seriousness, and in an article not directed at foodies, but the general traveler. This level of comfort with food adventure amazes me.

*That would be the "mini-egg sandwich" at the Detour Cafe. Not listed on the menu, this thing is perfect in every way. Small, but packed with flavor. It starts first with a homemade buttermilk biscuit, seasoned with scallions, corn, and cheddar cheese. In between is placed a single scrambled egg, sliced roma tomatoes, fresh basil and pepper bacon. See the detail in that? Perfect every time for $4.75.

Monday, May 19, 2008


The food at this restaurant came out so quickly that within 20 minutes of sitting down, it was like the nine-course meal never happened. Luckily, this was food that could not be forgotten.

One wouldn’t know upon arriving at House of Nanking that it is famous, but you utter it’s name and any self-respecting foodie who hears you (like the bellman at our hotel) will moan in recognition. Not exactly located in the most savory section of San Francisco (the apartment above the restaurant had long strips of meat drying in laundry bags on the fire escape--some might find this grotesque, I thought it was awesome), don’t be afraid to surrender your control of this experience. What I mean is, when you sit down, there are no menus on the table. Peter Fang, the chef and owner, walks over to your table with a pad of paper and asks if he can order for you. He asks you how many dishes you’d like, and within minutes, the day’s specials start landing on the table. Beverages? Steamy and greasy in there, what else was I to do? I ordered a can of soda.

The food is amazing. Chinese food San Francisco style—each dish was fresh, colorful, and filled with al-dente vegetables. I was impressed. There were six of us, and the feast proceeded as follows:

1. Zucchini just barely cooked, sauteed with chili pepper, red onion and Thai basil.
2. “Shrimp Cakes:” Wonton-like (but bigger and more delicate), filled with tender shrimp, peas and drizzled with a hot peanut sauce.
3. Fried calamari—a dish I’ve had many times, but which my cohorts called “the best calamari” they’d ever had. Sprinkled with hot chili oil, this was the only dish without vegetables.
4. Congee with crispy fried beef, zucchini, basil and spicy chili oil. At the time, we were calling this “white soup” having no clue what was in it, but slurping the thick stuff down hungrily. It was indeed however, congee, or savory rice porridge.
5. Garlic Pork—my favorite dish of the entire meal. Pieces of steamed pork with lots of bitter wilted greens and a hot vinegar sauce poured over the entire thing. Spicy, savory piquant goodness.
6. Sesame Chicken—fried chicken strewn with raw pieces of bitter melon and cooked sweet potato.
7. Sauteed whole mushrooms with Thai basil and red onion.
8. Spring rolls—now, these were the best I’d ever had—full of roasted chopped pork, no filler.
9. Onion Cake--the shrimp cake wasn't enough for our party, they had to have the onion cake (that they tried there the day before). Same thing--delicate fried won ton wrapper filled this time with scallions and drizzled with peanut sauce.

Everything came and went so fast and furiously--hot, crisp, fresh, salty, sour and alive. We left the restaurant stuffed, and as we walked out, I glanced up at the beef jerky hanging off the balcony of an apartment overhead and smiled, wondering when I'd eat something that authentically flavorful again.

House of Nanking is located at 919 Kearny Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

As many of you know, I had a fantastic trip to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. The smell of that city (of cool ocean, cedar and eucalyptus) was permanently etched into my sensory memory when it first blew into my nostrils as a child on family vacations. To me that scent embodies the city’s feeling of freshness. The sun shines on it. People smile there. People wear color.

The California sun seems to bestow upon it’s kingdom the promise of hope, new ideas and thus, innovation. These things in a way are true of much of the West Coast, but in California there is a lightheartedness that prevails—a feeling that allows people to try new things without too much seriousness. For example, a discussion over a light dinner led a friend of my Mother’s to state that to her, a European ex-pat, California is where one can reinvent themselves numerous times over the course of their lives, and that’s okay. Earlier that day, I met a friend for lunch, and afterward strolled over to her boyfriend’s office, where I met him and found that he runs an entire company (at the age of twenty-eight) wearing a t-shirt and jeans. There are grown-ups running and raising families in cooperative businesses (The Juice Bar collective, The Cheese board, etc.). In Berkeley, it’s a system that works.

Anyway, coming from cold, grey Portland, I was easily seduced by all of this. There's the weather, and then all there's the food! I mean, within moments after I arrived at at the airport, I was enjoying a delicate shrimp and avocado salad at the Cliff House, taking in the a breathtaking view with the sun gleaming high above the sea.

There is so much delicious, fresh and inventive food to consume in the Bay Area, that my strategy was not to seek out large, extravagant meals, but instead to nibble my way through those four days. Which I did with satisfaction.

One place that is a mecca for this type of grazing is the Ferry Building, which houses a mall of gourmet shops and restaurants of the highest quality. Two days a week they hold one of the most beautiful farmer’s markets that I’ve ever seen, with chef’s demonstrations on Saturdays. We arrived there mid-morning on our first day in the city, and didn’t have much time before we were to catch the ferry to Sausalito (which honestly bears an incredible resemblance to the island of Capri, or the Italian Riviera—a little piece of Europe in America). So we grabbed a couple of lattes and I got a cinnamon roll from Acme bakery (the famous bakery that supplies most of the most esteemed restaurants in the city with their table bread). That cinnamon roll was my favorite kind—not the grotesque bready or gooey kind, but the type that seems like the baker took some croissant dough, sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar and just rolled it a different way. Mmm...

When we returned from our ferry ride, it was, conveniently lunch time (okay, I planned it that way). We poked our heads into the various restaurants, open kitchens bustling with cooks preparing daily specials. My mom chose some chicken soup, but I decided to try Japanese food from the most impressive Japanese deli, DelicaRf-1.

I think I’ve mentioned this place before—bustling, efficient, clean and healthy, their cases are filled with mounds of seaweed salad and trays of beautiful delicacies. They sell bentos for super-speedy lunches, or pick-your-own combinations at the counter. I had a chicken-tofu cake (a dense and flavorful patty laced with onion and hijiki and topped with daikon), hijiki seaweed salad (rich and black, decorated with bright green soybeans and chewy mountain yam gelatin), and mizuna greens with carrot and marinated lotus root salad. They also had these amazingly alien looking things that were messy balls of veggie tempura—check ‘em out...

A few weeks back, my best friend came to Portland to attend her Grandfather’s eightieth birthday. Her grandparents live out on the Oregon Coast, and I was lucky to be invited to the party as well. I jump at any chance to see the ocean, or to spend time with good people, so I was really looking forward to this event. Little did I know what a treat the food would be...

We arrived early to set-up at the Newport Visual Arts center, which was a small room with two huge walls of glass, perched high above the coastline. From high above, you could see seagulls diving in the air against layers of grey clouds moving over miles of beach. It’s an incredible spot. The room itself was decorated with colorful glass, flowers, and desserts. Two women made at least ten different desserts, set around the room on cake stands and platters. Each homemade confection was labeled with personal attributions like “Mrs. Regan’s Persimmon Pudding,” and some not-so-personal, such as "Grammercy Tavern Gingerbread." I thought this was incredibly sweet—the love and care in preparing each of these treats, and the thoughtful presentation.

The desserts were set out during the dinner service (passed hors d’oeuvres catered by Local Ocean Seafood in Newport—fresh oysters, salmon, shrimp, etc.) so that all of the guests could admire (and salivate) over them throughout the evening. I was lusting after the least beautiful of them all (but most gluttonous)—the pumpkin trifle. And, I guess so was someone else, because an hour into the party, there was a huge spoon stuck right through the middle (and one portion missing). I guess an enormous bowl of whipped cream is impossible for some to resist.

Apparently, the trifle was an accident, as Victoria, who made many of the desserts, told me that she started with a pumpkin cake that didn’t turn out as she wanted it to and ended up turning the thing into a trifle (speckled with walnuts, spice and cream, maybe some vanilla pudding--this thing was heaven and hell at the same time—I went back for seconds).

Another treat was that a close friend of the family is a goat farmer and artisan cheesemaker. I met her at a Thanksgiving on the farm when I was in college, when she just began making her cheese and only sold it locally. That year we had suckling pig instead of turkey (luckily my friend’s Grandpa is a welder, because it required a custom-made baking pan). She now goes by River’s Edge Chevre, and sells her cheese at Whole Foods and New Seasons in Portland. She had at least five different cheeses out on a marble block, but my favorite was her smoked chevre. She smokes a maple leaf, spritzes it with bourbon, then wraps the chevre in it and smokes that. It was amazing—reminiscent of the flavor of smoked gouda but softer, silkier and earthier. By the end of the evening, I had stuffed myself sick with all those tasty finger-foods, but isn't that what being with family is all about?

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Today I became the proud parent of my very first musubi. Yep, that’s it there in the picture. Isn’t it cute? I made it with brown rice and everything.

I had to laugh when I finished it this morning, because I didn’t intend to make just one precious little musubi. I just didn’t make enough rice. I’m so used to making such a small little pot of rice for my meals that I thought nothing of it, and little did I know that the whole pot would fill up just one musubi mold!

See, the thing about musubi is that it is a food created to use up excess—to recreate leftovers into something different to eat later. Usually (for those smart enough to own a rice cooker—now #1 on my kitchen wish list, sorry blender, you’ve been out ranked), there’s always extra rice left in the pot after dinner. So you take that, some protein (teriyaki chicken or beef, tofu, sausage, egg, whatever), add a little drizzle of shoyu, press it in the mold, and wrap it up in nori. I used smoked salmon and a little sprinkle of furikake—I’ll see how it tastes when I bring it to work tonight. Musubi is the perfect travel food—compact and contained, they stay good for hours, and they’re meant to be eaten at room temperature.

I’m proud of my little musubi, especially because I made it with the old musubi mold that my Tutu (grandmother) gave to me years ago, and the sight of its little box conjures memories of her cooking in her kitchen. Next time though, I’ll make a bigger batch (and try not to burn the rice).

Thursday, May 01, 2008


You really don’t know what you’ve got can’t have it anymore. A naturopath prescribed an anti-inflammatory diet for my recent onset of “digestive issues,” and it’s been a mess of cravings ever since. I have a fairly healthy diet, I think—mostly organic, mostly whole foods, little processed or packaged foods, and a decent amount of fresh produce. Little did I know, that somewhere in between the lines of my healthy diatribes, I had become a sugar junkie.

Yep, now that I can’t have sugar (in it’s true form, or corn syrup or artificial sweeteners), I try to get my fix in anyway that I can. I think about sweet stuff all the time. I can’t wait for my morning oatmeal with maple syrup (the amount that I pour on is surely not allowed in the diet, but I have to give myself some slack somewhere, right?). I squeeze honey over my almond butter smeared on crackers, order the poached pear salad at work every other day, and have been eating more fresh fruit than ever before. I’m about to go online to see if there’s a recipe for sugar-free macaroons (stevia anyone?), if those even exist.

But sweets aren’t even the worst. The worst craving is for golden-outside, soft and chewy inside, warm-and-waiting-for-butter baked goods. The desire that I feel for croissants, muffins, bagels, ciabatta bread, foccacia and even whole wheat toast, is overwhelming. Especially, when I see them, round and ready, in glass pastry cases just about everywhere I go. Rarely have I ever really thought about these things as special, or lusted over the many varieties of sandwich bread. As bread is such a standard element of the American diet, I had never even thought about what life would be like without it, or the emotional comfort that it provides. When it’s cold outside, and you’re tired and hungry, home late after a nine hour shift at work, not being able to throw a piece of toast into the toaster and eat it warm with butter is almost painful.

I was inspired to note this as I’m sitting in the coffee shop at Powell’s bookstore, sipping on my caffeine-free rooiboos chai (which probably contains some form of sugar, hopefully honey, but really, I don’t care), after to summoning every element of willpower I possess in order to suppress the compulsion to give in and buy one of the glistening pastries in the case at the register (is it just me, or are the double-wheel cinnamon rolls there the best looking ones you’ve ever seen?).

Walking in here, I stopped at the cookbook aisle and flipped through one of the Moosewood cookbooks, reading through recipes. As I really got into the details of one of the pancake recipes (envisioning them warm and brown and...), I almost dropped the book. My body tripped for just a second as I got lost in the idea of those delicious treats, and, just like a strength test at the chiropractor’s office, my weakness was pin-pointed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Well, I think now is as good a time as any to talk about avocados. I love them, I mention them often. Their gorgeous image graced the cover of Saveur magazine about a year ago. I'm holding on to that issue. But, unfortunately don't get to enjoy them often enough. See, here in Portland, an avocado the size of, mmm, a really small pear, is three dollars. That's a lot. And often, they're not even ripe. Even when they're soft.

In Hawaii, the avocados are so huge (bigger than a softball), and buttery, and yellow--not light yellow, like, mustard-yellow. So good. Great on tacos, salads, sandwiches, or just on toast. Avocado toast--putting ripe avocado on a piece of toasted bread with a squeeze of lime and Spike seasoning=heaven. They serve avocado on whole grain toast at my favorite cafe in the world, Cafe Gitane (NYC). I think I've just identified a comfort food. My mom's been preparing that snack combination my whole life, and she still eats it a couple times a week. I did the same when I was on Kauai in February.

When I was a kid (little--maybe three?), I was even permanently scarred from this food--the lime juice dripped off the avo onto my leg and, it being Hawaii, I went out into the sun and got this birthmark looking burn. It's gone now (okay so it wasn't exactly permanent), but I had it all through childhood. It was on my leg. Maybe I just wanted a birthmark. I used to say that I was allergic to lime juice. Ask my friends. Paranoia still prevents me from touching any kind of citrus if I'm in the sun--you'll never catch me taking that lime wedge from the side of my margarita and squeezing it poolside.

Back to avocados. I think the avocado sandwich is also a perfect food. Avo and monterey jack cheese on a sandwich is just so tasty. Or that as a quesadilla with salsa. I think all this must originate in Southern California, the land of citrus, and Mexican food. And a good sandwich. They know how to make a good sandwich in California. They don't here. To me, the ultimate sandwich has got to have sprouts on it. Avocado, and sprouts. On hearty, whole grain bread. I don't care too much about the rest--it could have turkey, it might have cheese. It might have grated carrots. Andy's in Manoa (Oahu) understands this--they serve their turkey avo sandwich with about three different variations. They roast their turkey on-site and shred it daily. Their customer base is so strong that they are somehow able to be closed on Saturdays. What I wouldn't give for one of Andy's sandwiches right now--I guess I'll have to settle for avocado on spelt toast.

A few weeks ago a friend and I took a gustatory day trip, but this time it wasn't about the food. It was about beer. We went to the source of the taste of beer. On a photo assignment for a local magazine, we drove a couple hundred miles out to the Yakima Valley in southern Washington to photograph the man in charge of this commodity. It is in Yakima where farmers harvest most of the country’s hops—that herbacious flower that gives India Pale Ale it’s distinguishable taste (and many beers their bitterness). We met with the President of HopUnion, the company that supplies most of the nation’s craft breweries with their hops (and given t-shirts and keychains bearing slogans like “Hop-Blooded!”). This may seem esoteric to many of you, but here in Portland, beer-speak is everyday lingo. Everybody knows the difference between an IPA, a lager, Heffeweizen, porters, stouts and ales. If they don’t know the difference, they can taste it, and they know what they like. No self-respecting Portlander is drinking Heinneken out here, that’s for sure. That would be of a category that I’ve come to refer to as “yellow beer.” I don’t drink it either (in fact, lately I’ve gotten into Belgian beers, but that’s a whole different story).

The issue at hand, and what put us on assignment in the first place, is that there is a hop shortage in this country right now. Craft brewing (microbrewing--the good stuff) has increased in popularity, and businesses have multiplied faster than the hops can grow. Farmers are depressed because there just isn’t enough to go around. The harvest is allocated a year out, and HopUnion has a long waiting list. In the winter, the fields are fallow, but the warehouses still have stock from last year (as well as imported hops from Europe). We were able to peak into these giant refrigerators (their cold storage areas are kept at 32 degrees, in the desert), and the moment we stepped in we could smell that distinctive floral scent that only hops can deliver. I do like hoppy beer, so of course my sensory memory immediately dreamt of a cold IPA. It still takes me by surprise sometimes how much a smell can conjure up such an acute association.

The whole trip was so fascinating—to see how this one plant can be the source of flavor, and joy and sorrow (not the kind caused by beer drinking--the hop growers are truly saddened by the shortage situation).

The Yakima Valley happens to be part of the Columbia Valley wine growing region—known primarily for cabernets and syrahs. We drove high into the hills above the hop fields to a brand-new tasting room in a renovated farm cottage. Surrounding the structure are vineyards recently planted with over 15 varietals from around the world. Quite ambitious and intriguing, I thought. The winemaker will wait years to see how these all pan out, how these grapes behave in those conditions.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the vineyard manager, then the tasting room stewards—an extremely welcoming and friendly couple, who invited us in to taste wines from Wilridge and Harlequin. We even chatted with one of the winemakers, who was just finishing his day tending to the property. More than with the wines, I was impressed by the hospitality of these people, and the beauty of the land up there. With the farms and vineyards in the distance, the steep hillsides were reminiscent of Italian hilltowns. The backside of the property dips into a wildlife preserve—Cowiche Canyon. Gorgeous. We watched the sunset with them, said good bye to our hosts and the sagebrush, and drove back home to Portland.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I woke today to the repetitive buzz of a small domestic appliance. My peaceful morning quiet was broken by this odd sound, and it took me a few sleepy minutes to recognize that it was coming from the kitchen. It turned out to be the motor of an electric citrus juicer, as my mom was making me a tall glass of tangelo juice.

I often feel frustrated by the poor quality and low standards of food in restaurants here in Hawaii, but man, you can't beat the ripeness the fresh tropical fruit. Since I arrived back in the islands, I've sampled a good amount of my local food favorites--shave ice at Matsumoto's (lilikoi-guava-li hing), Furikake crusted ahi plate lunch, portuguese-sausage-eggs-and-rice, and the blueberry-cream cheese scones at Diamond Head Grill. I made it to a few trendy and classic spots around Honolulu too--lunch at Mariposa (love those popovers with guava butter, and the consomme is always an elegant touch), dinner at Vino, Formaggio's, a cocktail at Nobu in Waikiki, breakfast at Town.

All of these are good spots, and time well spent with friends and family, but my favorite meals have been those enjoyed in someone's home. My friend Leah made me fried rice one hungover morning, which, along with a couple of ibubrofen, hit the spot. She whipped up some tasty curry one night too with Japanese eggplant and tofu that was simply satisfying. I wanted to make grilled-cheese on her fiance's "snackmaster" iron, but we just never got the chance.

Back at home on Kauai, I've started to cook a bit myself again, and wanted to share a bit about the fantastic meal we made tonight for a couple of family friends. Our guests arrived with a bottle of Groth 2001 Oakville cab, and while that opened up, we poured some Cloudy Bay Sauvignon blanc that my Mom had saved from her store. They also brought (and this is really what inspired me to type these notes in the first place)a chunk of sausage from Salumi in Seattle (Mario Batali's dad's place). It was mexican mole salami, and that stuff was incredible. Nice and dry, the sausage's richness is still apparent alongside the slight chocolate and spice in the mole. SO GOOD! (I might sneak into the kitchen for a tiny piece right now--even at 11 pm). Our dinner was delicious as well--my stepdad made a coriander rubbed pork tenderloin with "calabacitas" (see recipe below), what he describes as a "poor people" dish that his mother used to make when he was a kid. The original recipe uses Velveeta cheese, but suggested jack cheese and it was great. I made a salad with local mixed greens, cilantro, oranges, and red onion dressed with olive oil/lime juice/honey/cumin/salt/pepper. That's a good simple dressing when you don't want to use vinegar. For dessert I made pineapple soaked in basil simple syrup with a curl of mango sorbet on top. Mmm...It was all very simple but just so fresh and island-style.


3-4 medium zucchini or yellow squash
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped, peeled roasted green chile (or canned, drained and rinsed)
1 cup cooked corn
1/2 shredded jack cheese

1. Saute onion in olive oil until softened.
2. Add squash and garlic until cooked.
3. Add cooked corn and season with salt and pepper.
4. Sprinkle cheese over the top, turn off heat, and cover with a lid until melted.

So I’m sitting at Tabla on a cold, misty Saturday night at about nine, picking moist meat off of duck bones, and telling my friend about the vacancy sign hanging in the Mercury’s food department. At that point, I figured that it was as good of a time as any to write a review.

We jaunted down NE 28th from the Laurelhurst Theater, a little hungry after seeing a movie about a seriously disfunctional family (“Margot at the Wedding”). Walking, we talked, divulging secrets of our own ancestors, and appropriately sought a restaurant that would offer us warmth and comfort. Portland’s restaurant row isn’t too bad a place to be hungry--last weekend we hit up Noble Rot for a meal comprised of a superb (albeit pricey) roast duck surrounded by liquefied pate, and other delicious bites. On this night, we scanned the menu outside Tabla, for beckoning words like “radicchio,” “confit,” and “house-made.” They were all there, so we walked right in.

Surprisingly half-empty on a Saturday, the host gave us our choice of a table or the kitchen bar (they have two bars—the alcohol one and the food one—very nice), and chose to set up as close to fire as possible. The staff was extremely relaxed and friendly (even prompting comments out of my mouth like “this would be a great place to work”). We were offered tastes when it came to wine decisions (despite the fact that our server had a thorough knowledge of her wines, and could describe each with detail, and made decent suggestions), and the cook just handed us our dishes over the counter when she finished cooking them. Home-style.

The food was homey as well, but by this I mean homey like the way that someone can invite you to their house for dinner, and cooks you something good, that fills you up with no flash. We started with the mussels from Puget Sound (SO fresh) in a bit of broth with sausage, sautéed onions and herbs. The thing about this dish was, the flavor was SO subtle, SO mild, that it was almost flavor-less. I mean, shellfish will always provide a distinct taste, but the sausage tasted like...scrambled egg. Not bad...just unexpected? The dish could have been enhanced by salt, but we were ashamed to ask for it from the sweet cook behind the counter. The kitchen was pretty cool looking back there, like an Italian kitchen with white matte paint layered behind the knife racks and shelves of cookbooks. The aforementioned radicchio (salad) was deconstructed--two slices of whole d’anjou pear underneath a pile of the greens (can you use the term “greens” if they’re purple?) with currants, and a wedge of Humboldt fog (I love that cheese and it was a generous portion, but didn’t exactly pair with any of the other flavors there, which in a way resembled coleslaw). Finally, the duck confit. Whipped potatoes. Kale. The kale was good. Braised and slightly sweet, like southern collards. Again...salt? The duck was okay. Honestly, it was kind of a “the ingredients should speak for themselves” preparation...but these ingredients were, well...either shy or mute. That said, it was satisfying sustenance on a cold winter night with a good friend and our consoling conversation. Fortunately, she had more to say than the food, and the wine was good. A solid B. Service, A. Food, C+. One cool thing about Tabla is that they offer a $24 prix fixe menu, which is great—3 courses, your choice, with the option of wine pairings. Their sommelier also has a spot on the menu that features a rotating wine region, with four selections from that area available by the glass. This week it was Languedoc-Rousillion.

As an endnote, a server came into the kitchen as things were really slowing down, and as we started talking (about restaurant staff breaking into song), he mentioned that he was waiting on a table in their private dining room which included a freelance writer for Gourmet. I asked whether their menu was set or if they ordered off of the menu that we did. Provocatively, I found out that they ordered a la carte. I wondered if anybody ordered the breakfast sausage (in the mussels, that is).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


One of my favorite taste-experiences of all time was so simple, but so perfect. I was walking in midtown Manhattan while there for work a couple of years ago. Hungry and on-the-go in Manhattan--usually circumstances under which you just keep walking until you see something (coffee, nuts, pizza?) that you can swiftly shove in your mouth as you continue to elbow your way through the throngs of people beside you. So I'm walking, and getting a little desperate, when the warm waft of something freshly baking snuck up to my nose. I looked around, and there I stood in front of one of New York's classic bagel shops (the ones with the wood paneling and paned glass--I think it may have been Ess-a-Bagel). As I walked inside, a man was dumping trays of plump, bouncy bagels from the hot oven into the display baskets. Usually I take my bagel toasted, but as these were piping hot, there was no need. The man behind the counter just sliced open an "everything" and spread a good spatula's worth of cream cheese in the middle. The bagel was so hot that the cream cheese began to melt into the soft, doughy center, while the outside was just perfectly shiny and chewy.

I know that's getting a little bit poetic about a bagel, but until you've had a REAL bagel, you'll never know what I'm talking about. You'll never know about this perfect round of dough that inspires poetry. (Those bagels that come in packages of six in the grocery stores are not real bagels. They're bagel shaped rolls. Or bread, or something). Real bagels are of a species defined by the technique of their production: they must be first BOILED, then BAKED. This is what makes them plump up SO GOOD and creates that perfect shiny/chewy exterior. Most often, REAL bagels are found on the East Coast. [Here's what I'm talking about knowing a REAL bagel: Mother's Bistro, a breakfast place here, actually ships their bagels in from H&H Bagel in New York for their Lox and Bagel Plate.]

So one can imagine how excited I was, in early Fall, when I saw signs for "New York Style Bagels" up on the windows of a new store front only 2 blocks from my apartment. Over-eager (as always) I tried this place out promptly after it opened, and was, (as I often am when I try a newborn food establishment) disappointed. The bagels weren't big and puffy, but instead kind of...skinny. And that's not a quality I look for in a bagel. Neither is lopsidedness. But after some time, Kettleman Bagels worked it out, perfected it's technique (maybe the ovens just had to be seasoned), and now I'm addicted. Really, being addicted to bagels in the middle of a grey and sleepy winter is not exactly ideal. But they have so many kinds...the classics (poppy seed, onion, sesame, everything), the sweets (cinnamon raisin, blueberry ), the savories (rye, pumpernickel, jalapeno, sundried tomato). They even have a mulitgrain for those with food-guilt issues (hey, you're still ordering a BAGEL). They've got hot egg sandwiches, lox sandwiches, deli sandwiches and all the sourcream spreads. It seems that they add a new sourcream spread everyday (they used to have pumpkin, now they have wild berry). I LOVE the scallion cream cheese with tomato on an everything bagel, or the lox cream cheese with mixed greens and cucumber for crunch. YUM! Come visit me in Portland, we'll have bagels...
[I just wish they had hazelnut flavored drip coffee, then for breakfast everyday I could close my eyes and be in New York...]

Monday, January 07, 2008

I finished working brunch this afternoon, and when I stepped out of the restaurant at 4:30pm it was already getting dark. Too early for a cocktail, but almost too late for anything else. Besides, this holiday season was a rough one, and I’ve resolved to clean up my system for a little while. Well, toxically speaking. So I took my aching legs for a walk to “the Pearl,” our swanky little boutique area, in search of something warm to drink. After doing a few laps, I arrived where I expected I might, at this little chocolaterie. I walked in and examined the various cases: one with shelves of handmade bonbons, truffles and other chocolate confections, and the other full of cakes and pastries. I have to mention that I love that this bastion of chocolate richness, sugar, and fat, is directly across the street from Portland’s premier vegan cafe (Blossoming Lotus) and yoga studio. In fact, one of their employees was in line for a triple-espresso just before me.

I looked over the menu and stood in line for my treat. When I got to the front, the girl working asks me “so how’s your day been going?” And I (wearing all black except for the hat that my tired eyes were hiding under) reflexively crinkled my brow and replied “well, if it were going well, I probably wouldn’t be in here right now.” (In a pastry shop. At 5 o’clock at night.). She still had a friendly smile and said, “oh. I wonder why everybody’s having a bad day today?” Well, I’m gonna venture to say that it’s THE WEATHER. It rains every fricking day. Okay, it didn’t rain on Tuesday, but it was still cloudy the ENTIRE DAY.

So I ordered a “drinking chocolate” and an indulged in an oatmeal cookie and enjoyed them both immensely. The drink is basically melted chocolate with cream, with the consistency of a thick chocolate sauce. It’s what you get in Europe if you order a “hot chocolate.” In Spain anyway. It was served in tiny cup with a little spoon. It gave me just enough lift to get back out into the cold and the energy to go to Whole Foods to buy some vegetables that made up for it.

A new year. New tastes. New writing.

Wednesday was my twenty-ninth birthday.

Toro bravo, from what I remember*: The night began with a toast of Cava rose (in authentic Spanish tapas bar fashion, all of their glassware is stemless, which is cool, except that they have bowls like wine glasses, where they should’ve just gone all the way with the flat bottom or more of a water glass style. Champagne poured in stemless is just kinda wrong aesthetically...but it still tasted great!).

The food impressed all my friends to no end. Tiny crab cakes shaped like scallops that were almost pure crab, accompanied by a fresh in a lemon dill aioli. House pickled olives and vegetables to nibble, infused with a red pepper that coated the tongue. Super-fresh clams in a garlicy broth with spicy homemade chorizo AND bacon/pancetta chunks. Roasted pork that was shredded and served with pickles and toast (this dish actually tasted like kalua pig, and looked like it too--one of the owner’s old partners is from Hawaii—i wonder...). Radicchio salad all beautifully purple and simple, with shaved cheese and some incredible creamy dressing--fresh, crunchy, bitter, salty. There was that other salad...meatballs with stewed tomatoes, fried chickpeas with smoky paprika, affogatto, chocolate souffle, two bottles of Rioja...a big wooden table...oh man, my favorite: harissa roasted winter squash with some kind of melted white cheese (soft? goat?) oh my god was I mopping my bread in that!! So incredible. The sweet of the squash, the deep smoky spice of the harissa, the creamy cheese... i could’ve eaten that whole stoneware dish myself. Soft bread that most people would’ve enjoyed with that good green olive oil, but which I used to drag over each plate—even the aioli! Hey, it was my birthday, and damnit, I’d clean a plate of homemade mayonaise if I wanted to! Amazing friends, good laughs, great time.

FYI: Toro Bravo was voted Portland’s best new restaurant of the year. This was my second time there, and far more delicious and memorable. We were originally quoted a 2 hour wait, but it turned out to be much less, and, well, that’s where that Cava came in. Also notable—John Gorham, the chef/owner was one of the founding partners in Viande meats (Portland’s premier butcher shop/meat guys. They make the best bacon, salami, etc.), which subsequently spun-off into Simpatica catering & dining hall (some of the best brunch in P-town). These guys know their pork.

*Regretfully (and totally unlike me), I cannot take any responsibility for the accuracy of my flavor discernment. I was just enjoying my wine and the overall sensory experience too much to pay attention to specifics. I think I remember some dill, but hey, that aioli might have been tarragon. The pickles? No idea what made them so good. Come on, it was my birthday, and many toasts were had. Actually, the first, which is worth mentioning, was at Vault martini bar, a place which I have to commend for mixing excellent cocktails, with fresh squeezed juices and infusions at only 4 bucks a pop for happy hour (between 4:30 and 7. It’s in the Pearl at 12th and Everett). 4 bucks! I had a “Wicked Gimlet” (their booklet of a drink menu is a fun read)—gin, lemon/lime juice and mint, shaken & served up. Mmm...and that’s the point when the tastebuds started a’ tinglin’ (and began to get a little confused).