”It's a little weird,” said food writer and critic Francis Lam of Bravo television's “Top Chef Masters.” “Portland is only the 35th-biggest city in the country, and yet it's consistently on the cover of national magazines.”
His point was simple: Portland's escalating fame as a dining destination far outstrips its relative size.
Lam, who was raised in Hong Kong and who now lives in New York, has Portland roots that go back more than a decade. Just out of culinary school, he worked for pioneering Portland chef Greg Higgins at his eponymous restaurant, Higgins.
In Oregon three weekends ago for the Bon Appétit-sponsored Feast Portland festival, Lam made it a point to return to his mentor's kitchen: “He was great 20 years ago, and he may be even better now. I think Higgins serves the best charcuterie plate in the country.”
In the mid-1990s, Portland's now-acclaimed culinary scene was in its infancy. Higgins was on the cutting edge, along with such other chefs as Cory Schreiber (Wildwood), Vitaly Paley (Paley's Place), Pierre Boulot (The Heathman) and John and Caprial Pence (Caprial's Kitchen). “The '90s really paved the way for what Portland has become,” said Mike Thelin, a Portland restaurant consultant and author, and co-founder of Feast.
Today, the list of prominent chefs is much longer. Portland foodies toss around the names of Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon), John Gorham (Toro Bravo), Chris Israel (Gruner), Jenn Louis (Lincoln), Naomi Pomeroy (Beast) and Cathy Whims (Nostrana) as if they were next-door neighbors — which, in a sense, they are.
“This is not a town where the dollar rules,” said Thelin. “It's a city where you may be judged more highly on the originality of your idea. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong.”
A case in point is Andy Ricker, who in late 2005 built a shack beside his southeast Portland garage and began to share the street food that he had grown to love during travels in Thailand — dishes like kai yaang chicken, green papaya salad and jellied pork-foot curry.
Pok Pok was an instant hit. The “shack” was named “restaurant of the year” by The Oregonian newspaper in 2007. Ricker won the prestigious “Best Chef Northwest” award from the James Beard Foundation in 2011. The following year, he established Pok Pok in New York; today the group includes three New York eateries to go with four in Portland. And the original Pok Pok continues to draw standing-room crowds.
“There were challenges in the beginning,” said Ricker. “The level of dining sophistication in Portland was not high seven or eight years ago. We were trying to introduce food that most people hadn't had. It's different now. Food has become more of a national obsession.”
Food writer Karen Brooks, author of ”The Might Gastropolis,” is a keen observer of the Portland dining scene. “Ten years ago, it was an inside whisper,” she said. “All eyes were on Seattle, and Portland was relegated to the 'kids' table.' As it turned out, that was a blessing, because Portland chefs began to do whatever they wanted.”
Today, said Todd Davidson, chief executive officer of the Oregon Tourism Commission, half of the OTC's marketing budget goes to promote Portland as a food destination. This “deliberate choice to capitalize on Oregon's culinary scene,” he said, began with the introduction of Oregon Bounty. The campaign launched in 2004 encourages visitors to embrace the breadth of the state's farm-to-table experience.
“Regardless of our restaurants, as a food culture we have a great agricultural bounty,” Thelin added. “Sure the restaurant culture is very important — but there's so much more than that. Food is a deep driver to the economy. The pioneer spirit extends beyond the chefs to the entrepreneurs.”
Perhaps no one did more to place Oregon on the national culinary map than renowned food writer James Beard, a Portland native who wrote of his pre-New York dining adventures in a 1964 memoir, “Delights & Prejudices.”
But it may be no coincidence that the Portland food scene truly began to blossom about the same time the Oregon wine industry approached maturity.
The state's first post-Prohibition vines were planted in the Umpqua Valley in 1961. Within a few years, Oregon's signature pinot noir grape was being harvested, fermented and bottled in the Willamette Valley. But it was two decades until the Oregon Wine Board was established (in 1984), giving credibility to a growing handful of grape growers.
By 1990, there were 70 wineries in the state. That number leaped to 135 in 2000 and to 314 by 2005. Today, according to Davidson, there are 463 wineries operating in Oregon.
Good wine and food walk hand in hand. It was in 1994, during the early wine boom, that fourth-generation Portland restaurateur Cory Schreiber opened Wildwood on Portland's Northwest 21st Avenue.
“I think what we did at Wildwood was to define Northwest cuisine,” said Schreiber, who retired from cooking in 2007 and now teaches at the Art Institute of Portland's International Culinary School. “We laid the ground for others who followed.”
“My family mantra was always getting food locally, growing your own food, keeping it simple,” Schreiber said. “From the 1960s to the 1980s, the American food industry shifted to 'cheap food fast.' We said, 'Whoa! Let's slow it down!'”
Teaching, said Schreiber, “makes me reanalyze the basics of my profession, even as I strive to develop the passion of a new generation. Restaurants, after all, teach you everything about life — the artistry and creativity, yes, but also business and service ... and risk taking.”
Taking risks, said Brooks, was something that Portland encouraged. “This city thrives on the idea you can make something happen for nothing,” she said. “There are inexpensive ways to do it here. We see rare flowers growing out of sidewalk cracks.”
The impetus, she said, was “a sort of garage band mentality.” Farmers' markets made top-end produce available to everyone, encouraging a “democracy of eating.”
“There was fine craft cooking for the masses in a way that no other city can imagine,” Brooks said. “Food was affordable for all, and everyone was welcome at the table. This begat a punk-rock food community whose impulses were creative. A few individuals broke away to start their own businesses, and soon a whole generation joined them. Now our food scene is exploding in every corner of the city.”
Every few months, new stars emerge. A current darling of the Portland food scene is OX, which might be read as a hug and a kiss — or as the beast of burden that for millennia has been relied upon to pull the plow that made modern agriculture possible.
Honored as The Oregonian's 2013 Restaurant of the Year, OX is everything a restaurant should be. Imaginative, intimate, yet accessible, it is built around a giant wood-burning fireplace where its meats are grilled. The cuisine is Mediterranean-influenced but with the flair of Argentina — not coincidentally the homeland of Gabrielle Quiñónez, who together with husband Greg Denton is the chef and owner of OX, open since the spring of 2012 a short drive north of the Convention Center.
Another current favorite is Lincoln, in north Portland. Beneath warehouse-like rafters, Jenn Louis, one of Food & Wine magazine's “best new chefs” of 2012, is serving dishes like nasturtium leaves with black figs and pine nuts, octopus grilled with fennel and rabbit with olives and chanterelle mushrooms.
“The population has grown to a point where we really can support a top-end food scene,” said Feast's Thelin. But Pok Pok's Ricker added: “It used to be about the restaurant and not the chef. That's changed a lot, and that's unfortunate.”
Gabriel Rucker, honored as “Best Chef Northwest” by the James Beard Foundation earlier this year, is as well-known as any Portland chef today. Rucker's French-styled East Burnside bistro, Le Pigeon, established his reputation, and he has subsequently invested in new projects, from downtown cafe to cookbook. But, said Ricker, “Gabriel was flailing when he started. He was wildly inventive — but now he's making food better than ever.”
Other neighborhood chefs have expanded into downtown as well. Seventeen years after establishing Paley's Place in northwest Portland and earning fame as one of the city's best chefs, Vitaly Paley last year added Imperial and the Portland Penny Diner at Hotel Lucia. John Gorham, whose Toro Bravo helped to define modern tapas dining, opened two new downtown restaurants. Chris Israel, who partnered with restaurateur Bruce Carey in several restaurants, now has Gruner in downtown Portland, featuring his takes on Germanic and eastern European foods.
The outlying neighborhoods continue to be strong. Naomi Pomeroy's Beast, off Killingsworth Street in northeast Portland, may serve the city's finest prix-fixe menu. John Taboada's Navarre, in Laurelhurst, serves plates staunchly tagged to the available produce on any given day. Bollywood Theater, in the Alberta Street precinct, demonstrates what can happen when Americans get hold of traditional Indian food — while keeping prices at a budget level.
Other personal favorites include the Irving Street Kitchen and the Park Kitchen, both in the Pearl District; Nel Centro, in the Hotel Modera downtown; Olympic Provisions, in the industrial Inner East Side; Nostrana, on Southeast Morrison Street; and the Woodsman Tavern, on Southeast Division Street.
The crystal ball
What is Portland's future on the national culinary map? Lam sounded a warning when he said: “For some time, Portland was 'what's next.' Now, it's 'what's now.'” And Brooks added, “You can't be the new kid forever.”
But Ricker said he believes Portland will mature as a dining destination without having to reinvent itself. “The quality of ingredients is still here,” he said.
But he added: “I do think we're going to go through some growing pains. There's an incredible amount of restaurant openings here. I don't think they're all going to survive. And service has been a soft spot.”
Thelin, citing the “progressive thinking that has always come out of the West Coast and Northwest,” predicted that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) “will be the hottest thing very soon. And we all should want to know what goes into our food.”
Davidson left his view more open-ended.
“I think in five years we're going to be surprised in ways that we can't envision right now,” said the Oregon Tourism executive. “The spirit of collaboration is very much a Portland thing. Chefs are jamming like pickup bands. It's a mashable gastronomy. We don't know where that's going.”
Editor's note: This article has been corrected. The original article misattributed quotes in several instances. The Bulletin regrets the error.