In a city famous for its food, this quintet of ingredients-driven restaurants rises above the rest
By Daven Wu
Portland, Oregon, is that rarest of cities: a buzzy American metropolis thatâ€™s compact without being claustrophobic; where the good-looking residents are famously friendly, and the wide, walkable streets are laid out in neat grids, making navigation a breeze. And then thereâ€™s the incredible food scene, led by a wave of talented chefs committed to sustainable, responsibly farmed meat and vegetables. The cityâ€™s superb spread of culinary offerings ranges from restaurants and cafĂ©s to weekend markets, microbreweries, and food trucks like Nongâ€™s Khao Man Gai, where, standing in line for a bowl of their coveted chicken rice, I heard one customer exclaim, â€śOh my God, Iâ€™ve been dying for this for, like, seven months!â€ť Here are five other spots to die for.
If you ask me, itâ€™s a crime that Castagna remains without at least one Michelin star, so good is chef Justin Woodward (an alum of New Yorkâ€™s experimental food lab WD-50) at sending out immaculately constructed plates that taste every bit as good as they look. There are no missteps here. Every dish is a dreamy mĂ©lange of textures, colors, and flavors, with every ingredient playing a quiet but crucialâ€”and often unexpectedâ€”role in the whole. That white crĂ¨me skating around the slow-roasted beets turns out to be walnut puree, while nasturtium petals delight the eye as teeth sink into salty threads of Dungeness crab. And the desserts are just as eye-opening, as Woodward thinks nothing of pairing brown-butter ice cream with Meyer lemon and notes of green juniper (1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd.; 1-503/231-7373; castagnarestaurant.com).
These days, Portlandâ€™s once down-and-out Alberta quarter is humming with young thirtysomething chefs at the helm of terrific eateries. Though a couple of years old, Aviary still grabs plenty of well-deserved attention for its superb Pacific Northwestâ€“ meets-East menu. Chef Sarah Pliner tosses together pan-Asian ingredients and techniques with a restraint that keeps her food from slipping into mindless experimentation. Fall in love with her julienned crispy pigs ears with coconut rice and Chinese sausage, crunchy chicken skin and watermelon salad, and hamachi tartare scented with scallions, apples, and mentaiko (cod roe). For a postprandial treat, stroll a couple of blocks down the street for the wonderful, all-natural farm-to-cone ice cream at Salt and Straw (1733 NE Alberta St.; 1-503/ 287-2400; aviarypdx.com).