Consider yourself lucky if you snag a table at Roe without a few weeks’ reservation. In a town obsessed with meat, this tiny speakeasy-style restaurant (it’s hidden behind curtains and a closed door at the back of another, larger restaurant called Block & Tackle) is a stunning reminder that it’s perfectly possible to pick your way through a four- or ten-course meal comprised entirely of seafood. For this, thank Trent Pierce—a third-generation Oregon seafood chef—for his audacious combinations like tuna sashimi with shaved frozen foie gras, yuzu tobiko, and white soy ponzu; a confit of Antarctic toothfish with a shallot-and-brown-butter aioli; and Dungeness crab poached with a dashi broth of maitake mushrooms and smoked crab. What’s even more remarkable is that for a meal of this caliber, the 10-course dinner (which must be reserved) will set you back only US$100 (3113 SE Division St.; 1-503/232-1566; roe-pdx.com).
Lardo started life just over three years ago as one of Portland’s many excellent food carts. Since then, it has made a permanent home for itself in the city’s West End as part of a trio of adjoining restaurants in the same building. While Ración serves up molecular-inspired Spanish fare and Grassa experiments with Italian pasta (think ricotta gnudi in a lamb bolognaise), Lardo flies the flag for some of the best sandwiches in town. Hits include a pork-belly gyro tucked into griddled flatbread stuffed with tzatziki, feta, and marinated tomatoes, and a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich featuring pork meatballs and Sriracha mayo that’s perfectly paired with fries tossed with crisp pork skin, herbs, Parmesan, and marinated peppers. Generous portions, fast service, and down-to-earth prices make for an unbeatable combination (1205 SW Washington St., also at 1212 SE Hawthorne Blvd.; 1-503/241-2490; lardopdx.com).
Everything that is wonderful about Portland’s food scene is so memorably captured by a meal at Ava Gene’s. The room buzzes as cheerful, well-informed staff step smartly between tables; sausages of various provenance and sizes hang from brass hangers; and the kitchen lives and dies by a mantra of seasonality and solid Italian flavors. A respectable wine list follows an aperitivo of Campari and soda, which in turn preps taste buds for a menu that leavens traditional trattoria tipica cooking with Portland ingenuity. Start the meal with a fritto misto paired with carrot honey and bee pollen, or with an as-tounding beet arancini (deep-fried rice balls); and then dive straight into ricotta with nut ragù, or a linguini alle vongole with pine nuts and matsutake mushroom (3377 SE Division St.; 1-503/971-229-0571; avagenes.com).
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Portland on a Plate”).