Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Thirty years ago, or even 20, if asked what I wanted to eat on my birthday, I would have surprised no one with my answer: “Noodles.” Little has changed. However, if you had told me that for my 45th, my wish for the perfect birthday dinner would also have included corn dogs in a sultry cocktail lounge setting, I would have suggested you have your noodle checked.

But living in Portland does unexpected things to a food lover’s perspective and cravings, and on a soggy end-of-March Friday, I could not wait to get over to NE Killingsworth and 30th for my fix.

As we did the first time we visited Expatriate, J and I took a seat at the window facing Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast, the site of other memorable feasts.

Expatriate is a collaboration between Pomeroy and husband Kyle Linden Webster, lauded former bartender at St. Jack. (Also the site of other memorable meals. Sensing a trend here?)

On paper, this lounge, with its Asian-inflected bar-snack menu, already has a pedigree, but Webster and Pomeroy’s devotion to balanced flavors and hospitality makes it special. Indeed, Webster has a gift for making people feel welcome. When he stops by to check on patrons, it’s not a typical obligatory manager drive-by. Instead, he looks you in the eye and, despite being clearly busy, he lingers to chat. I’ve seen him run out to the sidewalk to talk with and offer suggestions to people who had come inside but couldn’t find a seat.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

We started with cocktails, the No. 8 for me and the Precariat for J, sipping while we perused the menu, trying to narrow it down to an order that would not overwhelm our intimate corner of the window counter. On this visit, we skipped the deliciously simple onion and butter sandwich, an ode to James Beard on crustless white bread. Last time we were here, a fortuitous kitchen mixup brought us two orders, so we felt OK passing it over this time.

Not pass-up-able, however, were the aforementioned corn dogs, like the corn dogs of your childhood, stick and all, but made so much better with delicately sweet Chinese sausage in place of the standard hot dog. They are served with a potent sinus-cleansing mustard.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Following that was dungeness crab Rangoon: crispy wontons filled with local crab meat and cream cheese. New to us this time around was the most craveable salad: caramelized brussels sprouts, butternut squash cubes, Napa cabbage and ground lamb, every bite a delicious crunchy balance of sweet, salty, sour and savory. And from the “Hungrier” part of the menu, we ordered the tempura cod sandwich and, of course, the noodles: a generous bowl of coconut-scented broth and noodles with fried duck confit, topped with a beautifully soft-boiled egg.

By the time we had finished, the crowd had filled in behind us, and it was time to relinquish our coveted seats to some other lucky couple. We walked home feeling lucky to have so many delicious options in our neighborhood and grateful for another year.

 

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Radishes, radish greens and compound butter.

Radishes, radish greens and compound butter.

In a break with tradition, we ventured out of our kitchen this Sunday evening to Old Salt Marketplace on NE 42nd Avenue. Sister restaurant to Grain & Gristle, Old Salt is rustic and neighborhood-friendly, a spot for a casual meal: spring radishes with miso compound butter; tangy beef tartare with thick-cut potato chips and piquant aioli; wood-fired duck egg on toast with chèvre; smoked half-chicken, roasted new potatoes and fiddlehead ferns; lamb, chèvre, sliced sugar snap peas and mint over linguini. Oh, and a couple of biscuits with sweet cream butter to sop up that chicken jus. Welcome, May, and happy Sunday.

Raviolo

Mushroom and cheese raviolo.

A beautiful Saturday in every way: sunny, unseasonably dry, and at the end, a truffle dinner.

Hosted at Tabor Bread on Hawthorne and presented by Chef Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans in conjunction with Roger Konka of Springwater Farm, the Farmer’s Feast was a seven-course meal featuring locally foraged wild truffles  — white and black — and other seasonal ingredients prepared and presented simply and beautifully.

We four — Zandra, James, J and I — are very fortunate to have participated in some unforgettable truffle dinners. Even so, our little section of one of three long communal tables spanning the bakery’s dining room was wowed by the big flavors that Chef Yeomans shared with us. Among them, a marble-sized white truffle warmed in parchment with an addictively delicious jus and served with a toasted piece of Tabor Bread brioche; silky, sweet Tamworth heritage pig liver mousse topped with slivered black truffle alongside a ramekin of maitake mushroom and leek custard and shaved white truffle; a triangle-shaped raviolo filled with creamy cheese and topped with wild mushrooms in an earthy broth; pork saltimbocca and luscious truffled celery root puree. At the end, a pear granita and warm almond cookies.

A beautiful Saturday, and a beautiful meal. Life does not get much better.

bread

A perfect boule.

One of the most-used gifts we received this year was a birthday present from James and Zandra to J back in June: a copy of Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. I never thought I’d stray from the ridiculously easy Sullivan Street Bakery No-Knead Bread recipe or Mark Bittman’s basic pizza dough, but once I started experimenting with Forkish’s methods, I became a devoted follower. And, indeed, Forkish is a masterful teacher, explaining the whys and hows of his bread-making methods in clear, descriptive language. The opening chapters of the book tell the story about quitting his corporate job to follow a dream of becoming a bread maker, followed by a chapter on the important details for delicious bread and an outline of the equipment he recommends. Chapter 4 is an overview of the basic bread method with step-by-step photos. Contrary to many other cookbooks, the first several chapters, save for perhaps Forkish’s interesting back story, are required reading before diving into the recipes. Every recipe I’ve made has required referencing Chapter 4; though now that I’m more familiar with the terms and techniques, flipping back and forth is becoming less frequent.

Requiring only four basic ingredients in varied proportions, the recipes’ other essential elements are patience and especially timing. The recipes are not difficult to execute once you have the basic method down, and the result is  heavenly. Puffy bubbles that emerge during the rise transform into gorgeous air pockets in the finished loaf, and the flavor lent by fermentation and baking to a dark brown is unparalleled in supermarket loaves.

We spent the summer and fall, and indeed last night, up to our elbows in flour, surrounded by bulging masses of fermenting dough. And we went through at least three bags of flour this past summer making pizza dough, focaccia and beautiful artisan boules. It has the potential to become an addiction, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Fresh strawberries over biscuits. Summer.

Fresh strawberries over biscuits. Summer.

Portland is twitchy for summer.

For the past few weeks, a wet gloom has settled in, granting only brief merciful glimpses of warmth and sun. Then, June 1 dawns, and with it a glorious Saturday.

After a walk around the neighborhood, a drink or two at one of our favorite wine bars and dinner on Alberta Street, a sweet treat beckons. On the stroll home we duck into Pine State Biscuits for this beauty: Two biscuit halves topped with fresh, sweet strawberries and whipped cream.

SOS: summer on a shingle.

Minizo ramen

Happiness on a stick.

Minizo. Thanks for meeting me tonight. I know I shouldn’t … we shouldn’t. But the attraction is too great. It shouldn’t feel right — hot soup and steaming dumplings on a sun-baked August evening — but when that twilight breeze brushes my legs, well I can’t explain it. It just is right. It can’t be helped.

Stumpings

Tri-colored beauties.

You know I find you irresistible: your fresh handmade noodles boiled to order; the pinch of sprouts in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the hot bath of broth; that soft-boiled egg, melting into the soup; the thinly sliced pork. Yes, I noticed it all. How could I not? All this cool confidence and yet you’re playful enough to display the plastic Godzilla on the counter. I’m feeling faint. Is it getting hotter? Or is it just me?

Stumplings, right next door, does not make this affair any easier. If I’m waiting, waiting for handmade noodles cooked to order, how can I resist handmade steamed dumplings? Yes, I am weak, but I am not ashamed. I am in love. It can’t be helped.

Eleni’s in Sellwood

August 18, 2012

Eleni's grilled calamari

Eleni’s grilled calamari. It’s a crime not to dip bread in that sauce.

One hundred degrees in Portland. The pets are wilting. The plants are panting. It’s too hot to breathe.

Our house lacks AC, so the only respite involves getting out, and on blistering nights like last Thursday, nothing beckons more than fresh, bright flavors and simple ingredients. In our minds, that means one place, so off to Eleni’s in Sellwood we went.

James and Zandra introduced us to Eleni’s long before we moved here, and we’ve been around the classic Greek menu a few times now, sampling appetizers, salads, pastas and mains. Decision-making impaired by the heat, we took the one-of-everything approach and assembled a feast of shared appetizers and a few larger plates mixed in: rice-filled dolmathes; giant lima beans sauteed with red peppers and onion; a generous triangle of spanakopita; moussaka thick with bechamel; flaky pan-seared halibut; a lamb gyro; plump tiger prawns sauteed with a zesty sherry sauce; and a bright Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, olives and feta in a light balsamic dressing.

But there’s one dish that brings us back repeatedly: marinated, grilled calamari finished with lemon juice and fruity olive oil. We always get two orders — truthfully, we could get four or five and not have enough. So simple, fresh and cooked to perfection, it transports you to a taverna on a Greek hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.

To put it plainly, we love Eleni’s, and the grilled calamari has no match in town. That we don’t hear much buzz about Eleni’s strikes us as odd because the food is consistently strong and the service is warm and prompt. But for now, it is our under-the-radar gem and the ideal destination no matter the temperature outside.

Cubano

Hello my friend, hello.

This sounds overly dramatic, but I mean it when I say a good sandwich can elevate my day. A bad one can ruin it. It’s a simple matter of good ingredients in the right proportion, and when I find a beautiful sandwich, it brings joy.

On a recent hot Saturday afternoon, we — Julie, J and I — set out on a walk that would lead us to Bunk Bar on SE Water Street. Bunk has earned a reputation of being the Mecca of Portland’s sandwich seekers, and that reputation has catapulted into the national spotlight through coverage on the Food Network and the Travel Channel. Bunk Bar, an outpost of the original, serves the same sandwiches but is open later, has a full bar and a music stage. Though we arrived in the afternoon, Bunk Bar still had a lively crowd and we barely avoided a mini rush that lined up after us. I grabbed a booth by the  window, while Julie and J placed our order: three pork belly Cubano sandwiches and mole tots.

A well-made sandwich strikes a balance among all its ingredients, and Bunk’s pork belly Cubano does that with casual precision. The ciabatta bread has the perfect chewy-to-crunchy ratio, enough to envelop the sandwich and add flavor and texture, but not overpower what’s inside. And what’s inside can best be classified as “oh my goodness”: salty slab bacon, melted Swiss cheese, tart pickle, a good slather of mustard and silky pork belly that dissolves on the tongue. Each bite deliciously proportionate. The tots, bathed in rich dark mole sauce, were a tasty accompaniment, but entirely unnecessary. The sandwich was more than enough on this trip.

Bunk gets it right. We knew that going in, but we were happy to have tried it ourselves, finally, and we can’t wait to go back. Sandwich joy. Is there anything better?

Feast Day at St. Jack

June 28, 2012

Plump, delicious mussels.

It started innocently. A celebration, a family gathering, a long-anticipated meal at a casual SE neighborhood restaurant. After trying several times over the months to meet up at St. Jack, we finally got a reservation in time for J’s birthday.

The five of us — Margaret, Zandra, James, J and I — snagged one of the shade-side sidewalk tables where we were entertained by not one but two boom-box bicycle parades. Meanwhile several near collisions (bike/person, car/bike) at the precarious Clinton and 21st Street intersection kept us slightly on edge and reluctantly captivated.

We ordered a bottle of French rosé and perused the menu, a tantalizing French bistro affair. Having recently dined here, James and Zandra suggested the unlisted chef’s-choice tasting menu. Always willing to put our appetites in the hands of a trusted chef, J, Margaret and I  jumped on board. With growling stomachs as our guide, we also put in an order for a couple of starters, although Zandra tried to warn us: It was going to be a lot of food. But the fried beef tripe was too intriguing to pass up, and the chicken liver mousse was a solid backup. Our fate was sealed.

Plated on mismatched grandma’s china, the mousse and the tripe were beautiful to look at, beautiful to taste. Silky, creamy mousse spread on slices of baguette was earthy and gratifying, but the tripe … oh my. A far cry from the gamey, rubbery tripe I’m familiar with, this had to have been soaked in milk for hours. Mildly flavored with a soft, melting texture under the crisp golden batter, and served with capers and red onion mayonnaise, it was simply delicious.

How the chef chooses what to serve when given free rein is unknown; our waiter said it was his whim and changes from table to table. I imagine he took a cue from our choice of tripe and chicken liver mousse and decided to send us on an adventure, because the feast that followed is unlike anything we ever would have imagined putting together ourselves.

Following our appetizers came our chef’s choice of hors d’oeuvres: a lovely selection of cheeses followed by a composed salad of leafy greens, beans and perfectly boiled egg wedges topped with medium-rare poached salmon. Then came melt-in-the-mouth sweetbreads; tender sliced veal tongue topped with crumbled egg; and fried frog legs en persillade, a white wine and lemon sauce with parsley, garlic, capers  and a healthy dose of butter.

The line between hors d’oeuvres and plats principaux was blurred with the arrival of gratin d’escargots, a decadent melted melange of Gruyere, ham, snails, mushrooms and herbs over crouton. By this time we could have been done and happily so, but two empty bowls foretold the coming of shellfish. And, lo, two servings of plump mussels landed in front of us, swimming in a soppable soup flavored with garlic, fennel and vermouth.

But nothing could have prepared us for the pièce de résistance: a platter mounded with white bean ragout, whole baby carrots and crispy roulade of tête de cochon. I guess you could rationalize that the white bean ragout cut the fat of the that incredibly rich, butter-soft pig’s head, but there was no denying the decadence of this dish. The decadence of this meal. By the time the tête arrived, I had forgotten the existence of my camera, which is probably for the better. Such gluttony is best left undocumented.

I wish I could say common sense took over and this is all we ate. But no. We had a short break to let it all settle before the arrival of the dessert parade: rhubarb mousse cake with crème fraîche and poached rhubarb; a pillow of Italian meringue in a  pool of crème anglaise topped with the reddest, freshest strawberries; chocolate and cherry trifle; and a small terrine of still-warm homemade madeleines lightly dusted with sugar. Oh, and because it was J’s birthday, he received his very own mini cannele — a tiny molded cake with a firm custard center. Complete with candle. Goodness.

We went into St. Jack expecting an excellent meal because we’d heard only raves. But I can honestly say that it’s been years since I’ve had a meal  like that, and we probably won’t see another like it anytime soon. A memorable feast, a decadent celebration.

Clarklewis on SE Water

January 14, 2012

Grilled lamb with rapini, farro and sugo.

Friday the 13th.

Among the superstitious, it’s a discouraging black mark on the calendar. Now, I am not without my quirks, but I’m not one for extreme superstition. I do approach the day with some amount of caution, however —  just in case. But when my workday ended early, J unexpectedly got the day off and Zandra suggested dinner out, I knew the stars had aligned in our favor. The night’s destination was Clarklewis on industrial SE Water Street.

A few steps lead up from the street into a boisterous, loft-style dining room. Walls and pillars are painted a sleek, dramatic black; the bustling kitchen and a cracking wood-fired oven occupy the large corner facing the entrance. Opposite stands a wall of garage doors that, in warmer months, open onto the street.

The kitchen is all about fresh, local ingredients with French and Italian notes. Divided into starters, salads, fresh pasta, entrees and of course dessert, the daily changing menu is well rounded with three to five options under each header.  We started with Quinalt steelhead caviar — briny medium-sized yellow eggs served with potato croquettes — and grilled Monterey Bay calamari with an irresistibly soppable onion broth. If you’re lucky enough to snag the calamari, order extra bread.

We each ordered salads, covering all three on the menu. James and Zandra both had the Oregon Dungeness crab salad, a fresh mix of crab, endive, avocado and citrus. J ordered the baby greens with pomegranates, feta, apples and candied walnuts. Yup, good. But among the salads, my beet terrine was the standout: a beautiful cross-section of layered beets and goat cheese with a drizzle of balsamic. Trying that at home for sure.

Succumbing to the siren’s call, my mates all chose fresh pasta as the main course. Available in two portion sizes, pasta can precede an entree, or be an entree in and of itself. Knowing I likely would be making pasta this weekend, I skipped the noodles, but lucky for me I had bites from each of their plates. James’s rigatoni was a creamy concoction of butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, Oregon black truffle and Parmesan cheese. J had a glorious mound of spaghetti with duck confit, hedgehog mushrooms, egg, creamy bits of roasted garlic and Parmesan. Zandra, in my opinion, had the night’s winner: tagliatelle with lamb ragu and Pecorino Toscano, fragrant with rosemary. My entree: beautifully medium-rare grilled lamb  atop farro and a rich lamb sugo (a tomato-y meat sauce) with preserved cherries for a bit of tart-sweetness.

Desserts were chocolate profiteroles for J; bright citrus panna cotta for Zandra; and a cheese board for James and me.

Full and happy, we headed out into the chill toward home, where later I sneaked a forkfull of J’s leftover pasta. One bite led to another, and, well, (sorry, sweetie) I ate the whole thing. Thank goodness he wasn’t too mad. I guess it was just my lucky day.