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HaVL’s shrimpcake noodles in pork broth.

A drizzly, cool Monday morning. After traveling for the past three weeks, Jeff was home, briefly, before heading on the road again. And I, having been laid off about 8 weeks ago, was starting to feel itchy and unsettled. Anxiety and self-doubt were creeping in, especially with my recent solitude.

Jeff took the day off — a day of rest and laundry before leaving again the next morning. I suggested checking a to-do off my unemployment bucket list: Have a late breakfast/early lunch at HaVL on SE 82nd.

HaVL made my to-do list after the noodles repeatedly appeared in the Instagram feed of a trusted foodie-friend. When I quizzed her about the must-try dish she said: “They only have 2 soups daily and usually sell out by 11 or noon. Get there early and go every day of the week until you’ve tried all 14! All of them are unbelievable. Secret tip: you can call early and reserve soup for later if you can’t make it early. They’ll just take your name and save them for you.” (Note: They’re closed on Tuesdays, so there are only 12 soups. “Only.”)

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Crabflake noodles with straw mushrooms and quail eggs.

We arrived around 11am and the small space still had a few tables available. I expect it was an anomaly given that all the tables were full only shortly after we arrived. The vibrant green walls brightened the small space, even on a dark day, and the staff quietly hustled around taking orders and delivering wrapped bánh mì sandwiches, steaming bowls and smaller plates of add-ons: sprouts, mint, cilantro, lime.

On Monday, the soups were crabflake and shrimpcake. We got one of each, naturally. Shrimpcake soup had a lighter, but deeply flavored, pork broth and skinnier rice noodles. The crabflake soup had a velvety, thickened pork broth and fat, slippery rice noodles.

My friend was right — both were unbelievable. A couple extra spoonfuls of fiery chiles, and our bellies were warmed to greet the rest of the week. “Go to HaVL” was crossed off my unemployment bucket list, only to be replaced with, “Go again. Soon.”

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White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

Tucked away in a snug corner within Thai comfort-food restaurant PaaDee lies a hidden gem. Or, rather, it used to be hidden. Lang Baan has enjoyed more exposure recently than Justin Bieber’s recreational pursuits, so while no longer undiscovered, it remains a jewel.

Upon arrival, you are led through PaaDee’s bustling dining room, toward the kitchen and around a corner where a second diminutive dining room is concealed behind a false bookcase. The greeter tells you which lever to pull to re-enter should you leave. The room is rustic and welcoming, with rough wood paneling and a small counter cook space. The staff, possibly the friendliest and most accommodating we’ve encountered in a while, adds to the warmth.

We dined here on a Saturday night in May with friends and fellow food lovers Lauren and Shawn, oohing and ahhing over beautifully crafted Thai dishes served family style.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

The May tasting menu featured dishes from the northern part of the country, and the fireworks started with the first bite-size taste of pork belly, a salty-sweet mix of pineapple and coconut folded in a betel leaf. The second of our 12-course tasting menu featured pork stew scented with roasted coconut and spooned onto crisp crackers fashioned from sticky rice. A soup of quail, wild mushroom, kabocha squash and dill exploded with spice-laced flavor, belying the clear broth’s delicate appearance.

Twelve courses went on like this, culminating with head-on white prawns in lemongrass-scented curry; fork-tender Carlton Farm pork collar; and grilled halibut with a zingy chile dipping sauce. For dessert, Thai red rubies and jackfruit floating in a refreshing chilled coconut jasmine soup, mildly sweet with a focus on silky, chewy textures.

Lang Baan is like an amusement park for the senses, unlike any other Thai cuisine we’ve experienced in Portland. With two seatings a night, Thursday through Saturday, this place is bound to be booked solid as food-loving Portlanders flock to it. But that’s OK: Put our names on the list — we can’t wait to return.

 

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.

Small plates at Olympic Provisions.

Smoked rockfish (front) and tesa with egg.

The goddess Athena walks into a restaurant and says to the bearded waiter, “Is that a house-cured salami in your deli case, or are you just happy to see me?”

OK, I confess: Comedy is not my calling. Eating, however, is one of my talents, and so on Saturday night the gang (James, Zandra, J and I) ventured into Southeast Portland’s industrial district for a feast at Olympic Provisions.

Turns out the restaurant’s name was not derived from the 12 Greek Olympians as I had fantasized. “Food of the gods,” and so forth. Rather, the restaurant is named for its warehouse home, the landmark Olympic Mills Commerce Center located next to the tracks, in the shadow of the I-5 freeway.

Inside, the industrial feel endures with cement floors, subway tiles, dark wood-topped tables and exposed light bulbs dangling from rustic cords. Iron-and-wood shelving showcases a variety of wines and pickled items. A deli case displays salami for sale along with mounds of chicken and potato salad, with old-school meat-counter price cards — you know, the kind with the exchangeable red numbers.

For drinks, we started off with a slightly effervescent rosado from the Basque region of Spain on the recommendation of our server. Her enthusiasm in describing wines and their origins proved her passion for the topic. We were in very good hands as she paired wines with our courses as we explored the menu.

The menu itself is a smallish affair, belying the big flavors it foretells. The list of small plates is divided into small bites (olives, pickles, etc.), vegetables, meat, and charcuterie. We started with the chef’s choice charcuterie (salami, pork rillettes, a terrine) alongside house-pickled veggies. An early standout was the silky, not-too-dense chicken liver pate spread on crostini and topped with shaved ribbons of sweet asparagus, to which Zandra declared, “I could have ordered 10 of those and called it good.” Amen, sister. But variety is the name of the game here, so like the feasting Olympians we strive to be, we ventured deeper into the menu: fork-tender squid in a brothy, sop-worthy harissa; chicken thigh, smoked sausage and delicately tender beef tongue in an herbaceous salsa verde broth redolent of mint; crisp roasted tesa (pork belly) atop pea shoots, all crowned by a fried egg, dissolved deliciously on the tongue; deeply smoky rockfish came served alongside fried potato squares and topped with a creamy horseradish sauce — the dishes kept coming.

Finally the dessert menu appeared, from which we ordered a trio of cheeses and a sticky, delicious caramel walnut tart. Nearly too stuffed to leave, we sipped our port and dessert wine and looked back on the meal we just devoured. Food fit for gods, indeed, but certainly no laughing matter.