Here’s the secret. If you can handle the rain, you can live surrounded by some of the finest ingredients in the nation: chanterelle and morel mushrooms, truffles, wild berries, fresh-caught salmon, succulent Dungeness crab, and Olympia oysters. That’s why chefs from across the globe put down roots in the small city of Portland, Oregon. Plus, just thirty miles from the city center, there’s the world-class wine region where pinot noir sings.
What’s exciting now is that in the past five years, Portland’s farm-to-table ethos has evolved, and new chefs are giving Oregon ingredients an international spin. It’s a change also visible on wine lists–as sommeliers mix local gems with wines from more offbeat regions. Take, for example, Kachka, a destination for Russian food and eastern European wines, and the two new restaurants by local-empire builder John Gorham: Pollo Bravo, a tapas joint with a list tight on wines from Northern Spain and Sherry-based cocktails, and Shalom Y’all, where Israeli street food meets wines from Israel, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon.
Also trending across the green city is a commitment to organic, biodynamic and natural wines—which explains the level of buzz around Dame, set to be Portland’s first restaurant with an all-natural wine list when it opens this summer. Until then, here are some of the standout places to eat and drink now, damn the rain.
Forget what you think you know about Portland—the city where fleece rules, bike shops serve pour-over coffee, and dive bars reign. (Well, bike shop coffee is true). The downtown bar scene is anything but divey, thanks to the example set by the Multnomah Whiskey Library when it opened in 2013. Two alums from this swanky temple of spirits, Alise Moffatt and Anthony Garcia, recently revamped a former bank building into Shift Drinks, the latest hot spot for inventive cocktails and interesting wine. Garcia’s 100-bottle list skews toward France and Italy, yet he also makes room for everything from Greek assyrtiko to benchmark Rioja and aged Oregon pinot noir (he currently has a selection of 1999 Chehalem pinots that you won’t find anywhere else in town). Bonus: The cocktail bar has an off-premise liquor license, which means you can take bottles of these hard-to-find wines to go. In the kitchen, Garcia’s wife, Anne, turns out plates that encourage grazing, like bruschetta topped with earthy combinations such as nettle pesto, castelvetrano olives and prosciutto. For one of the most coveted reservations in the city, head to the upstairs mezzanine—known as the Makeshift Room. The 24-seat space was built specifically to host pop-up dinners. Ryan Fox and Ali Matteis of Nomad.PDX, the first to cook in the space, just nabbed James Beard nominations for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Shift Drinks, 1200 SW Morrison St; 503-922-3933, http://shiftdrinkspdx.com/
“Without tradition there is nada,” José Chesa, Sr., told Emily Metivier, the wine director at his son’s new tapas-centric restaurant, Chesa. In February 2016, Chesa the elder had traveled from Barcelona to Portland to raise a glass of Sherry at the opening. This is the second restaurant for José Chesa, Jr., who’s gained a national reputation for the artistic tapas he cooks up at Ataula. At Chesa, his new place across the river, he takes a more traditional approach, playing salt cod brandade off of a black olive and fig olivada, and infusing croquetas with earthy porcinis and sage. Yet he still lets his creativity run wild, topping crunchy pork rinds with escabeche mussels and chipotle, and serving foie gras in lollipop form, sprinkled with Jacobsen’s salt. Chesa Sr. plays a role, too, working with Metivier on the Spanish-centric bottle list. The focus is on Sherry and Rioja, with some offbeat finds like Teso Blanco (a blend of palomino, rufete blanca and muscatel) and El Maestro Sierra Pedro Ximénez Viejisimo, a sweet wine that has spent at least fifty years in a solera.
Chesa, 2218 NE Broadway St; 503-477-9521, http://chesapdx.com/
Grabbing dinner at St. Jack, an ode to the bouchons of Lyon, is a weekly ritual for many Portlanders. Large-paneled windows survey buzzy Northwest Portland streets, where designer dogs and well-heeled hipsters cruise by, or idle over rustic French dishes at highly coveted sidewalk tables. Inside, Carla Bruni purrs, and wax-dripping candles the size of large tree stumps flicker from the zinc-top bar. Seven nights a week, executive chef Aaron Barnett turns out deeply satisfying bistro classics like sea-kissed mussels drenched in dry apple cider, bacon lardons, Dijon, green peppercorn, garlic, new potato and cream; whole roasted trout on a bed of warm lentil salad; seared foie gras with caramelized pineapple, toasted brioche and dark rum jus. Wine director Christopher Sky Westmoreland favors French and Northwest wines, plying a list deep in Cru Beaujolais, lusty Languedocs and pinot noir from the nearby Willamette Valley—including Thomas and Antica Terra, nano-wineries with cult-like followings.
1610 NW 23rd Ave; 503-360-1281, http://stjackpdx.com/menus/
Olympia Oyster Bar
Like many other bivalve prophets, chefs Melissa Mayer and Maylin Chavez credit a Parisian oyster bar (in their case, Le Baron Rouge) as a life-changing experience. So much so, that they recently opened their own oyster bar on funky Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. Named for the native to the Pacific Coast, the Olympia Oyster Bar serves bivalves au naturel or creatively “dressed” (order the Kataifi for an oyster wrapped in wispy fried phyllo, topped with smoked avocado purée, pickled serrano jam and morimoto dust). To wash down a round of oysters, the concise 15-bottle wine list calls on crisp, vivacious whites (Perraud Cognette Muscadet, Boulay Sancerre) and bubbles that range from grande marque Champagnes to Cava and domestic sparklers. There’s also a classic cocktail menu from drinks wizard Ryan Magarian (Oven & Shaker, Hamlet).
Olympia Oyster Bar, 4214 North Mississippi Avenue; 503-841-6316, http://www.olympiaoysterbar.com/
This unassuming 20-seat chandelier-lit den in southeast Portland seduces oenophiles from across the city, with a list devoted to Champagne and sparkling wine. Those bubbles—whether small producers like Georges Laval, JM Sélèque, Guillaume Sergent, Déhu and Marie-Noelle Ledru, or grand marques—come poured into Burgundy stems rather than Champagne flutes, the better to show off their aromas and flavors. Plus, owner David Speer points out, it changes the conversation about Champagne, shedding some of its “special occasion” mystique and emphasizing instead its qualities as a food-friendly wine to pair with any meal—or snack, like the truffle popcorn he pops behind the slender bar. Nota bene: Speer also stashes a few “off-list” bottles in a hideaway fridge for visiting wine geeks, like Cédric Bouchard’s Creux d’Enfer, Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres and the single-vineyard, single-vintage, 100-percent pinot meunier Champagnes from Jérôme Prévost.
Ambonnay Champagne Bar, 107 SE Washington St; 503-575-4861, http://www.ambonnaybar.com/
Wine & Spirits Magazine | June 2016