I am really in love with Portland. I get that totally crushed out feeling when I'm on the plane coming here. I just look around and say the same dumb thing over and over, "the trees are so wonderful." Portland and Ireland have something in common: green is not enough of a word to describe the density of foliage. Trees are content and their canopies stretch and stretch with big wide soft leaves. The air smells good, people are friendly to the point of worrisome, (I find that flirting with d. o. g. s is easy and their humans are good too) and the food gets better and better every time I visit.
Portland has incredible qualities for a city. Ones I thought I might never experience. Because I am from NYC I have very un-realistic views on how cities should look and operate. For example I will never understand that downtown San Francisco is not south or that during rush hour the MUNI is really slow and the trains are small. On the other hand it is also weird that SF is pretty and the air is clean, or that very close to the city there is real nature, not just a well designed park.
This is what my good friend Mark said, "Manhattan is a city with a park in the middle and Portland is a park with a city in the middle."
If you admit to being a real tree lover, Portland is ravishing. (Just so you know I have quite a thing for trees but I won't wear Birkenstocks.) It's an easy city to get around in: there are bike lanes over most of the bridges, parking can often be found right in front of where you want to go, the neighborhoods are unique and bold in style and flavour, and, as one other NY transplant said, "the city's green politics are infectious."
Eating and cooking from Oregon's rich fish, plant and game resources is encouraged and is fast producing exceptional restaurants and chefs. I have had a few outstanding meals here that were reasonable and relaxed.
One of my very favoritest things about Portland is that, unlike many other cities I have lived in, small and specialized "boutique" businesses feel possible and are supported. This seems like a distinctly Pacific Northwest trait, having produced the Riot Grrl movement as well as a massive DIY culture.
Tangent: I like to think of my blog as a computer produced 'Zine. When I started cooking I wanted to do a 'Zine called "The Line" that would be reviews of jobs and restaurants from the perspective of line cooks: the inside-out. Line cooks could create a network among their peers and talk about the real deal, not just the one that Food & Wine reports to the public. The Line would be passed around and line cooks from all over would write in and share their experiences, therefore mentoring those coming after them and inspiring a "knowledge=power" force of cooks often overlooked in a celebrity-chef producing machine. Line cooks could candidly, and possibly anonymously, talk about their chefs, staff meal, hours and pay. It could be used as a source to find jobs, answer questions and continue the life learning that exists once school is over.
A small and very special restaurant is NAVARRE. Considered a wine bar with food, Navarre is truly wondrous. The long and tall raw space is warmly lit with antique candelabras, specials are handwritten on a gilt frame mirror, hand jarred veggies and fruits share space on shelves with big cookbook tomes, and the chef-owner might be cooking or waiting depending on the night. There's a communal table (something that always affectionately sways my opinion about a restaurant), and sparse expressive black and white photographs hung high on the walls. Navarre is someone's private dream and you get to eat his food hand picked from the recipes his grandmother's repetoire, produced well but without the sentimental, ego driven, self-referential, smarmy attitude. Prune might be the only other restaurant I know well, whose food is both excellent and down-to-earth.
The experience starts with the menu at Navarre. Lanky and possibly hand-written, it looks like a graphic design class assignment. General food items exist grouped and two prices are preceded by one small box and one large. Different colored magic markers are given to the table and there's space at the bottom for writing in specials. The top item is radishes with butter 2/5, the next group has bread alongside olives and it goes on to include such disparate classics as country pork pate w/prunes 5/12.50, potato pancakes 3/7.50 and trout baked in parchment 5/12.50. Bird 6/15 was a favorite of our table and it came in large family-style bowls braised in a complex sauce that was Portuguese at it's core but played with in a respectful manner to produce a delicious and intriguing result. We had a clean tasting beet salad with romesco, chard braised in a vinegary broth, and the surprise home-run at the top of the eighth inning was the lamb cooked to tender and succulent perfection with a strong sauce-garnish of black olives, fresh rosemary and what felt and tasted like a light beurre noisette and olive oil base.
At the top of its game Navarre's individual dishes are rich in flavor and history, transporting you from one ancient Mediterranean culture to another, but magically meld well on a share plate. I have had three or four meals at Navarre and this one missed less marks at the bull's eye but the lamb made up for it. We were a large group that walked in with no advance warning and the owner asked a slew of table to regroup and made an eight top out of a six. Five of us were there first and we were allowed to sit and begin the table's order.
This is the small friendliness of Portland. It seeps into your pores like the mist that rests lightly on your eyelashes. People who know my need of sunshine were surprised at my giant crush on Portland in the beginning. But last weekend the air was warmer than SF's and the mossy trunks and dense canopies of Elms (Portland has worked hard at keeping it Elms from sudden Dutch Elm disease death by inoculating the trees and planting more Elms bred resistant to this terrible sickness) and Maples make up for the constant impending drizzle and rain. It's like if you know that all that rain makes flowers and gardens and trees grow more generously, and that because the air is sweet and clean because of this cycle, the cloudy rain skies become more bearable. I would be hard pressed to feel that all the dirty slush in New York is worth the occasional pretty snow storm, for example.
Portland's neighborhoods have nooks and crannies that make discoveries feel personal and intimate. It promotes a desire to share what treasure I've come across because, like the Portlanders, it is in my interest to support and make flourish these singular brave dreams.