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A side trip to Seattle – one full of more great food and an excellent concert (and sales tax) – now behind me, my first proper meal back in Portland would see me seated at a communal table at Clyde Common, a space described as a European Tavern but in reality more a sort of “gastropub” in the vein of places like New York’s Breslin – both restaurants located in close proximity to their respective city’s ACE Hotel and both featuring open kitchens, Stumptown Coffee, and menus riddled with unique takes on American comfort foods crafted from local and organic ingredients.
A large space, heavy with blond woods and concrete but balanced by high ceilings, the noise level at Clyde Common was admittedly a bit of a turnoff when I first arrived but after settling into my seat and making my selections the sound seemed to dissipate even as patrons came and went, the restaurant at least half full throughout my stay. Seemingly understaffed, only two young women doubling as servers and hostesses, I will note that my coffee twice ran empty during my brunch and worse, given my vantage of the kitchen I was rather annoyed as I watched many plates – mine included – sit at the pass for five or more minutes before service, a situation that could have easily been remedied by an extra runner or by serving plates as they were readied instead of batching them so everything arrived at once.
Setting aside the dysfunctional service and moving to the food itself my order consisted of two items…one “savory” and one “sweet,” but both with elements of each and both excellent. Starting with the savory, yet another Monte Cristo in a city where the dish is seemingly ubiquitous, the version served at Clyde Common consisted of a single slice of rich fried brioche topped with shaved loin ham and pecorino tartufo plus a lightly dressed salad and a dollop of Fig mostarda and two sunnyside eggs. Rich and balanced, naturally sweet from the figs but plenty savory otherwise, and benefitted by cracked pepper plus the light vinaigrette on the salad this was not a traditional Monte Cristo like that at Gravy…it was better.
Transitioning from my favorite savory breakfast to my favorite dessert, the only thing that could have made the Common’s take on bread pudding better is if it would have been served in a more expedited manner as a separate course so that I could have enjoyed it piping hot instead of luke warm – and yet even with that going against it the “Spiced Bread Pudding” was still pretty fantastic; the warm and dense oatmeal based bread served in a shallow baking ceramic with peanut brittle, chevre, pear preserves, and hand-whipped cream adding elements of sweet and salty plus crunchy and creamy to a wintery base of molasses, ginger, and cinnamon. Complex, rich, and entirely nontraditional I’d recommend a trip to Clyde Common for this dish alone and definitely would not hesitate to return for brunch or dinner, though I would make a specific request for dishes to be brought out individually (a la Tasty n’ Sons or Ned Ludd) if I did.
Always doing my homework before taking a trip and realizing that there was no way I could fit in all the breakfasts and brunches I wanted by doing only one a day it was decided that for my last two days in town I would forgo lunch in exchange for a second breakfast and although I’d considered Olympic Provisions as one of the options a fortuitous encounter the night prior at Roe made me reconsider, the end result sending me instead to Vitaly Paley’s “Imperial” just after 8am despite a late night and plenty of food and drink between Roe and Tanuki.
Arriving downtown on foot after a long morning run and a quick shower I entered The Hotel Lucia in order to browse the lobby’s unique art exhibit before making my way through Imperial’s doors and after chatting with the hotel’s reservationist for a moment I entered yet another dining room with plenty of natural woods, concrete, and high ceilings plus a wide open kitchen and a large wood fired grill – a concept seemingly ubiquitous to Portland and in this case paired with an overhead soundtrack of Beatles, Stones, and The Who plus an almost entirely empty dining room allowing me my choice of seats.
Settled in and browsing the menu as my server readied both water and coffee – a rather acidic blend from Caffé D’Arte – it would not be long before I settled on a few choices and after inquiring about the daily pastry specials I ordered a trio of items, specifically requesting they be brought out as separate courses given the previous day’s experience at Clyde Common; a request that was granted without question leading to excellent pacing, a warm and golden chocolate glazed cake donut arriving with my first coffee refill and subsequent plates arriving at 15-20 minute intervals.
Noting my predilection for sweet to savory and really enjoying the quality of the donut, my second plate to arrive from the kitchen was something I’d sooner associate with Phoenix than Portland and although perhaps better shared given its richness the Warm Ricotta with Grilled Pears and Fry Bread was outstanding; the traditional Indian bread crisp and not excessively greasy, the pears smoky and not overly sweet, and the ricotta rich and creamy – but in a very “first world problems” way, far too large in portion for a single diner.
Holding onto the rest of the ricotta because I simply couldn’t let it return to the kitchen my final savory of the morning was the “Imperial French Toast with Seasonal Fruit, Thickened Cream, and Maple Syrup” and true to the form of much of the French Toast served in Portland this one was divine – another heavily custard laden brioche with a crispy golden exterior and nearly liquid center rife with smokiness from the wood oven. Paired with both caramelized bananas and more wood roasted pears plus a hefty accoutrement of both smoked syrup and hand whipped cream this was most certainly a dish for those with a sweet tooth and although I’d originally considered adding some of the leftover ricotta to the plate I just couldn’t do it, instead ordering an extra slice of toast (no charge) that I topped with the cheese and some left over syrup – gluttony at its best and a great way to finish another superlative Portland morning meal.
Cited by some as better than the low country cuisine of the Carolinas’ and by others as an equal to the food in NOLA largely as a result of superior ingredients and a well trained staff Screen Door was an obvious choice for one of my brunches in PDX yet I have to admit I made a minor miscalculation when planning the midday meal – you see, I failed to realize that Mardi Gras was just around the corner and that even for a party of one willing to sit at the counter the wait at Portland’s bastion of southern cuisine was likely to be in excess of an hour…an hour and fifteen minutes, actually, and the majority of it spent crammed into a small lobby with nearly fifty others jostling for perhaps ten seats and far too little standing room around the ‘while-you-wait’ coffee service; to say the least, the odds were stacked against Screen Door when I was finally wedged into a bar stool seventy five minutes after my arrival.
Finally seated and hopped up on at least 40oz of Stumptown’s Hairbender it would not be long before Screen Door’s menu and list of specials made it into my hands and greeted by the bartender I declined alcohol only to have my coffee mug refilled once again - loud and cramped, busy and buzzy I have to say that as much as Screen Door is most certainly not my scene I instantly felt at ease with the service perusing the menu while the spaces next to me were cleared and filled with new patrons I also found peace with the kitchen; a striking calm at the edge of the maddening dining room where a team of at least fifteen worked rapidly, quietly, and efficiently – the ease of motion harkening Michelin Starred kitchens around the world and immediately reshaping my expectations leading to an order I knew would be too much, both for stomach capacity and bar space.
Sitting and watching the bartender make cocktails with everything from fruits to fire while I chatted with my neighbors and chuckled at the Mardi Gras kitsch it would not be long before my plates began to arrive and as expected the dishes began to pile up quickly, the smaller plates condensed into one after photos forming a single dish containing a buttermilk biscuit, two slices of savory cornbread, and fried chicken plus three sidecars of honey. Starting first with the carbs and moving next to the protein I began my tasting of Screen Door’s cuisine with the biscuit and although good I found the texture to be a bit dense compared to those at Tin Shed, Pine State, or Woodsman Tavern but moving on to the cornbread things quickly improved as the dense bread had clearly been cooked with bacon fat, a smoky heartiness with great tooth and a loose crumb that paired marvelously with the honey but even better with the crunchy and slightly spicy fried chicken.
Moving next to the dish I knew I’d be ordering well before I even walked up to Screen Door, the Bananas Foster French Toast would prove to be every bit worth the hour plus wait as two thick slices of golden brioche with a rich vanilla custard interior arrived bathed in boozy maple syrup tinged with cinnamon and topped with caramelized bananas and dollops of thick whipped cream. Intensely sweet but laced with rum and every bit as good as the signature dish in New Orleans the only thing missing from the experience was the fireside flames – probably a good thing considering the close quarters.
At this point quite stuffed with both food and fluids my server/bartender asked if I’d be interested in dessert and as much as I knew I should defer I simply couldn’t overlook the pending holiday and my fortune to be in a place serving King Cake – in this case a King Cake with Pecan Praline and Cream Cheese Filling, Sugar Sprinkles, plus Chicory coffee Anglaise that I took with me to go and indulged on at Heart Roasters after a showing of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the Laurelhurst Theatre. Nicely crafted with the sweet yeast dough housing rich praline filling and deftly balanced by the slightly-bitter Anglaise I can’t say this King Cake was quite as good as those in NOLA, but offered by the slice and nearly 2,500 miles separated from the praline version at Haydel’s it was not too far off…and much like Screen Door I am retrospectively more than happy to have waited over an hour for that cake.
--THE COUNTRY CAT--
Moving on to my final day in Portland; a 6:00pm flight scheduled to deliver me back in Phoenix just after 8:00 I knew I had time to double up on brunches once more and after my morning run and a stop at Coco Doughnuts I hoped to build on the previous day’s southern success at The Country Cat; Adam Sappington’s “Country Craft Kitchen” on Stark Street. Described with many of the current industry buzz words including “farm to table,” “nose to tail,” “organic,” and more featuring a sizable menu with many of my favorites and reportedly FAR shorter waits than those at Screen Door the space seemed like a can’t miss but in the end the experience turned out to be a mixed one.
Arriving just after 9:15am and finding the space already half full but never anywhere near as jammed packed as Screen door I was greeted by a young woman at the door and offered my choice of a table or a seat at the Chef’s counter and opting for the later I’ll note that if you have the option, particularly as a solo, this is the spot to be as a quiet but friendly staff of four worked the line while joking with one another as well as guests, seemingly enjoying their job every step of the way – even as they heckled me about ‘ordering too much,’ something I assured them that two plates was very unlikely to entail.
Sitting and waiting, sipping yet another cup of Stumptown, while watching the team expedite everything from pork to pancakes and biscuits to brisket it would be approximately a twenty minute wait before my duo of plates arrived (unfortunately the restaurant’s policy was to serve dishes together, as opposed to coursed out) and as hard as it was to pass on the Monte Cristo my selected savory would prove to be well worth it, the signature “Cast Iron Skillet Fried Chicken with Toasted Pecan Bacon Spoonbread” an exemplary pile of crispy bird paired with sweet-meets-savory bacon and cornbread custard topped with buttery pecans plus a seemingly extraneous salad that actually proved brilliantly placed, the light acid of the vinaigrette helping to provide some levity to an otherwise hefty plate of excellent cuisine.
Transitioning from savory to sweet, and the main reason I opted to visit Country Cat on a weekend rather than a weekday, the *weekend only* Cinnamon Swirl French Toast with Makers Mark Custard, Vanilla Poached Pears, Clabber Cream, Maple Syrup would unfortunately prove to be quite disappointing – particularly in a city where I’d already experienced so many superlative takes on my favorite breakfast dish – and largely because of the toast itself. Large in portion and big in flavor with the poached pears, cream, and pure maple all excellent it was the execution of this dish that fell short – the custard not only unremarkable (and certainly not boozy,) but also not saturating the bread thus leaving the interior not dissimilar to a slice of plan cinnamon toast. Admittedly more than ample for sopping up the lovely amalgam of fruit, cream, and syrup but generally ‘bready’ I’m sure some of my disappointment in this dish was my preference for custard laden toast, so perhaps others results may vary, and I certainly would not hesitate to return in order to sample more of the menu – particularly the cinnamon rolls and monte cristo which both looked excellent, or some of the more interesting options from the dessert menu (which they should really consider serving at brunch.)
For my final brunch in town, and actually my final meal in general, I decided to take a chance on one of the new kids on the block – not necessarily a new restaurant, but a new (and decidedly unique) brunch service at Spints Ale House that would turn out to be one of my best spontaneous decisions of the trip – and the second best brunch, as well.
Obviously a watering hole from its title to its layout I was clued in to Spints by a fellow Chowhound and after so many crowded brunch spots throughout Portland I was admittedly surprised when I arrived to find the space literally empty; myself, a bartender, and a hostess the only people present save for the kitchen staff and honestly, had there not been a sign out front and a smiling “good morning” from the man tending both bar and table I’d have probably turned around at the door instead of seating myself at a hightop in the bar room where Radiohead played overhead and heavy woods and concrete once again filled the space with Stumptown soon to fill my mug.
A warm and open space with an ample collection of top shelf liquor befitting its primary function as a bar it should go without saying that service was excellent given the lack of other patrons (though another couple would show up later) but just to stress the point service was really quite exemplary, the bartender well versed in both the food and beverage program and even going so far as to gift me two cocktails he was “experimenting with” for future menus – the first a take on the White Russian featuring Apple Rum, Mint Bitters, Condensed Milk, and Kahlua while the second was served as a “warm-up” to my coffee with espresso, Bailey’s, and Cedar Bitters. Generally not one to imbibe so early in the day but not wanting to seem rude I must say that while I generally prefer my coffee sweeter, the first drink was excellent – the house made bitters coming across as a light kiss on the palate while the rest of the drink tasted like a creamy Amish apple pie.
Chatting as I awaited my plates and informed that despite the lack of patrons that day the brunch service had been doing rather well it would be a mere fifteen minutes before my first dish arrive and as much as the dish has become bastardized and cliché here in the States I couldn’t pass up the concept of “Sweet Potato and Chicken Liver Poutine” after my server’s description of hand cut fries, fresh curds, rough cut fried chicken livers, and a touch of cheddar; the whole thing decadent and rich with plenty of mineral funk – a great dish if you like liver, but probably not ideal if you don’t (or if you’re expecting the Quebecoise classic.)
Moving from funky to funkier, my main plate at Spints was the dish that got me in the door and as much as I knew I was taking a risk ordering Sweetbreads at a non-French, non-fine-dining restaurant the old adage of “high risk : high reward” proved quite true in the case of Spints’ French Toast with Fried Sweetbreads and Maple Syrup. Starting first with two slices of rich poppyseed bread entirely saturated with creamy custard and fried to a golden brown and moving on to three peerless sweetbreads; much like the toast golden crisp on the exterior and creamy within and lightly touched with powdered sugar plus barrel aged maple syrup this was the sort of dish one would expect to find, perhaps, at Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon and achieving the same deft balance as much of APdC’s cuisine at a mere $14 this dish was a veritable steal and amongst the most memorable in all of Portland.
At this point sated – and actually rather full – I could have easily departed Spints’ quite happy with the entire experience but literally incapable of passing up Bread Pudding when it is present on a menu I did the smart thing and ordered a slice – the $6 square far larger than I’d anticipated yet so good I nearly found myself licking the plate clean (and well aware that I was in for a long, sleepy flight.) Described simply on the menu as “Apple Bread Pudding” but in reality chunks of angelfood cake saturated with apple infused custard, cider, and chunks of roasted apples topped with rich vanilla bean crème anglaise this was, like everything else at Spints, the sort of food I love and without a doubt amongst the best bread pudding dishes I have had in some time – another must order, no matter how full you think you are, and a beautiful pairing to the apple rum cocktail.
An exquisite brunch in a city full of great brunches my visit to Spint’s ended with the bill – a modest $30, served alongside house made pecan brittle and thanking my server for both the recommendations and the drinks with a hefty tip I made my way to the car not only completely satisfied, but also with the newfound knowledge that Chicago is no longer my favorite breakfast and brunch city in America; not even close.
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