Thanks to everyone for all the wonderful suggestions on the One Night in Portland thread a few weeks ago. Of all the options available I chose Park Kitchen for my main night's meal, but as luck would have it, I got a chance to have lunch at Higgins and another dinner on my way back through town at the Heathman. This is my report:
Park Kitchen. In many ways, this was a perfect choice for a first time visitor to Portland. The place exudes the kind of comfortable casualness that I associate with the city and serves fine regional food. I arrived in Portland Airport from DC at 7:30, hopped a ride into town, and was sipping their signature side car at 8:45. I love a good side car, and this one, made with pear brandy was memorable. Scott Dolich was in the restaurant, but, alas, was tending bar instead of cooking. Nonetheless, the kitchen was in capable hands.
First surprise -- it was a Wednesday night and the restaurant was not crowded. I had a choice of tables but sat at the kitchen counter overlooking the open kitchen. Since there's no tasting menu, I made up my own. I started with a piping hot spinach soup, rich in color and taste, drizzled with parsnip oil, and accompanied by a crisp dusted with essence of anchovy and topped with a bacon and egg salad whipped with meyer lemon oil. I make a mean spinach soup, but this one--made with vegetable stock and no cream--was enlightening. Deep, rich flavor, with a whimsical, satisfying accompaniment. Off to a good start.
I couldn't resist following that with the artichoke, dungeness crab and tarragon salad. Joined with strips of celery root and mixed with a meyer lemon aioli, I had high hopes for this dish. It almost met them. The salad, prepared in advance, was a little too cold and the ingredients, perhaps, spent a few too many hours together. Consequently, it lacked flavor. These are some of my favorite foods, and I wanted more taste from the combination. An enjoyable dish, to be sure, but it could have been great.
A half bottle of Cristom's fine reserve Pinot Noir opened the palate for course three: Rabbitt three ways braised with apricots and almonds. The leg was so tender if fell off the bone, and the loin and kidney made a nice complement. Apricot and almond were joined with what seemed like cumin giving the dish a little bit of Indian-style heat. A side gratin of piping hot spinach balanced the meal. Very satisfying.
By now jet lag had about overcome me, but I couldn't pass up dessert. The young sous chef recommended a warm date and ricotta strudel with chestnut honey ice cream. I'd have been better off with the Meyer Lemon tart; I was too full! This was a dessert for more appetite than I could muster so late in the evening after a long flight. The strudel was flaky and rich with a succulent, if slightly dry, filling. The ice cream, sweet and nutty, was a delight. Accompanied by a dessert sherry from a small California producer (compliments of the kitchen for the lonely traveler), I was a happy man.
Had a nice chat with owner/chef Scott Dolich as I was finishing. We talked about the DC restaurant scene and how the folks at Chowhound had steered me to his little place. Dressed like a bike courier, Scott then literally rode off into the night on his bike. Overall, a great meal, and a great Portland experience.
The next day found me with time to kill and restaurants to visit. I stopped by Bluehour to check out the space. A big, hip, trendy space that called out for drinks with friends, but the lunch menu was uninspiring. So I walked uptown to Higgins and found myself in a cue waiting to open the place for lunch.
Mindful of the budget and my pending train reservation, I ordered a glass of their excellent Brick House Gamay Noir and debated a host of delightful options for lunch. I chose one course: the artichoke and nettle risotto with peccorino romano cheese and parsely oil and a parsely reduction pooled around the edges. This dish was flawless. Rich roasted artichoke flavor (the taste that was lacking from Park Kitchen's artichoke salad), a perfect rice texture, and tang from the nettles and romano. Still full from the previous night, that's all I sampled, but based on this dish if I were going back to Portland, I'd want a full meal at Higgins.
A few days later I found myself back in town awaiting the red-eye back to DC. Time to eat! Clarklewis was my first choice, but it was closed on a Sunday. So I wandered up to the bar at the Heathman and settled in with the friendly bar maid (eager to offer tastes of wines by the glass). A side car gave way to a fine rioja, and I ordered my first course: a roast pear salad with warm goat cheese and a pomegranate dressing. Very nice. The mild goat cheese had a perfect texture and warmth. With coaxing from the staff, I went with the Columbia River sturgeon served with what was billed as a potato risotto. This was my first sturgeon, that I can recall, and it was a wonderful fish, meaty and firm, expertly prepared. The "risotto" was really a play on words: it was diced potatos au gratin, but I wasn't complaining when I tasted the creamy dish. Desert was tempting but my plane reservation beckoned more. This was the most formal food of my weekend of eating. The French influence was evident in the preparation far more than at Higgins and Park Kitchen.
All told, I'd happily recommend all three places. Park Kitchen for a more casual, homey experience with food that if not sublime is comfortable, quirky, and satisfying. Higgins for fantastic regional cooking (based, albeit, on a much smaller tour of the menu). And Heathman, for the richer tasting dishes that come from a more French-influenced chef.
If you're still reading this(!), I hope you enjoyed my review. Bon Appetite. Jason