Staying in town for vacation this week. Have had the chance to get over to Pearl/downtown a couple times for lunches and snacks at places I've been meaning to get to for a while, plus some old faithfuls. Here goes:
1. St. Honore. I thought I liked their bread when it was served at other people's houses, but upon futher investigation, this is a pretty disappointing bakery. Tried a couple of varieties of rolls; crusts are heavy thick and dry without being crisp, breads claim to be made with levain but I really don't detect much of a sour - flavor is quite flat, which is disappointing since they seem to pride themselves on unsing Shepherd's Grain flour and all. Personally, I prefer the breads at New Seasons to these - more character, and considerably cheaper and more convenient. Also got an almond croissant that was one of the worst I've had. On the outside, it looked very pretty, a dark burnished-gold color, whick I hoped indicated crispness. Alas, it turns out they bake the croissant first and then CUT IT OPEN and STUFF IT with a truly excessive amount of overly-sweet (more like marzipan, really) almond paste. What you end up with is a lifeless, squished-up pastry overpowered by sticky-sweet goo. Not only that, but the dough itself seemed somewhat undercooked, gooey in the middle. Really a pity, since a good almond croissant is a wondrous, subtle, ethereal double whammy of butter and almonds with just a hint of sweetness, a sheer delight. But hard to come by, I guess. Not worth the trek up into NW PDX, IMO. Definitely not in the same league as Pearl or Ken's.
2. Pho Van Bistro. Light lunch of vegetarian salad rolls and FRESH COCONUT DRINK. My friend got the vegetarian yellow curry; tried a bite, and it was quite good but didn't strike me as really knock-out. Yummy ingredients, though: yams, tofu... The salad rolls weren't exceptional either (and they brought me the shrimp and pork ones first, although I explicitly ordered the veggie ones). They were a little bit lacking in the mint/cilantro department - mostly lettuce without a lot of herb flavor. Peanut sauce seemed bland too. I've had much tastier rolls, more generously proportioned too, for less than half the price at Van Hanh, and (I think, if I remember) Tan Thao and My Canh. I love good salad rolls, especially when it's hot and sunny like it was the past week. What are the best other people have had - taking into account both the roll itself and the dipping sauce? What really stole the show was my fresh coconut. I love drinking coconuts, and this one was wonderfully fresh and sweet and creamy. It is totally worth $3.00 to have someone else prep a coconut for you and stick a little paper umbrella in it. Not to mention the great bistro atmosphere. I really do like Pho Van as a place to eat, even if the veggie pickings are somewhat slim. Worth repeat visits just for the coconuts, and the avocado smoothies (avocado and condensed milk...mmm...)
3. Bewon. I've wanted to try Bewon for a long long time, ever since I've been in Portland really. Finally made it for lunch. Wow, really exquisite. Awesome jap chae, wonderful sides - the red potato in honey dressing is delightful. Again, a really tastefully done space - I honestly have no problem with the location, but then I travel by bike rather than car, so parking isn't the same issue. I've heard people complain about Bewon's strip mall location, but for heaven's sake, it's a strip mall in Northwest Portland - it could be SO MUCH WORSE. :) Anyway, this is a great lunch option if you're looking for a quiet place where you'll get really attentive service and carefully prepared food (which can be tough to find at lunch). I definitely intend to go back for Han Jung Shik, hopefully I'll take my mother when she comes out to visit next month - tough to convince other college students to put down $25 for one meal. Overall, very impressed - so happy to find well-prepared Korean food. Love the lightness, the simplicity, the miniature delights and details, the subtle flavors. (I have relatives who lived in Korea for a good ten or fifteen years, and I recall them making me sweet potato noodle dishes very similar to Bewon's, so the meal definitely touched my nostalgia tooth, too.)
4. Pearl Bakery. More snacking. I'm such a bread fiend, I just can't pass up stopping in at Pearl when I find myself downtown (and I had to make up for the St. Honore disappointment). Finally tried one of their ginger cookies - really nice, dark and moist on the inside, although the top was a bit too heavily sugared for my taste. And a Kaiser roll. I think this the Pearl Bakery Kaiser might be Portland's definitive bread. I prefer more strongly-flavored levain-style breads, made with some whole wheat and rye flour, and with an assertive sour flavor. I like Pearl's levain demi-baguette, and Ken's brown bread isn't bad, but neither really pushes its sour quite as far as I'd like it to (I've done a fairly good deal of playing around with bread baking, sours, desems, levains, and the like), although they are definitely the best I've found in Portland. I have not yet tried Criollo Bakery - how do her breads compare sour-wise? Any other suggestions out there for assertive levains?
5. Mio Gelato. Is it just me, or is their pistachio gelato a little lacking in flavor? Are my tastebuds particulary dull this week?! Anyway, I had coconut instead and it much better.
6. OH! Brunch at Park Kitchen! Wonderful! (This was actually a couple weekends ago, but I was too lazy to post about it.) Really excellent - we got there early, just as they were opening, and got nice service, very attentive, more coffee than any human being should drink in one sitting, and SUPER food. Ellen Dolich is brilliant. Had granola with yogurt (my Official Favorite Breakfast), friend had the spinach soup which has been discussed previously. Both excellent - the yogurt was notably delicious, very creamy and sweetened with honey. For sides, had latkes and the pastry of the day - sweet potato biscuits. Sweet potatoes and biscuits are two of my favorite foods in the world. The biscuits were perfect, and came with lightley-sweetened pecan-studded butter which, I firmly believe, is what heaven would taste like. Latkes were fresh and crisp, biscuits were fresh flaky and oven-steamy. What I love about Park Kitchen's desserts and pastries is that the emphasis is so squarely on the flavors, the food itself, rather than the presentation. Pix Patisserie is an experience yes, and it is worthwhile. But given the choice, I think I'd take one of Ellen Dolich's desserts any day simply because they are so heartwarming, so solid, they prove that food doesn't need to be a spectacle to be great. (No, I'm not a big bananas Foster fan. ;)
Well, I think that's it for now. Anybody still awake?