Restaurants & Bars 2

Trip report: Portland over Christmas weekend

Lillian Hsu | Jan 13, 200808:41 PM

A huge thanks to you Portland chowhounds. By religiously scouring your posts, my family and I didn't have a single bad meal while we were in your lovely green city. In fact, we only wished we had more meals to cram into each day.

Our favorites:

Simpatica: We had a Christmas eve brunch here that knocked our socks off. On the server's recommendation, I ordered the goetta, which, he explained, is oatmeal cooked for a long time with bacon and later cut up and fried. I was afraid it would be too heavy, but it turned out to be the highlight of our meal. My mom, who usually hates brunch food, couldn't stop snitching bites from my plate and is now searching for a good goetta recipe so she can make it at home! My brother had an omelet and a side of the excellent sausages. My mom ordered the chicken and waffles with dried fruit syrup--delicious: comfort food, refined. Topped off with their fresh squeezed orange juice, this meal left us happy the entire day.

The service we had at Simpatica was the best we encountered through our entire trip--extremely warm and sincere, with a clear pride in the food they served. To our surprise, we loved sitting at the communal table. The couple to our left gladly allowed us to ogle their dishes as we decided what to order, and the young man to our right regaled us with stories of Simpatica's Friday night dinners. A must do for our next trip.

What a wonderfully warm and inviting place! If I were a local, I'd be at Simpatica every weekend.

Le Pigeon: My brother and I managed to snag corner seats at the bar on Sunday night for the splurge meal of our trip. As an appetizer, we ordered the gnocchi with escargot. The gnocchi was soft and pillowy, just the way it should be. For my entree, I had the beef cheeks, and my brother had the pork with apples. Both dishes were excellent, but I thought my beef cheeks--the meat, meltingly tender--had the edge. The true revelation of the night, though, was dessert. We were tempted by the foie gras profiteroles, but we ended up ordering their signature apricot cornbread with maple ice cream and bacon. Unfreaking believable. The blend of sweet and savory was magic, and the aroma of the bacon, intoxicating.

The best part of Le Pigeon, though, was being able to see the chefs at work. It was a pleasure watching the ballet of the kitchen unfold right in front of us, and the three smiling chefs just seemed like genuinely nice people who enjoyed each other's company.

Pok Pok:
Another gem. On a cold Saturday night, we huddled over the menu around their space heaters, as the extremely attentive hostess gave us frequent updates about when our table would be ready. We were seated in the beautiful downstairs lounge, right next to the window, where we had a great view of the little hens roasting. We ordered the papaya salad, which turned out to be the best papaya salad I've ever had. I'm usually disappointed when I order this dish at Thai restaurants in the Bay Area because the combination of flavors are out of whack. Here, though, it had just the right mixture of tart and sour and was a perfect counterpoint to the sweet flavors of the roast hen. We also ordered the mussel omelet, a curry dish, and one of the noodle soups. Everything was good except for dessert--an ice cream sandwich with jackfruit and coconut, which literally came sandwiched in white bread. Weird and not tasty. (Is this really an authentic Thai dessert?)

We loved the vibe at Pok Pok. Great lighting, great decor, and the whole place was abuzz with conversation without being obnoxiously loud. My mom was afraid it would be too trendy for her, but there was a nice mix of people--couples, families, small groups of friends--whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s. Service was excellent, especially the hostess who took the time to ask us how our meal was on the way out.

Toro Bravo: We ate here on Christmas Eve. The servers, who understandably seemed eager for the restaurant to close so they could go home for the holiday, nonetheless offered impeccable service. We were especially impressed with their timing in bringing out the dishes, well-spaced with very little lag time between each dish. Our favorite tapa was the lamb stew with figs and pearls of couscous, but what we liked best of all was the complimentary dish of crunchy spiced chickpeas that they brought out at the start of the meal. Delicious! Our only complaint with this place was that almost every tapa struck us as very hearty, so it was hard to find lighter dishes to balance out the rich ones.

Portland Farmers' Market: We had breakfast from the organic pork stand (can't remember the name). The little breakfast combo included some tasty hash and two of the best pork sausages I have ever tasted. We also tried the pulled pork sandwich with a nice heaping of grilled onions. Good on a rainy day.

Sahagun Chocolate: This tiny little shop had free hot chocolate brewing when we walked in. Exceedingly rich, two or three sips was enough to satisfy my craving. I bought some of the chocolate cherry bark, which was good but not extraordinary.

Staccato Gelato: We liked the donuts here better than those at Voodoo. They tasted fresher and less bread-like in texture.

Burgerville (on SE Hawthorne): I didn't realize that the fruit shakes and onion rings were seasonal, so we were a bit disappointed. But the peppermint chocolate shake with tiny chocolate chips was good.

I know that we only touched the tip of the iceberg of what Portland has to offer, but what we sampled really impressed us. We especially envy you the wealth of intimate cozy restaurants with reasonably priced menus.

For other tourists: We didn't have a car, but we managed to hit all of these restaurants via public transportation (bus and streetcar) without too much trouble. A car, though, might have allowed us to venture further away from the center of the city.

We would love to return in the spring or summer to sample more of Portland's seasonal specialties. (We also really wanted to go to Biwa and Apizza Scholl's, but both were closed for the holidays.)

Thanks again, Portlanders, for the wealth of knowledge on this board! You made our first trip to Portland a memorable one.

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