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Archive for May, 2012

Restaurants: St. Jack, Portland, Oregon

Portland doesn’t exactly strike you initially as a petite corner of France in the Pacific Northwest. Then again, like France’s two largest cities, Paris and Lyon, Portland is divided by a central river, splitting the city into west and east, as opposed to the Left Bank and the Right Bank. Yes, Ken’s Artisan Bakery bakes some exquisite baguettes and croissants, and the nearby Willamette Valley wine region specializes in Pinot noir, a grape that is most commonly known for being used in the French wine growing region of Burgundy. The largest city in Burgundy? Lyon.

Amidst the microbreweries, coffeehouses, yoga shops, food cart pods, and what not of Southeast Division Street in Portland, there is a sliver of joie de vivre as dainty as a madeleine emerging on 21st Street, between Division and Clinton. One end is anchored by the terrific wine bar that summons its name from the Provence town known best for its summer festival, Bar Avignon, and at the Clinton end is a fervently authentic Lyonnaise bistro with a distinctly Portland voice, St. Jack. Not St. Jacques, but St. Jack. A decision worth pondering over before perusing the French heavy wine list that not surprisingly leans strongly towards Pinot noir, Gamay noir, and Rhône blends.

Just the name itself, like Le Pigeon, signals a dash of flare to go with the classic bouchon standards turned out for centuries in the city that actually is France’s culinary capital. Lyon’s gastronomic headlines may always go to the legendary Paul Bocuse, quite possibly the world’s most celebrated chef who still runs the show at his eternal Michelin three star flagship on the outskirts of Lyon. St. Jack isn’t trying to present Paul Bocuse to Portland diners. They’re aspiring for the likes of La Mère Brazier, a gastronomic destination that happens to have sausages hanging from the ceiling in place of chandeliers and sawdust on the floor instead of carpet.

St. Jack is more refined in atmosphere, with a front room that could serve as a movie set for a 1920’s Hemingway era Parisian bistro with its ardoise announcing specials, wooden tables, and zinc bar, and a back room with similar features minus the bar. On off nights it can feel a bit like Siberia to be placed in the rear. Even the entrance feels like you could be walking in after a stroll along the Saône in Lyon, arriving to tree lined residential street with a corner bistro boasting a single lamp above the door illuminated with the name “St. Jack” written on it. In a neighborhood boasting so much hip, young energy, St. Jack’s presence is a blend of the old guard with this new passion for exploring the world’s food cultures.

A meal at St. Jack is a three course affair, or four if you are inclined for cheese. Don’t try to buck the system. When I lived in France two years ago, a day didn’t go by where I didn’t meet somebody who would almost shed a tear when talking about France’s old dining standards have changed for the new, rapid, Iphone, Twitter generation. (more…)

Cocktail of the Week: Heaven’s Kickback, Kask, Portland Oregon

Let’s talk about celery for a second.

Kask’s Heaven’s Kickback on the left and the Bootstrap Buck on the right

That probably lost hundreds of readers instantly.We all know about it’s bitter, funky, watery taste, along with the crunch when you bite into it, often accompanied by some shreds that get stuck between your teeth. It takes more calories to eat celery than you’ll actually consume in the celery (but it’s hard to consume much if not covered in peanut butter…). I’m no advocate for celery. I’ll eat it, I can enjoy it, but it probably is still my least favorite ingredient in the cooking world. My brother won’t even look at it. I know somebody who went so far on a lunchtime diet to have nothing but plain celery (and a piece of a fruit and a cookie).

When celery is considered in regards to cocktails, it generally revolves around the celery sticks in a Sunday morning bloody mary or celery salt on the rim of a tequila drink.

Ariana Vitale, a bartender at Kask, the tiny, handsome Alice in Wonderland meets GQ bar owned by and adjacent to big brother restaurant Grüner, has created a daring cocktail that works beautifully, because of a distinct sour element from celery bitters. The Heaven’s Kickback revolves around Peruvian Encanto pisco. Pisco is an unaged brandy, with far less of the burn associated with most brandies. It’s an excellent cocktail spirit (see all the terrific pisco punches and pisco sours of the world). Then come the sour elements of grapefruit and lemon, some floral notes of St. Germain liqueur, and then a touch of honey.

The finale is the scene stealer, the celery bitters. It’s a complex, startling drink with indeed a kick back at you from that celery, yet remains remarkably easy to drink. Served up in an elegant vintage coupe with a grapefruit twist, there you have finally a smart use of celery in an example of a perfectly balanced, unique cocktail. You’ll like it, even if you look the other way towards celery at the table.

The Cocktails of Portland– On Kask or in a Beaker and Flask

The Rabo de Galo at Kask

The commonly referred to trinity in drinking circles is the so called French trinity of spirits: calvados, cognac, and armagnac. Then there is the much more vague trinity that encompasses essentially the entire range of options at a bar: the cocktails, the wine, and the beer. Most cities have a real strength in one of these categories, be it New York’s dozens of craft cocktail bars, or San Diego’s shocking number of craft breweries, or San Francisco’s caliber of wine thanks to Napa and Sonoma just up the road.

It is truly startling when happy hour arrives each day in Portland and the immense number of options are set before you once again. Portland happens to be the most microbrewery rich city in the United States with upwards of 40 of them. The Rose City happens to be an hour away from Pinot noir nirvana and one of the world’s premier wine growing regions, the Willamette Valley.

The trinity is truly complete in this city. Craft cocktail bars are sprouting up everywhere now like the roses in the Test Garden in Washington Park. I didn’t sample a single cocktail that wasn’t spectacular until the very last bar. It was a streak nearly as impressive as Cal Ripkin’s consecutive games streak. (more…)

Beer of the Week: Adam Old World Ale from Hair of the Dog, Portland, Oregon

Let’s not mess around. Adam is a serious beer. As luxurious as a truffle shaving, as powerful as a stampeding rhinoceros, as refined as the court at Versailles.

The hops are intense, yet not disturbing or obtrusive. The malts shine through glancing off the palate, then making room for a touch of floral and honey. Everything is enviably balanced and even at 10% abv, this is not knock you to the ground strong ale.

Adam would be perfect as a lingering afternoon sipper, an apertif, a digestif, or as a perfect match for a heartier meat. It really is a fine Bordeaux with the energy of a golden retriever. I’m not ashamed to say this might be the leading beer currently produced in our country.

Cruising With Portland’s Craft Brews

Hair of the Dog’s Brews

Years ago sitting in the dark, cozy corner next to the darts board of the Horsebrass Pub on Southeast Belmont, I sampled my first Portland microbrew. It was the Hair of the Dog Blue Dot IPA on draft. Upon opening sip, I realized that this isn’t AAA beer territory. This is The Big Show.

Hair of the Dog remains the gold standard for not just Portland craft breweries, but quite possibly American craft breweries. Recently, I finally had the chance to visit Hair of the Dog’s tasting room right next to the eastern bank of the Willamette River, along with numerous other tasting rooms and brewpubs. Two concepts I had thought beforehand were re-confirmed boldly. Hair of the Dog’s brews are (with two exceptions) indeed worth seeking out by hour long drives as I have done numerous times at home (now a half dozen or so beer stores in San Francisco almost always have a couple bottles).

The second, with all due respect to Seattle, Denver, and San Diego, Portland is the King City of Beers. All contenders are terrific beer cities, but there really isn’t any debate. (more…)

Wine of the Week: Utopia 2009 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon

2009 Utopia Estate Pinot Noir

It’s hard to pick among the world class Pinot noir at winery after winery when visiting the Willamette Valley. Then you stumble upon a royal, rich Pinot noir that also boasts the youthful excitement of a recent graduate. 2009 can be young for Pinot noir, but this Utopia Estate version is bursting with a vibrant candor, ready to be paired now with duck confit.

Utopia’s tasting room along Ribbon Ridge Road outside Newberg is only open on weekends. This is after all a tiny winery from Pinot noir genius Daniel Warnshuis that only produces a couple hundred cases a year. You can fortunately almost always find their Pinot noir at the Carlton Wine Studio a few miles away, as we did. Utopia’s Pinot noir was the stand out, a pitch perfect mix of nutmeg spice, pepper, and huckleberry jam. After a few sips you’ll be licking your lips in the same way you clean your fingers of barbeque sauce after having those outstanding Memorial Day baby back ribs.

I’m not the biggest fan of vague winery names like Utopia. After a sip of this Pinot noir though, the name is appropriate for the state of mind you’ll be in.

A Tasting of Seattle Micro Brews

Mac and Jack’s African Amber Ale at Safeco Field

Unlike later in the week in Portland where on average two microbreweries were covered per day, Seattle boasted so many other (often non food and drink related) sights to see that only the exceptional Fremont Brewing Company’s tasting room was the only one visited. Even despite best attempts, some of Seattle’s best craft brew bars were missed, in particular Brouwer’s in Fremont and the Noble Fir in Ballard, due to rushed travel arrangements.

Which is all too bad considering that Seattle isn’t very far behind Portland at all as first and second for number of craft breweries in American cities. Seattle’s metropolitan area boasts over 30 microbreweries, most of whom have brew pubs or tasting rooms, plus numerous nano breweries that occasionally open their garage doors for tastings. Pyramid is probably the most recognizable name, with a massive brewpub by Safeco Field, and brewpubs even in California. Not far behind would be Elysian, with its original pub on Capitol, and two others around the city, serving its classics like the Elysian Fields Pale Ale and new releases such as the Peste Chocolate Chili Ale (which I had hoped to sample at Brouwer’s). Redhook Brewing in Redmond is also a commonly known brewery, most notably for their (somewhat weak) ESB.

Our beer tastings happened at two unlikely spots–Revel, an innovative Korean comfort food restaurant in Fremont, and at the biggest bar in Seattle, Safeco Field. (more…)