Dispatch from Portland: Take-Aways from FeastPDX

The bar at Clyde Common, one of my favorite places to eat and drink in Portland

I spent the last three days and nights ingesting a crazy amount of food and bev at FeastPDX, the Bon Appetit-sponsored food fest in the Rose City. It was the festival's second year; I attended last year as well. And while I had no complaints about last year, overall I think this year's festival was better: more events, a few free events, some very good tasting panels and speakers, and of course, the primo events: the Sandwich Invitational, Night Market and High Comfort. Of the three, my favorite is the Night Market.

But there is one difference I'm noticing, having been back less than 24 hours. This year, I don't have a case of the Grass-is-Greener's. Portland usually seduces me and makes me feel a little bit envious.

And, sure, there's still a little bit of that. What's the Seattle equivalent of Clyde Common? Or Olympic Provisions? Why do we have a downtown where a person has to zig zag through thugs and jerks and idiots to get from Pike Place Market to Pacific Place? I never felt scared or threatened in Portland, even as my husband and I walked back to our downtown hotel through Portland's rowdy Chinatown at midnight after dinner at Le Pigeon. And man, everything is so much less expensive there. (Sales tax is a drag).

But in addition to eating and drinking my way through many of the Feast events and tasting panels--the Clash of the Pinots and the Baby Got Beer Back panels were the highlights of the fest for me this year--I also snuck away to taste my way around town.

And that's why I'm beaming with hometown pride.

I was so excited to eat at Smallwares. Joanna Ware is doing really good pan-Asian food in the Beaumont neighborhood. If you go, get the fried kale salad with bacon, mint and fish sauce; the roasted mushrooms on a thick and amazing walnut-onion puree; some really excellent kimchi (including a beet version); and the mapo dofu, a heavenly egg custard. Still, in a battle between the food at Smallwares and the food at Revel, there's no question that I'd pick Revel again and again, hands down.

My next stop was The Sugar Cube, Kir Jenson's brand new brick-and-mortar bakery, which started out as a food cart. There, the chocolate cake (shown above) was incredible; soft, so moist, with deep chocolate flavor. But even better, her honey brown butter bourbon pie, rich and nutty and not even a little bit from cloying (the big dollop of whipped cream helps, too). I didn't take a picture, because we were hoovering it. I'd say the Sugar Cube is the equivalent of Ballard's Hot Cakes, and they're both so charming and tasty, I'd call it a draw.

After the Night Market I snuck away to another of my longtime Portland favorites, Olympic Provisions in Northwest, which is in a snug space under the expressway. There, I tasted my way through the wines by-the-glass list (it's short, but really smart) with a few oysters and a plate of sincerely excellent beef carpaccio. It was everything I needed: a little break from the crowds, good food and warm ambiance. And then I waited 40 minutes for a taxi, because that's how they roll in Portland. For a similar meal here, I'd happily sup on oysters and beef tartare at the bar at Le Pichet. It doesn't get much better than Le Pichet.

The next day I hit Clyde Common, one of my all-time favorite places, for a small snack and a beer mid-day: great fried Jo-Jo's with a perfect Bearnaise sauce for dipping, and a slightly over-vinegary zucchini and ricotta salad. In Seattle, I'd go to Quinn's for the same kind of food and feel. That is, if Quinn's were open mid-afternoon. Can we make that happen?

Finally, that night, two dinners.

First, Roe, which all of the Portland folks I spoke to wanted to try, but hadn't. It's a small, intimate parlor for artistic seafood tucked into the back of another seafood joint on Portland's Division street, and it's quite a departure from every other Portland place I've been to. Formal-ish, but not comfortably so; it was so chilly I had to keep my coat on. The four course tasting was lovely, with a particularly clever take on ramen with cuttlefish cut finely into the "noodles" and beautifully prepared quail eggs, melting yokes and all. But the meal was scant. We asked if we could forego dessert to opt for another savory course (as neither of us wanted dessert), and we were told no. I got the impression that the restaurant relies on the bread and flavored salt service (Little T, which is equivalent to Columbia City, in other words: really good bread) to fill diners up. For $70 per person before wine, you can do much better in Portland. And you can do much, much better in Seattle at Sushi Kappo Tamura. If you're keeping score, point: Seattle.

Our second dinner that night was the late seating at Le Pigeon, a tradition for my husband and me when we visit Portland. We've been to Le Pigeon four times, and we almost always start with the foie. We did so Saturday--this time the dish was seared foie with johnny cakes, miso, camembert, nectarine and green beans--and it was just too busy; it didn't need the corn johnny cake or the camembert cheese or the green beans. In fact, it tasted like two dishes on one plate. I would've rather the foie been served with just the nectarine puree and the miso.

We followed with the pigeon with pigeon peas and pigeon liver and pineapple, surely a wink at the out-of-town Feast eaters flooding the restaurant: Le Pigeon giving you pigeon x3 (shown). It was a dish that shows off Gabe Rucker's talent with the darkest, richest flavors, and it was thisclose to tasting like a plate of liver. But the acid from the pineapple and heat from the scotch bonnet peppers kept everything pretty well in balance. Final course--braised then grilled lamb shoulder--was fork tender, and served with tomatillo salsa, warm, soft peppers and feta. It was delicious.

It's also fun to watch Rucker groove to the hilarious, sometimes corny music he plays while he cooks in the open kitchen: Creep by TLC, Poison by Bel Biv Devoe, and a little Biggie Smalls were played during our late dinner. Sit at the bar if you can. You might find yourself dancing in your stool, too.

If I had to choose a Seattle place doing food like Rucker's, with a soundtrack like Rucker's, with the really great wines by-the-glass and with the seductive ease of Le Pigeon, I don't know if I could. Final round goes to Portland.