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Veg Out: Portland, OR

October 23, 2011
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Jules went to Portland to run a marathon. (Yes, another one. Just typing that makes me short of breath.) I went for a Marathon of Eating. As a result, I am no longer able to fit into my Chuck Norris Action Jeans.

Won’t bind your legs!

At first, I was a little worried that we would not eat well in Portland because it is so well known for nose-to-tail eating.  I reviewed menus at Le Pigeon, Little Bird, Clyde Common, Beast, Park Kitchen, and Gilt Club, and ruled them all out. Salt & Straw ice cream even serves flavors like Three Berry Barbecue and Brown Ale with Bacon. But Portland is also big on farm-to-table eating. And Portlanders are so creative. They make mosaics out of bicycle reflectors, hold art contests to honor Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and have not one, but two places where you can eat grilled cheese in a school bus. I had faith we would find some restaurants that know how to treat a veggie right.

Our first dinner was at Natural Selection, where they do not just serve vegetables–they meditate on them. Seated across from the open kitchen, we watched chef Aaron Woo and company prepare a four-course vegetarian tasting menu that reminded me of the artful, meticulous food at Ubuntu. Several menu items were vegan and/or gluten-free. I started with corn and chanterelle mushroom soup topped with coconut butter and chives, and palate-cleansed–nay, palate-drenched–before dessert with some blackberry granita. The veggie worship carries into the decor, which includes downright sexy portraits of eggplant and rainbow chard.  You even get to take a veggie portrait home–it’s on the back of your bill. There’s mine above, on the upper left. Mmm hmm, Rutabaga. Sashay, shante!

I didn’t think I could get closer to a restaurant kitchen than I did at Natural Selection, but DOC proved me wrong.  It’s off of Killingsworth Street, not far from Natural Selection, and, as far as I know, it is nowhere near the Department of Corrections. Upon arrival, we walked in the front door and through what Jules deemed “The Openest Kitchen Ever” to get to our table.

This restaurant gets mad points for warmth and charm. It was so neat to see the chefs chatting with people as they came through the front door. They served oysters to most diners as a sort of amuse bouche, but they specially prepared us a huge bowl of fried padron peppers. Jules and I both ordered the vegetarian tasting menu, and only two of our five courses were the same. Those two were plated family-style for us to split. One of them was a couscous-stuffed curry squash that I got to break in half. I found this oddly satisfying.

But two multicourse dinners in a row hardly counts as Marathon Eating, even if they do include squash-busting feats of strength. I needed more. Much more.

Luckily, breakfast is usually veggie-friendly, and Portland loves breakfast all day. We got to Broder just after they opened at 9 a.m., and there was already a wait. Here’s where that Portlandy creativity comes through: Broder must have some sort of agreement with the bar next door, which is empty during the day anyway. They turn it into a waiting room for breakfast! And it’s stocked with coffee, dappled light, and expertly selected early-morning music. In the restaurant, we sat at the counter and watched the chefs crack eggs into individual cast-iron square skillets. For Jules, they put the Baked Eggy Squares on top of vegetarian pytt i panna made with peppers, onions, potatoes, and pickled beets. And for me:

Ebelskivers with lemon curd and lingonberry jam. While ordering, I blathered, “I would like the ebils … skibevel … flaarg … I would like the pancakes that start with ‘E’!” To which our server replied, “It’s actually quite laborious to pronounce it correctly. I work here and I don’t say it right.”

I love it. I pronounce Broder one of my favorite places in Portland.

Contrary to Portlandia, not everyone in Portland sleeps ’til 11 a.m. I know this because I was at Tasty n Sons just after 9 a.m., and everyone in Portland was there. But then again, there is something about the energy in a bustling breakfast joint on a rainy morning, don’t you think? There are shops to browse while you wait for a table, including Lodekka, which is housed in a double-decker bus across the street. And once the wait is up, let me tell you: Tasty n Sons knows how to Put An Egg On It. A perfectly drippy fried-egg sandwich on a killer English muffin, shaksuka, cast iron frittata with caramelized onions and grilled corn, the list goes on.

Fortified with egginess, we headed to Powell’s Books for Home and Garden, which is totally separate from the big mama Powell’s downtown, which is good because probably less people heard my fingernails scraping along the floor as Jules dragged me out after two hours. I think I could live there. They have an entire aisle of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks–some used, many on sale, all with no sales tax. I picked up Plenty and got ATK’s More Best Recipes for half price.

On the morning of Jules’s run, I grabbed an Americano and a scone from Stumptown at the Ace Hotel and walked downtown to cheer him on at the finish line. I got tangled up in the blocked-off streets and missed him finishing in Boston Marathon qualifying time. I felt terrible. He forgave me, mostly because he is that kind of guy, and partially because he was about to pass out. I felt only slightly less terrible. Have you ever stood at the end of a marathon and watched people’s faces as they finish? It is one of life’s Awesome Things. It always makes me tear up. And I run only when chased. Or to catch the grilled cheese bus.

Salt & Straw Ice Cream  (Map)

Natural Selection (Map)

DOC (Map)

Broder Cafe (Map)

Tasty n Sons (Map)

Powell’s Books for Home and Garden (Map)

Stumptown Coffee on Stark (Map)

The Grilled Cheese Grill (Map)

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