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By Hans Tammemagi
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Since my wife, Allyson, is a formidable cook, we decided to visit Portland, Oregon, so she could chomp on the culinary scene and see if it was truly worthy of its burgeoning reputation. We were encouraged by friends who enthused about exotic food carts, generous happy hours - an unknown entity in Canada - and talented chefs with a fierce locavore bent. Reasonable prices and the lack of a sales tax also drew us.

First-timers in Portland, we decided to take a walking tour, the Epicurean Excursion, of course. We meandered through the trendy Pearl District, which, as the guide explained, was the city's first green redevelopment of an industrial area.

[Pearl Bakery]

At Pearl Bakery we sampled croissants, baguettes and bouchons. The chef is so exacting he re-calibrates his recipes with each new batch of flour. We sipped an incredibly rich chocolate drink at Cacao, made from 72% chocolate (chocolate bars typically use about 13%). At the In Good Taste Cooking School we sampled savoury condiments chased by a local Pinot Noir aged in oak. Ally declared the Madras curry mustard her favourite.

We entered the garish Ringlers Pub, with a long, colourful history. Upstairs are the McMenamins Brewery and the Crystal Ballroom with a floating-floor. The guide described Portland's Beervana reputation (most breweries per capita in the world) as we savoured handcrafted Sunflower India Pale Ale, Terminator Stout and Hammerhead Ale.

[4. Flying Elephants' Deli ]

Our next stop, Hot Lips, proved to not only cook tasty pizzas, but was also at the cutting edge of green. All ingredients are local and fresh, leftovers are composted, extra warmth from the oven is used to heat the building and even their delivery car is electric. The guide continuously lobbed food factoids at us and regaled us with anecdotes about the city's history.

[3. Farmers' Market]

Feeling more knowledgeable, we wandered to the Saturday Farmers' Market. Buskers played, children ran and everyone was carrying bags and baskets laden with fresh produce. The yeast that got Portland's culinary cake rising, we learned, is the vigorous agricultural community, an outcome of the progressive policy to preserve farmland by halting urban sprawl. As we could see, everyone can easily get fresh local ingredients.

[2. Food Carts]

Next day we sampled the food-cart scene, which Portland has raised to a new level. There are approximately 600 carts located in pods throughout the city. We headed to the city-centre pod and were immediately intimidated by the incredible choice. It seemed every nationality in the world was represented. We drooled at Thai curries, Indian Tandoori chicken, German bratwurst, stir-fried pumpkin, Polish sausage, Korean barbeque, and much, much more. After circling the block several times, Ally finally bit into a southern barbeque chicken burger from Touchdown's cart, while I chose chicken dumplings from the Dumptruck cart. Yumm!

[5. Blue Hour Restaurant]

That evening we headed back to the Pearl District and the Bluehour Restaurant, little knowing what a gastronomic epic awaited us. L'Heure Bleue, as its also known, sits in an elegant, tall-ceilinged ex-warehouse and is arguably Portland's top eatery, having enticed Chef Thomas Boyce away from Wolfgang Puck's renowned Spago Restaurant in Los Angeles. We proceeded to sample our way through an eight-course meal with paired wines that convinced us this is one eatery we'd want to revisit often.

A sparkling Argyle Brut from Oregon accompanied our starter, a crispy bruschetta with shrimp, chorizo on a white bean puree. The second course, hamachi sashimi on grilled seasonal mushrooms, was elegant and exceedingly tender with a bite of pickled ginger. The subtle flavours intermingled perfectly with the 2009 New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Our server explained each course and the sommelier told us why he had selected each accompanying wine.

As one delicious course followed another, Ally urged, "Don't eat so much, there's lots more to come."

"Impossible," I declared, raising my glass. How could I turn down even a small fraction of the delicacies that confronted us: fois gras coated with Riesling jelly, octopus terrine with a chili lime vinaigrette, sweet-corn tortellini, Dungeness crab risotto, leg of lamb with olive tapenade and pan-seared salmon. And the presentation was superb, each course a sculpted work of art. Sipping a late-harvest Reisling, the Kaffir lime custard and coconut ice cream melting in my mouth, I emitted a tiny burp. It was one of the most memorable dinners ever.

As we waddled toward our hotel, I asked if Ally had enjoyed the visit to Portland. "Absolutely," she responded, gently patting my ample mid-section, "Portland is definitely a superb place to enjoy good food."


General Info:
Epicurean Excursion Tour:
Bluehour Restaurant:
Boutique hotel with a great happy hour:

PHOTOS: by Hans Tammemagi

1. Pearl Bakery
2. Food Carts
3. Farmers' Market
4. Flying Elephants' Deli
5. Blue Hour Restaurant

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