Dining in Portland: The Alphabet District
by Deston Nokes
Portland’s always been a great foodie town, one of the best in the country. The problem lies in getting to try all of the new or established “musts” in town.
This is a particular concern of mine since I authored the iPhone/Android app Portland Essentials, which listed some of the Rose City’s top restaurants, events, landmarks and activities.
Thankfully, Portland Dishcrawl offers a fun way to sample a selection of fun restaurants, all within walking distance of one another. I’ve been on two, and have always enjoyed myself: in Inner Southeast Portland and in North Portland’s Williams Avenue area.
My latest Portland Dishcrawl adventure brought together more than 30 hungry Dishcrawlers to Dishcover (whoever coined that was drinking) a selection of eateries around Portland’s famed dining hub: Northwest 23rd Avenue — also known as the Alphabet District. Part of the fun is that you don’t know where you’re meeting up until the day before, when you’re notified by email. Then each subsequent eatery is a surprise until you cross its threshold.
However, the event’s planners do promise that you’ll have a vegetarian option if you let them know ahead of time. They’ll make all the plans.
If you do make reservations to eat in Portland’s Northwest neighborhood, give yourself plenty of time to find parking. It can be an exercise in itself.
Our first stop was the sophisticated Café Nell, where its elegant and statuesque owner, Vanessa Preston, hosted us. The place was buzzing with activity — even the sidewalk tables were full on this summer night. Thankfully, because I hate waiting, we had a roomful of tables ready for our horde.
With its tall ceiling and French windows to match, Café Nell hints at a fairly refined dining experience, but Vanessa is more concerned about keeping the atmosphere friendly and casual.
“We think of ourselves a neighborhood restaurant,” she said. “Our food is French-American, very simple and clean.”We were each given a tiny cup of fresh beet juice — to cleanse the palate, I was told. I flashed back to the uneaten beets on the plates of my childhood and tasted it with some hesitation. Happily, however, our main course was a collection of very tasty samples from their menu: marinated filet topped with king salmon over creamy carrot puree and arugula sauce, butter poached rockfish over a zucchini puree, and Dungeness crab over a bed of avocado.
However, one of the consequences of such delicious morsels was that I wanted more. The tastes were pretty small. Sure, I haven’t missed too many meals, but fair or not, this diner couldn’t help but evaluate each restaurant based on the $45 entry fee for Dishcrawl.
Fortunately, because I have been on the tours before, a voice told me to settle down because I would be plenty full by the evening’s end.
The Bent Brick
The Bent Brick was our next stop. The décor was rustic and fun downstairs, and we were ushered to the upstairs where plates of mussels in a dollop of mayo were waiting. Then hilarity ensured when the owner and head chef brought out bowls of jojos. The group surrounded the servers; arms thrusting into the bowls, scooping up the fries. When he revealed that the jojo’s unique taste came from being fried in duck fat, one Dishcrawler started waving her arms, literally shouting about this grave blow to her vegetarianism. I’m sure it was an oversight.
I can’t say I was thrilled about fries being a Dishcrawl feature, but owner Scott Dolich intrigued with an explanation of how they butcher their own meat, make sausages in house and a peek at the menu had me anxious to come back and try their rhubarb/peach cobbler.
The Bent Brick also is known for its selection of great wines on tap, priced between reasonable to whoa, and offers diners the option of having a growler or jug filled.
Quimby’s at 19th
The star of the evening had to go to the humble tavern, Quimby’s at 19th, which made up for any other portion-challenged stops. Greeting us were huge bowls of macaroni and cheese made with six different kinds of cheese — probably the best I’ve ever had. We were given the patio, right next door to a half dozen food carts, which didn’t seem to intimidate Chef Robert Bates one smidge. Next, he hauled out huge platters of pulled pork nachos and fresh halibut fish tacos infused with crème fraîche … South Park fans will know what I mean.
At this point in the evening, all illusions of hunger had long since disappeared. But that didn’t stop us from taking a long walk for dessert at Besaw’s, which has served meals to Portlanders for all of 110 years. Pastry Chef Michael Uhnak served us a trio of warm, sliced of grilled peach with handmade vanilla ice cream on a square of shortbread. The treat was alongside some lemon basil curd with fresh local berries. Just in case anyone was wondering where the chocolate went, Uhnak lit the fuse with his over-the-top chocolate bomb with ganache.
So there you have it: Four eateries to add to my app and another terrific evening of exploring Portland dining is in the books. For those intrigued by Portland Dishcrawl’s next adventure, Bites of Division, it is slated for September 18 at 7 p.m.