The city’s dining scene is defined by its varied chefs
When noted San Francisco Bay Area chef Chris Cosentino made the decision last year to expand his restaurant base to Oregon’s largest city, he didn’t do so blindly.
After years of visits to Portland, always including September’s annual Feast Portland food-and-wine festival, he knew it would be a good fit for his adventuresome and locally themed approach to the culinary arts.
“I love the city,” Cosentino said last week. “There’s so much artisanal craftsmanship here. The wine and beer, the salt and honey and leather projects are incredible.”
So about six months ago, as early-spring rains drizzled down upon Portland, Cosentino and partner Oliver Wharton opened JackRabbit on the ground floor of the newly rechristened Duniway Portland, a Hilton boutique hotel at SW Sixth and Taylor streets.
The ambiance highlights Cosentino’s affection for the city: “Everything in the restaurant was made in Portland,” he said. “The art. The chandeliers from old Schwinn bicycles. The tabletops from fallen trees that were salvaged. It’s an homage to Portland.”
The kitchen theme, meanwhile, is one of whole-animal cookery that reflects Cosentino’s most recent publishing venture: “Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, with Guts.”
“There’s this perception that offal is all I can cook,” said Cosentino, whose menu at JackRabbit includes pig’s head ($65) and whole garlic-braised rabbit ($75) as shared entrees. “The reality is I have to yell at people to eat those things.”
Highlights of the menu are large-format, meat-centric shared plates; elaborate pastas made in-house; an extensive oyster bar; and a gin-focused cocktail menu.
Cosentino owns San Francisco’s Cockscomb restaurant and the Acacia House in the Napa Valley. His multiple TV appearances include winning Season Four of the BRAVO Network’s “Top Chef Masters.”
He continues to split his time between northern California and Oregon, where he has been roundly welcomed by Portland’s established fraternity of chefs. “They have been so amazing and gracious,” Cosentino said. “I have been welcomed with nothing but open arms.”
Chris DiMinno, formerly of Clyde Common, is the everyday chef. But Cosentino said he is in Portland for at least a week every month, building on connections with farmers and ranchers throughout Oregon.
He is one of many Portland chefs with multiple irons in culinary fires.
From OX to Beast
Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton were honored this year by the James Beard Foundation with its “Best Chef Northwest” award, a distinction that previously has been conferred upon Naomi Pomeroy (2014), Gabriel Rucker (2013), Andy Ricker (2011) and Vitaly Paley (2005). Every one of these chefs remains actively involved in the Portland restaurant scene, along with numerous others who have achieved finalist status for the award.
The Dentons’ story is one of international intrigue: Greg, raised in upstate New York and Vermont, met Gabi, a native of the South American country of Ecuador, after their respective graduation from culinary schools. They cooked at fine-dining restaurants in Napa, moved to Portland and helped launch Metrovina in 2009.
In April 2012, the Dentons set out on their own with OX, whose wood-fired grill — showcasing prime local meats and seafood in the tradition of Argentina — and Mediterranean-influenced vegetable preparations struck an immediate chord with Portlanders. A friendly neighborhood hub on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I like to think of OX as representing a hug and a kiss, even though the restaurant website says the name “pays homage to the work animal that pulls the plow, tilling the soil and replenishing the land’s ability to produce its fruits, vegetables and grains.”
A year and a half ago, the couple opened a very different restaurant in downtown Portland at SW 12th and Alder streets. SuperBite has a small-plate format that Greg Denton describes as being “all about the umami,” the inscrutable “fifth flavor” of cooking that falls between sweet and sour, salty and bitter.
Starting in 2007, Naomi Pomeroy went a different direction with Beast. Born and raised in Corvallis but with a French-Cajun heritage, Pomeroy had previously found her way into the Portland culinary scene at an underground supper club and several restaurants, including three years at the acclaimed Clarklewis. At 24-seat Beast, on NE 30th and Killingsworth streets, she returned to the idea of intimate, family-style suppers.
For its first three years, Beast had just two cooks, two servers and no support staff. All food was cooked on a pair of electric induction burners and presented to guests who chatted at communal tables. Eventually a modern kitchen was installed, but the family feel was retained. Beast’s six-course, prix-fixe menu, reinvented every two weeks, is served twice nightly Wednesday to Saturday and once on Sunday. There’s also a four-course brunch offered at two Sunday seatings.
Pomeroy’s hard work and inventiveness made her a media darling. She was featured in such magazines as Gourmet, Elle, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Oprah and Marie Claire. In 2014, she won the Beard Foundation’s top Northwest chef award. In addition to Beast, she operates Expatriate, a Southeast Asian-themed cocktail lounge, across the street.
Mention Asian food in Portland, however, and the first name to come to mind is that of Andy Ricker. He is, after all, a culinary ambassador for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. But 30 years ago, when Ricker first trod Southeast Asian byways, he was a young man with a backpack. He began returning, year after year, to study the food culture of Thailand and neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
Ricker opened the original Pok Pok in 2005 in a garage on SE Division Street. It emphasized street cuisine typical of Chiang Mai and other parts of northern Thailand. (In Bend, this is best represented by Wild Rose.) Ricker went on to open five other Pok Pok restaurants and lounges, including several in Portland and a Michelin-starred cafe in Brooklyn, New York. Since winning his first Beard Award, Ricker has also become a best-selling cookbook author and TV star (think Anthony Bourdain).
A Napa Valley native, Gabriel Rucker moved to Portland in 2003 and went to work for Vitaly Paley, whose Paley’s Place restaurant was among the city’s budding stars. Rucker played a big part in Paley’s Beard honor in 2005, an award that Rucker himself was presented eight years later.
Rucker’s style combines sophisticated comfort food with French culinary techniques. He loves upscale, bistro-style food — think foie gras profiteroles and crispy caraway sweetbreads — as well as often-overlooked plates like grilled pigeon (with bleu cheese, beet tortellini and beef tongue). With business partner Paul Bradyegan, he opened the intimate Le Pigeon (fondly called “The Pig” by many Portlanders) in 2006 and the more casual Little Bird, downtown Portland’s best choice for charcuterie, in 2010.
Paley, meanwhile, hasn’t missed a beat since arriving in Portland in 1995 with his partner and wife, Kimberly Paley. The former Belarussian piano virtuoso built a solid reputation for creative continental cuisine at the original Paley’s Place, still an institution in Northwest Portland. In 2012, he was convinced to open a second location, the Imperial, at the Hotel Lucia. It quickly earned recognition as Portland’s best new restaurant.
Last year, he answered another hotel call, taking over the revered dining room at The Heathman hotel and reopening it as the seafood-themed Headwaters. The Heathman also hosts Paley’s Russian Tea Experience on Saturday afternoons. And Paley’s newest enterprise is The Crown, a cocktail-centric pizza and salad bar just off the lobby in the Hotel Lucia.
John Gorham is another chef-businessman who doesn’t sit still. Since founding the Spanish tapas-driven Toro Bravo in 2007, the well-traveled Gorham has launched numerous other ventures that have cemented his reputation.
Toro Bravo, Tasty n Sons (2010) and Tasty n Alder (2013) all present globally inspired menus. “Sons” has become known for family-style brunches, “Alder” for small plates by day and steakhouse fare by night. Travels to the eastern Mediterranean led to the opening of the Mediterranean Exploration Company (2014) and Shalom Y’All (2016), both focusing on Israeli street food. And by next summer, Gorham’s Third n Tasty will open in the new Atticus Hotel in McMinnville, with dinner menus inspired by the wine regions of Spain, France and Italy.
True Spanish fare is generated by Barcelona-born chef Jose Chesa at his casual Ataula restaurant, which opened in northwest Portland in 2012. Ingredients for his savory tapas and paellas are locally sourced, but the flavors are rooted in Chesa’s ability to reimagine his homeland’s traditional “tapeo” culture. Together with wife-partner Christina Baez, he has rekindled the “salero” style of his native Catalonia and other parts of Spain — not only in the food, but in the shared dining experience, with multiple plates and a taste of wine.
Andina, the Northwest’s most redoubtable Peruvian restaurant, is not as chef-driven as many other Portland restaurants. It would be more accurate to call it “family-driven,” as the Pearl District restaurant, established in 2003, grew from the vision of owner Doris Rodriguez de Platt, born and raised in the Andean country. Since 2015, executive chef Dustin Koerner has helped to fulfill her vision of blending the cuisines of Spain and the Inca empire. Indeed, Peruvian cuisine is regarded in many European culinary capitals as the finest of the Americas.
Her married name may be Latina, but Bonnie (Frumkin) Morales’ restaurant is far from that. She grew up in Chicago as part of a Russian immigrant family, and at Kachka — which she and her husband, Israel Morales, opened in 2014 — she has helped to popularize the cuisine of one of the world’s largest and most diverse nations. Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Georgian and Uzbekistani dishes all may be found on the menu, often in the form of dumplings, cured fish and pickled vegetables. And as befits a Russian restaurant, there are more than 50 different choices of vodka including Kachka’s own line, Troika Spirits.
Owner Monique Siu didn’t miss a beat when her much-lauded southeast Portland restaurant, Castagna, lost its star chef, Matt Lightner, shortly after winning The Oregonian’s 2010 “Restaurant of the Year” award. No sooner had Lightner run off to the bright lights of New York than his second-in-command, Justin Woodward, took over the kitchen. With a broad domestic and international portfolio, Woodward quickly established himself with $165 prix-fixe dinners that have become local legend. Already a three-time Beard Award nominee, Woodward also oversees the more casual Café Castagna adjoining the premier dining hall.
Atop The Nines hotel overlooking Pioneer Courthouse Square, Departure is the workshop and playground of chef Gregory Gourdet. A native New Yorker of Haitian heritage, Gourdet embraced culinary studies while a student at the University of Montana. After a semester abroad in France, he returned to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America. He left the Big Apple for Portland in 2008, served two years as executive chef at Saucebox, then took the reins in 2010 at Departure. Numerous awards followed, leading to the creation of a second Departure in Denver a year ago. The culinary theme is modern Asian, pairing local bounty with the bold flavors and traditions of Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea.
Owner-chef Sarah Pliner’s Aviary, an urban-industrial outpost in the Alberta Arts District, applies classic French techniques to exotic Asian flavors and fresh local ingredients. Pliner’s decades of experience in New York and Portland shines through in dishes like curry-braised goat, charred octopus and flat-iron steak with bone marrow custard. Diners can enjoy a seasonal patio, beside the Aviary vegetable garden, or watch the kitchen from the chef’s counter.
Chef Ryan Fox launched his culinary career in Portland with a much-acclaimed pop-up restaurant. Now with a permanent, brick-and-mortar home that opened late last year, Nomad.PDX is at greater liberty to extend Fox’s artistic focus.
Forget the white tablecloths; this prix-fixe restaurant offers multiple courses of carefully staged, savory small bites, leading diners to make their own flavor discoveries. Culinary Institute of America graduate Fox worked at Las Vegas’ famed Joel Robuchon restaurant and at Portland’s Castagna before setting out on his own.
Rome and Israel
Joshua McFadden was the opening chef for Ava Gene’s in 2013. He and partner Luke Dirks bought the restaurant in 2016 and soon thereafter launched Tusk with another partner, chef Sam Smith. The two east-side Portland restaurants — Ava Gene’s on Division, Tusk on Burnside — have made distinct marks in the city’s culinary landscape.
Ava Gene’s calls itself a “Roman-inspired” restaurant. While its Italian influences are unmistakable (pastas are handmade from regional grains, and Tuscan wines and grappas dominate the drink list), there’s an emphasis on local produce in a superb selection of vegetable plates. There’s a good reason: Between stints in restaurants in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, McFadden had worked in Rome at renowned chef Alice Waters’ American Academy. He subsequently invested two years managing a culinary farm on the coast of Maine, where he got up close and personal with veggies.
Tusk, by contrast, has a menu inspired by Mideastern cuisine — a nod to Smith, who had opened Philadelphia’s acclaimed Israeli restaurant, Zahav, as sous chef. After moving to Portland in 2012, the California native teamed up with McFadden as chef de cuisine at Ava Gene’s. His vegetable-rich seasonal menus and house-baked flatbreads reflect that influence.
Too often overlooked are the contributions of outstanding pastry chefs. At The Hairy Lobster, overlooking Jamison Square in the upper Pearl District, Mellisa Root honed her dessert skills under renowned chef Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York. Her contributions complement those of her co-owner and husband, Boise born-and-bred executive chef David Root, who serves shared plates of what he calls “Old World comfort food” in a tavern-like atmosphere.