2000s Archive

The Next Napa

Originally Published January 2002
It's the Burgundy of America, rich in produce, laden with seafood, and blessed with fabulous wines. Chefs love it. And that's only the beginning…

The city of Portland started life with a lot of advantages. "Out in Oregon," an 1843 immigrant enthused, "the pigs are running about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked." The pioneer exaggerated, but not by much. A land of plenty lay at the end of the Oregon Trail, everyone knew that. The port city founded at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers drew on an extraordinary natural larder—Dungeness crabs, razor clams, and oysters from the sea, and river runs of steelhead, salmon, and sturgeon. In the forests and mountains there were elk and deer, and mushrooms and berries beyond imagining. After the valleys went under the plow, a profusion of fruits and vegetables flourished in the rich alluvial soils. Now there's even more to celebrate in this paradise for cooks and eaters, which once again is ripe for discovery.


In the shade of stately century-old elms, the Portland Farmers Market occupies one of the most beautiful green spaces in America. This is no small claim in Portland, where even in the heart of the city there seems to be a tranquil green space, an inviting plaza, or a cascade of water around every corner. A block before the market, I smell the acrid char of chiles roasting, and then bursts of color come into view. Some farmers have traveled far with Jonagold apples and Starcrimson and Red Bartlett pears from Hood River. The Clatskanie River Valley is represented by River Run Farm's certified-organic, pasture-finished Black Angus beef. There are hops for the home brewer, pickling advice for the home canner, Kumamotos from Tillamook Bay, and a basin of fresh trout "caught last night in my neighbor's pond."

I nibble my way through the market—a chocolate Marionberry truffle here, a spoonful of lavender-blueberry jam there, a bite of Tumalo Tomme from Juniper Grove Farm, known for its chèvre. Snacking gets serious at the Canby Asparagus Farm stand, where one woman grinds asparagus and jalapeños in a metate for "asparagus-amole" and another molds masa into tamales, steamed on the spot. Your Kitchen Garden, a seven-acre farm in Canby, in the Willamette Valley, has the market's whitest leeks, gorgeous Purple Rain eggplants, and at least 6 of the 35 varieties of heirloom tomatoes it's known for. Sheldon Marcuvitz and Carol Laity (his Ph.D. is in botany; hers is in molecular genetics) grow a variety of year-round greens and vegetables eagerly sought after by local restaurants. "We're offering chef Greg Higgins thirty-two different vegetables today," Laity says.

Later that day, I see the results. At Higgins, a restaurant smack in the Downtown area, you taste the soul of the region. Higgins, who grew up on a farm near Buffalo, New York, was in the vanguard of chefs-from-elsewhere who have transformed the Portland dining scene in the past decade. He is also the greenest, dealing only with producers and growers he trusts to take care of their animals and their soil, and serving only sustainable Northwest seafood (and no trawler-caught fish at all). His prosciutto (he cures his own) is as sweet as any I've tasted, and his natural pastrami—on an open-faced sandwich with grilled onions and melted Bandon Cheddar—is arguably the best sandwich in town.

A few blocks away at The Heathman Restaurant, the menu is an ode to the Northwest: crusty salmon hash for breakfast, and a dinner that begins with a salad of organic arugula, Chester blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries and goes on to Oregon fallow venison with bourbon-glazed squash and huckleberry sauce. To chef Philippe Boulot, the Oregon countryside is just like his native Normandy. (In fact, Stephen McCarthy, of Portland's Clear Creek Distillery, even distills a Normandy-style barrel-aged eau-de-vie de pomme, using Golden Delicious apples from orchards on the slopes of Mount Hood.) Boulot raves about the "fantastic berries," the wild mushrooms ("chanterelles for two dollars a pound!"), and the local truffles.


Portlanders may dine downtown, especially on theater and music nights, but they are firmly attached to their neighborhoods. A warm day brings everyone out of the woodwork in the leafy Northwest district, sauntering along NW 21st and NW 23rd to soak up the sun, drink cappuccino, parade rosy-cheeked babies, and browse the shops in old Craftsman houses. Many of these sell something to cook with or eat on. It takes stern resolve to resist the kitchen gadgets, cookware, and pretty linens at Kitchen Kaboodle, a complete lifestyle store. At Liner & Elsen, the city's premier wine shop, I find some of the Oregon Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris I've fallen in love with.

Northwest is also a great neighborhood for casual eating. Papa Haydn specializes in seriously baroque sweets—pansy-strewn, chocolate-ribboned clouds of Swiss meringue and chocolate mousse and custard, to be spooned up with guilty giggles. I like the savory menu more, especially the grilled Black Forest ham croque-monsieur with a creamy cucumber salad—and the scene from a sidewalk table. At Tapeo, an excellent Spanish tapas spot, try a brandade-stuffed roasted pepper or fat, house-cured anchovies on tapenade toasts while deciding among 40 or so other little plates.

Two of the city's best-loved restaurants opened on the same block of NW 21st Avenue within a few months of one another. After making his name at the Cypress Club, in San Francisco, in 1994 native son Cory Schreiber came home with Wildwood. It is eloquently expressive of place, from the mural of the Wildwood trail in Forest Park—a 5,000-acre urban wilderness less than a mile away—to a menu written around Oregon's seasonal bounty. Wildwood classics include morels and asparagus on toast, a salad of crisp fried oysters and pancetta, polenta-crusted razor clams, and salmon (either fennel-cured or grilled) that always tastes as if it's just been pulled from the sea.

Subscribe to Gourmet