‘Tis been a season of West Coast adventuring. Not a singular season as much as a series of seasons. From the flower blooms of April to the rain-belt of mid-September, I’ve ventured high and low this year, with Portland at its epicenter.
What started as a realistic attempt to see if west coast living is really my jam (and hence my family’s jam), developed into a multi-pronged effort to visit Portland as much as humanly possible within a 6-month period.
After forfeiting my family’s usual spring break vacation this year – they headed west to Los Angeles – I decided to spend the week in Oregon, my casita away from home.
I’ve written about Oregon in the past, but something has always drawn me to this place. There’s a sense of spirituality in the shifting mountain mists, the coastal waves, the smell of white pine and Douglas fir. Oregon makes me want to shed my New York mask, pull on checkered flannel, and just be. And smell. And do. Hike, watch, drink, and eat. All of the local tidbits and doodads, the hearth-baked artisan breads, the grass-fed meats, the stinky cheeses, and the only-to-be-found in the Pacific Northwest edibles – marionberries, cloudberries, Rainier cherries, Walla Walla onions… I have yet to eat geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”), but someday. At the very least, it’s on the list.
I did barehand my first full Dungeness crab, nose to tail, while watching those humbling coastal waves roll in; dunking sweet day-caught meat into browned butter prepared by the most utterly talented Portland-area chef, Althea Potter of The Southeast Wine Collective. So there’s that.
April in Portland is quite the experience. If you’ve never visited Portland in April, please make sure that you do. Locals (and those who know Portland) will tell you otherwise, but they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. They’ll rave of the summer months, of the warm dry air, of the brewery patios which spill over with that vast slice of PNW dwellers seeking respite from the rain. But truly, and this comes from a fair-weather person, summer isn’t Portland’s best season. For the visually-inclined it’s spring.
In spring, Portland blooms as though the entire city is bursting from the tangled buds of a city-wide tree. Not a single block is spared. Rhododendrons jostle with cherry blossoms, magnolia drips and dogwood drapes. It’s a floral-soaked wonderland, you can just imagine the smell.
This April I had the pleasure of staying at The Nines Hotel in Downtown Portland, which in addition to delivering some decadent style points, happens to pack a one-two foodie punch. Local favorite Urban Farmer Restaurant sits on the ground level and at the top of the hotel, Departure Restaurant is located right next to the lounge (hello late night!).
Departure is one of my all-time favorite Portland restaurants. My visit in April was so good that I dragged my husband back for a visit in June. It’s a must-see tour de culinary force, helmed by ex-Top Chef all-star Gregory Gourdet, who, although he got booted for some dry-as-wood goose on Top Chef, pretty much nails it on every dish I’ve eaten in Portland. If you have to get anything on the menu, go for the pork belly which tastes like the best possible incarnation of banh-mi: ditch the bread and add more of those delicious peanutty, fish-saucy, pickled carroty toppings while showering the whole thing with a Mount Rainier-inspired swath of cilantro. It’s an impressive mouthful, the type of dish that you crave long after you’ve taken your last bite.
I spent some time with cherished brands – Smith Teamaker and Jacobsen Salt Co. to name a few. I ate Indian food, I stayed a few nights at an adorable Airbnb in The Pearl District. I farmers’ marketed, I cooked lamb, I marinated feta. I kept myself busy in the languorous way of the French, with a wooden spoon in hand and a dog-eared copy of my latest novel within reach.
Let’s fast-track through my visit to Portland in June since it was more of the above – eating, drinking, sightseeing, this time with my husband by my side. The weather was perfect, a relief given that it was his first visit to Portland and I wanted to show ‘er off at her prime. We did have the most calorie-intense dinner of my life (also the prettiest food of my life) at Castagna which ended with me asking our server whether other patrons had legitimately finished their meal. Like, for real? As in they ate all of it? (It also ended with me taking a video of Rodney eating his last dessert, our third, while snickering “do it, do it, I dare you to do it”, my version of Monty Python’s “but it’s only wa-fer thin”).
Soon, it was September, that time of year when Portland can’t decide whether it wants to be summer or winter. Based on my last three visits to Portland in September, Portland seems to have some kind of preternatural clock that kicks in as soon as September 15th rolls around. Before that point: summer, days in the high 80s, nights so comfortable that you’re hungry for a top-down jaunt to the drive-in. Movies that is; car not shirt, hope that I didn’t have to clarify but in case I did….
After the 15th, Judgement Day. The rains begin, and girl, you’d best have brought your shearling coat and rain slicker to layer over those sundresses.
But when those days are balmy and the living’s easy, what fun can be had. Oregon I just love you so much.
I was in Oregon in September for Feast Portland, the nation’s Most Notorious Food Festival (no that isn’t their tagline, yes I’m suggesting it for them).
We started as we did on my last Feast tour, with an overnight stay in Portland (staying at The Woodlark Hotel) followed by visit to the Oregon Coast. This year however, we backed up the itinerary, and started an inch closer to Portland, spending two wine-filled days in the Willamette Valley. For the uninitiated, the Willamette is home to the best darn Pinot Noir you’ll ever taste, plus a slew of new varietals, the names of which I can’t remember because 1. I was drinking and 2. I was drinking without a pen.
At Sokol Blosser Winery, Executive Chef Henry Kibit prepared us a Farm & Forage lunch with locally-foraged vegetables. Don’t you just love the word “forage”?
At Abbey Road Farm, a working 82-acre farm, we tasted more wine including some funky new varietals which are now escaping me. (I urge you to visit Abbey Road and report back so that I can update this blog post). We had breakfast with The Wilderness Hunters (eggs benedict! With chanterelles! More foraging! Not complaining!), and we hung out with the hens, goats, rainbows and mountain-facing deck chairs that make Abbey Road such a magical place.
We visited Pollinate Flowers where owners John and Jeremy have built an intricate natural regenerative ecosystem “and perennial paradise” with native plants – namely flowers – of every shape and color. That, along with wild edibles, cultivated vegetables, and the most bitter species of bush-grown cranberry. Part of me wishes you’d seen my face post-cranberry. I’m also happy that you didn’t.
We – don’t hate me – took a helicopter tour of the valley with Tour DeVine, landing in the style of windblown Kardashian at two separate wineries. First stop was Coeur de Terre Vineyard, which I originally mis-heard as Corditerres, a name that sounded vaguely mushroomy and a little odd for a winery. Course-corrected, I found Coeur de Terre to be the most welcoming of wineries and quite true to its name: “heart of earth”. A family-run business helmed by Scott and Lisa Neal, CDT showcases the best of Pinot Noir along with inventive varietals such as their 2015 Dry Riesling. But beyond the wine are the stories, which is why I love the industry so much. In particular, I love the hustle of winemakers like Scott and Lisa…the desire to learn. The kind of “hey, let’s bail outta Dodge and go make wine in Oregon” kind of wishful thinking that we’re all guilty of but never have the nerve to put into practice.
Next stop, we visited another newish winery, a biodynamic outfit by the name of Maysara. Run by the Persian team Moe and Flora Montazi, Maysara is likewise family-run and is focused on stellar Pinot Noir as well as Pinot Blanc and Riesling. I’ve always considered Natural Wines to be a healthier, less-sulfite driven wine, but learned that biodynamic wines are in fact a cut above, with stringent processing requirements and frequent dependence on puzzling things like astrological charts and manure-filled cow horns. It’s fascinating stuff. Most important learning – with biodynamic wines, you can open a bottle and not have to drink it all in one sitting – it spoils at a far slower rate than regular (non-cow manure) wine, which hallelujah, praise be, I’ve been waiting all my life for this.
For our last stop of the pre-Feast tour, we descended on a house in Neskowin, Oregon, on loan from the gracious team at Vacasa. We did the Dungeness crab-brown butter thing as the Oregon sun cast the evening’s final rays; laughing, sharing food stories, drinking more wine from local producers and ending the night with salted graham cracker s’mores.
It was a healthy way to end a few days of pre-Feast consumption; the views were larger-than-life and it reaffirmed all commitments to own a little shack in Oregon someday.
I finished out my time in Oregon with my third visit to Feast Portland. Was it epic? As usual. Did I end up with indigo thigh bruises like my last visit? Thankfully not. I did dutifully taste my way through the event’s major activities – the nighttime events including the new-this-year “East Coast vs. West Coast” competition, “Night Market”; and the fan-favorite “Smoked”.
I ate and drank (I’m certain) everything available at “The Big Feast” including kombucha from Brew Dr., frozé from 14 Hands Winery, all the Underwood wines, pies from Petunia’s, the most intense sea salt caramel ice cream from Salt & Straw, wild boar corndogs from Nicky USA (yes NICKY yes), turmeric-dusted popcorn from Jacobsen Salt Co, seared duck, roasted chanterelles, plump Mac-n-cheesy spaëtzle, more Dungeness crab, oysters, sake, A PIMENTO CHEESE WONTON. Good lord I love pimento cheese. Do you want me to stop? I’ll stop.
I came back to New York never wanting to eat again. By the next morning, I was hungry and making fried eggs.
Which is why I do this Feast Portland thing year after year after year. Nobody gets food like Oregon. It’s intense, it’s salty, it’s malty, it’s a blood sport. I can’t get enough of this food even though every year I swear it’s my last. So arrivederci Oregon, mi amore. You know that you’ll see me again. (PS, I’ll keep my calendar clear if you plan to repeat that helicopter thing. Call me! xx)
This post was brought to you in collaboration with Travel Oregon. All opinions are my own.