Baking pastries at Yesenia’s in Hillsboro. See video below.
There’s something wonderful about the aroma of bread baking. Even Franz with its Wonder-soft loaves smells good when the ovens are on. But Mexican bakeries—panaderias—are a whole other world. They use cinnamon, anise and orange in their fragrant pastries, called pan de dulce or pan dulce, filling them with guava, pineapple, coconut and vanilla cream. Savory breads are often stuffed with ham. Cookies even come in the shape of a pig. While every Mexican market in PDX carries these kind of goods, a smaller number make their own breads and pastries. Of these, two are a step above the rest: Yesenia’s and La Espiga Dorada. Don’t be shy. Just follow the grandmother with toddlers in tow, or the day laborer picking up some quick fuel, or the professional getting a box of sweets for the office. Grab a tray and some tongs and load up from the bakery case or the racks. (Hint: Items from the rack are fresher.)
Valentine’s Day is all about romance. And by “romance,” I mean sex. Whether you’re trying to get sex or you’re trying to comfort yourself because you’re not getting any, chocolate is your friend. Whatever the mood or reason, the following artisans, shops, restaurants, and chocolatiers will supply your wildest cocoa fantasies:
Trends can go one of two ways: either they get absorbed into the culture at large as just something people do, or they become tired — a gimmick — something that people used to do, or worse, something that people do and most wish they wouldn’t. One of the hottest trends in fine dining over the last decade has been “molecular gastronomy” — the use of food science to create new ways of using ingredients and forming dishes.
While the trend has mostly passed by Portland, when it has shown itself at restaurants such as Lucier or Rocket, it has largely been derided both by press and foodies (even by some who actually tried it). We are Portland. We brush our teeth with Tom’s and cure our erectile dysfunction with acupuncture. Foam is something that non-hipsters put on their face to shave with. We don’t want our food “processed”. At least that’s the lesson most seem to have taken from the well-funded failure of Lucier (and to a lesser extent, Rocket).
The latest attempt at bringing molecular gastronomy to PDX came when Castagna changed chefs, hiring Matthew Lightner, who spent a year working at Mugaritz, one of Spain’s (and the world’s) most notable avant-garde restaurants. Castagna, owned by Monique Siu, was born of Zefiro, the restaurant that has been Portland’s culinary touchstone for two decades. It helped define NW Cuisine in Portland as something simple, about the ingredients, not the technique or presentation, nearly the anti-thesis of molecular gastronomy.
I finally ate at Castagna under Lightner for the first time this last week. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I heard that it was a more “restrained” form of molecular gastronomy, that the high profile techniques were used, but in a less obtrusive fashion.
I don’t think I would call what Lightner is doing at Castagna truly more restrained, but I do think it is different, an evolution of molecular gastronomy that might just bridge the gap from something trendy to something that chefs just do.
Following is my full report on the meal (with lots of pictures, of course).
Willamette Week’s annual Cheap Eats issue came out yesterday. Despite a couple restaurants that I’d really like to see dropped from the list (cough…cough….Laughing Planet), it’s a very good list overall. If you want to browse the choices quickly before digging into the reviews, I’ve distilled them at Portlandfood.org.
Included in the issue was a fun listing of bites, snacks, and entire meals $7 or under. Following are 10 additions to the list — some of my favorites — from a whole new set of shops, some of which weren’t covered in the issue at all.
Five years ago I did a two part survey of every shop selling chocolates in the Portland area. Part 1 focused on national or international chocolatiers: Godiva, Moonstruck, See’s, Teuscher, and Verdun. Part 2 focused on local chocolatiers: Euphoria, Guanaja, Jaciva’s, Michelle’s, Pix, Sahagun, and Van Duyn. During the following year, there were enough quality local chocolatiers to emerge that another survey was in order, this one covering Alma Chocolates, Art of Chocolate, Depaula Chocolates, Hot Chefs, Pix, Sahagun, Wingnut, and Vosges. (Vosges being a highly-lauded national chocolatier used as a comparison.) I’m happy to say that the best have not only survived, but flourished. Pix, Sahagun, and Alma Chocolates have all received notoriety locally and beyond. Wingnut and Depaula both sell their chocolates directly and through popular local stores, such as Cacao.
But since the last survey — and especially in the last year — there’s been another explosion of local chocolatiers. A new head-to-head tasting is in order. In this report, I’ll focus on truffles from six chocolatiers: Cocoa Velvet, Couronne Chocolate, Ladybug Chocolates, Missionary Chocolates, Northwest Sweets, and Xocolatl de David. I’ll also look at the bars produced by Cocanu. (I tried to purchase truffles from Coco & Co, but my calls were not returned.) As a baseline, I bought a large selection of truffles and caramels from Sahagun and Alma Chocolates, my two favorite local chocolatiers that I believe are making chocolates as good as anything you can find outside of France.
Hopefully you’ll read this in time to spend your money wisely this Valentine’s Day. There are definitely some to seek out and some to avoid.
Rushing to a business meeting Saturday, my wife called me to say that her brother would be coming over that evening with his family for dinner. She wanted to know if I wanted to cook or if we should just order pizza. We live in Vancouver, so “ordering pizza” means something like Bellagios — or at best — Pizzicato. Blech.
Normally the choice would be easy: I’d cook. Despite all the restaurant reports on this site, I usually cook much more than I eat out. But my wife’s brother and his family are vegans — people who don’t just believe meat is murder, but those who stand up for the rights of cows, chickens, and bees to be released from their indentured servitude. Green beans without bacon is a disappointment. But green beans without butter is a damned shame.
I told my wife I’d have to think about it. Could I get excited about cooking a vegan dinner? My friend, Scott, has been surveying vegetarian fine dining in Dallas. He calls the restaurant ahead to give them an opportunity to prepare something, assuming they don’t have vegetarian options on their menu (which is usually the case in Dallas). I’ve wondered what I could come up with on such short notice. Also, I’d eaten at Nutshell recently and had my complaints without having much firsthand knowledge of the demands of vegan cooking.
I decided to take on the vegan meal as a challenge. I called my wife after my meeting and told her I’d do it. I’d only have about four hours until they arrived to do my shopping and prepare the meal. I decided on four courses, and here were the results:
Chilled poblano-avocado soup. The roasted peppers added a modest amount of depth to the dish, plus a bit of spiciness, which was mitigated to a large extent by the richness of the avocado. The avocado also provided the elusive creaminess so difficult to achieve in most vegan dishes. Crostini kept the texture from becoming tiresome. A nice chunky salsa, perhaps made of diced tropical fruits and onion might have been a good contrasting bright flavor.
Heirloom tomato and bread salad. Fairly classic and straightforward, this was really all about the wonderful bread from Pearl Bakery and the terrific seasonal heirloom tomatoes from New Seasons. After that, it was just a matter of trying to enhance, but not overwhelm, the flavors with a simple vinaigrette, capers, olives, basil, and nuts. The lucques were a good choice because they’re more sweet than briney in contrast to the capers. This was tied for favorite dish along with the next one.
Vegetable terrine. The zucchini, onion, and potato create a mild base flavor for the corn puree, which is sweet, garlicky, and rich. This came out very subtle, but balanced. The peppery fruitiness of the olive oil rounded out the more direct sweetness of the corn and the caramelly sweetness of the garlic. I’m torn on whether this would have been improved with something tart like a drizzle of reduced balsamic.
Watermelon-peach soup. I like very few vegan pastries, so this allowed for an uncompromising vegan dessert. It was also a light, refreshing end to the meal. The plucot makes for a tart accent against the mellow soup. I had planned on serving it with some Valrhona manjari chocolate, a nice fruity dark chocolate from Madagascar. However, our guests brought vegan brownies and they worked well with the dish. The brownies were a little oily and gooey, but had a great flavor.
Photos and recipes follow.
The best gelato in town from Via Delizia
Last year, I went to Pix’s Ice Cream social and called it Part 1 of a Portland ice cream survey. There hasn’t been a part 2 until now. Why? Because I went to half a dozen ice cream shops claiming they made sundaes, banana splits, and so on, places like the now defunct Scooter’s, and left largely discouraged. If Cold Stone Creamery was better than all but one or two, why bother. Basically, I decided that your best bet in Portland for ice cream is to eat Italy’s version, gelato.
With the promise of more mid-80s weather this week, I thought I would finally get off my “a” and complete a gelato report I’ve been working on for some time. There are nine gelaterias in Portland Metro that I know of and I’ve tried them all several times. Recently, I hit six of them in one day and two others a day before and a day after so that I could more accurately judge them against each other. It wasn’t until recently that I learned of a ninth and visited that (further putting this report on hold).
The main things I look for in gelatos are natural, intense, clean flavors and smooth textures. Sorbettos should be intense without being overly sweet. The texture should be neither overly gummy or icy. Prior to the head-to-head tasting, I thought the distinctions between the different local sources were subtle, but I was surprised how much variation there actually is.
Note: I know it’s supposed to be gelati and sorbetti, but I prefer the Americanization for the plural. So there.
Version 2.0 of Extramsg.com’s dining guide and tip sheet for the Portland metro area is finally finished. You can visit it here or by clicking the link at the left under Portland Food News.
The tip sheet has been greatly overhauled. Categories, such as Indian and Sushi/Japanese have been added, but also many of the entries in each category have been updated or completely changed. There’s also a new listing of “Quick Picks” by neighborhood in descending order by price.
Hopefully this tip sheet will help visitors and new residents of Portland — or those looking to expand their culinary horizons. If you would like to criticize or comment on the tip sheet, please follow the link in the dining guide itself.
God, I love dairy foods. I’ve always hated the filmy coating milk puts in my mouth and I stopped drinking it when I was about five and discovered a big black fly floating halfway up a tall glass of the white liquid. But cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream — drool… I went through a period in my life where I couldn’t handle acids. Soda, orange juice, chiles, and anything with lactic acid, especially melted cheese and ice cream, put the GI into fits. Of those, cheese and ice cream were what I missed most. When I went on my original diet and lost over 100 lbs, I probably went a year without eating either.
That’s all behind me now, and just to prove it, I went to lactose intolerant hell Saturday, the American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese, and then followed that up with the 3rd Annual Pix Ice Cream Social. I love you dairy foods. You weren’t mad at me for leaving you, were you? Quiet now, I won’t leave you again. That’s a good cheddar. Mmmmm. That’s right, ice cream, nothing can keep us apart now…
Bakery Bar’s Citrus Poppyseed Cake
My mom loves holidays. Especially religious holidays. Even moreso if gift-giving is involved. So, despite being a single parent living day-to-day on waitressing tips, every Easter she made sure that I would wake to a brightly-colored basket overflowing with gifts, chocolate, and candy sitting in a bed of plastic grass.
The love I felt from my mom makes me want to be able to share that same feeling with others. I spent the last couple days exploring the offerings in Portland, finding foodie-level Easter sweets to give that would far exceed the Peeps and Cadbury Eggs of my youth. Although they could never exceed the love behind those simpler gifts.
Here are some especially tempting Easter treats from six of my favorite Portland shops: Bakery Bar, Di Prima Dolci, Ken’s Artisan Bakery, Pix Patisserie, Sahagun Chocolate Shop, and Saint Cupcake.