Like pearls before frogs
Part 1 of a 2006 Oregon travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Portland is a highly walkable city, relatively compact and easily-navigable, though one without many “sights” as such; most of what’s here can be experienced in a few days of decent weather. On the other hand, it has its unquestioned charms: a burgeoning restaurant scene, genial residents, good coffee, great beer, and one of the most amazing bookstores I’ve ever seen: Powell’s City of Books. It’s true literary heaven, and some might be inclined to never leave its confines. Otherwise, the city has a sort of funky, post-collegiate vibe that subverts even its most corporate neighborhoods. Though it’s hard to judge after a single visit, I suspect Portland might be one of those urban rarities: a better place to live than to visit.
The Governor Hotel – Charm and history vie with semi-modern amenities and odd discontinuities here; this is a hotel that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be. The layout is confusing, the rooms are spacious but a bit haphazard, and the bathrooms are full of unique fixtures surrounded by tile in desperate need of updating. It’s a good hotel, but it’s not a great one, and the prices suggest designs on the latter designation. The fake fireplace is a nice touch, though.
Pearl Bakery – Just the thing for a small, late lunch…though the focus here is really the bread, not what they do with it. A Black Forest ham & fontina sandwich is dominated by the wheat levain that surrounds it, but still succeeds on the quality of its ingredients, while Theresa’s chèvre & tapenade on demi-baguette is better-balanced (mostly due to the intensity of the Kalamatas). The coffee is most commendable, with a rich, dark, but smooth roast that recalls the best of New Zealand.
Thomas Kemper Root Beer (Seattle) – A blend of herbs and dark, sweet fruit from this Washington state soda producer that’s less aggressive than many such concoctions, but with a balance and creaminess that really stand out.
My initial waiter, however, leaves a bit to be desired. He’s French, and extravagantly corrects the pronunciation of the first three things I say (at least two of which were correctly-pronounced, just not with the regional variant accent he obviously prefers). Not a good start to the evening. Thankfully, he’s soon replaced by someone much better, a sparkling – and, it has to be said, very attractive – Chicago transplant with a real passion for wine. She’s much more fun…and if she’s similarly appalled by my French, she wisely keeps it to herself.
The restaurant’s take on cuisses de grenouilles – delicately fried, and served with a garlic/lemon sauce that effortlessly overpowers the typically taste-free meat – is solid, though I’m once more reminded why I tend not to order frogs’ legs: there’s just not much to them. On the other hand, what follows is a dish that is, quite literally, perfect: gnocchi with morels and cheese, given slight respite from its density by some unidentifiable acid (perhaps accompanying the morels?) and a final grace note of crunchy sea salt. It’s a stunning dish.
Argyle 2003 Brut Rosé (Willamette Valley) – Full and flavorful, with bouncy, energetic strawberries and a touch of potpourri layered over deeper, richer, earthier pinot notes; this is wine more than it’s sparkling, and is unquestionably the better for it.
Prunier 1998 Auxey-Duresses (Burgundy) – Just barely on the downslope, though it fights its decline all night. As with many mature Burgundies, it benefits from aeration, which seems counter-intuitive for such light, delicate wines, and yet time and time again proves to be true. The slightly hard edges of the initial presentation never quite fade, but they’re soon joined by gently-decaying red apple, red cherry and autumn leaves. Later, a hint of a mushroomy funk emerges, then retreats…after which the tannin begins to dominate the palate. For about ninety minutes, however, it’s a lovely wine; an elusive breeze caught, but never quite captured.
Dupleich “Château de Juge” 1996 Cadillac (Bordeaux) – Pine cone and coconut with bitter almond and a teasing, flirty sweetness. Delightful, if lighter than one might expect, and definitely not carrying the burden of heavy woodspice that weighs down so many of its sweet Bordelais compatriots.
Copyright ©2006 Thor Iverson.