By Marguerite Thomas
On the western edge of Oregon where the Willamette and Columbia rivers meet, lies Portland, Oregon, one of North America's finest epicurean destinations.
I'm not just talking about expensive gourmet restaurants, although there is no lack of these here too.
What I am referring to is the kind of genuine food culture that may be a way of life in other countries (France & Italy come to mind), but is less common in the US.
These are places where coffee has actual flavor as well as the ability to jump-start the day, where good bread is a way of life, where fresh, locally raised fruits and vegetables matter, and where wine has a regular place on the dinner table.
You will find a farmers' market virtually every day of the week in one or another of Portland's neighborhoods, in Hillsdale on Sundays, for example, in the downtown Park blocks on Wednesdays, in the Pearl on Thursdays.
Another neighborhood draw for food lovers is where the food carts are gathered on Alder Street between 9th and 10th.
There is nothing fancy about this scene, where uncomplicated carts may be wedged in between parked cars, but this is the place to go for delicious, inexpensive, portable pick-me-ups.
Forget the uniform banality of conventional fast food; here you can savor freshly made Mexican, Asian or Indian fare, barbecue or ice cream. Whatever taste you may be hankering for, chances are you'll find it here.
One of the reasons I love to visit Portland is because its residents have an unusually keen appreciation for the natural bounty from their waterways and forests. Most prominent on the menu of local specialties are different varieties of salmon, Chinook and Coho among other premium species.
Morels are one of Portland's most ardently appreciated food items, whether hunted wild in the woods or gathered up with cash from a local market.
Everyone goes crazy for morels, which are often combined with another regional favorite: fresh English peas. On my most recent visit to Portland, morels were in high season. I was fortunate to be treated to generous servings of the dark, rumpled mushrooms and their peasy companion prepared on two separate occasions by different friends. At the first gathering, the mushrooms were lightly sauteed with a little minced onion, then lightly stewed with fresh peas, a knob of butter and a splash of white wine; ladled into bowls they made a succulent first course. The next time I had morels, four of us feasted on a pound of them, sauteed in butter and tossed with fresh linguine, a handful of peas, an ample dose of olive oil, and generous lashings of freshly grated parmesan.
On each of my trips to Portland, the same friends who prepared that memorable pasta dish direct me to their current favorite restaurant.
This year it was Park Kitchen, in the Pearl district.
Arriving there early on a particularly balmy evening, I settled myself on a stool at the handsome bar and savored an unusually fine Mojito.
Later, at my table, I had a perfect view through the open doors to the verdant North Park, where bocce players practiced their skills while I sipped what may well be the most sublime cucumber soup I've ever eaten: cool, creamy and thick, it was lightly scented with cumin and jalapeno, with a scattering of crushed almonds across the surface; everything at Park Kitchen surprises with an unexpected ingredient.
Unlike so many chefs today who all too often add unlikely, if not outright bizarre, ingredients for their shock value rather than to boost the flavor of a given dish, Park Kitchen's chef-owner Scott Dolich tweaks his fare with unusual flavors and textures that almost always quietly enhance the dish rather than brazenly intrude upon it.
Take, for example, an array of fresh anchovies that was made all the more splendid by the fact that the bed of greens on which they reclined included wisps of crispy ice plant.
A generous salad of favas, faro and feta -- the fresh fava beans perfectly cooked, the faro grain a felicitous addition, and the house-made feta moist and delicate -- included the surprising addition of citrusy amaranth leaves.
Among my favorite "small plates" (which, in fact, tend to be generous servings) was a salad of green beans paired with grilled apricots drizzled with caramelized olive vinaigrette.
Fresh peas show up in several clever guises at Park Kitchen, such as the green pea spaetzle over which slices of meltingly tender rabbit are served, and in the English pea hummus that accompanies lamb tartar. Park Kitchen's wine list is likewise packed with a host of imaginative food-friendly selections, such as the refreshing white wine from the Greek producer Skouros that I enjoyed with my dinner.
It would be a mistake to overlook pastry chef Heidi Weiser's offerings: her chocolate-cherry cake with Bing cherry ice cream, for example, or the pistachio, almond and sesame tart served with a scoop of fresh raspberry ice cream. The most original dessert here is surely the Mal-O-Mutter, a decadently rich concoction that involves peanut butter cake, marshmallow cream, candied pine nuts and chocolate ganache. Is it weird? Yes. Is it delicious? Yes. Would I go back for more? Most definitely, the next time I'm in Portland.
Park Kitchen, 422 NW 8th Street, Portland, Ore., 503-223-7282, www.parkkitchen.com.
(c) 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
Marguerite Thomas writes about wine, food, travel and personalities.
She is the author of "Wineries of the Eastern States (Available thru this link at Amazon.com) ," a travel guide to U.S. wineries.
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