Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pok Pok - Portland, Oregon

Pok Pok outside

The story of Pok Pok goes as follows: Andy Ricker is a chef who fell in love with Thai food during repeated trips to the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually set out to do it himself. Pok Pok started as a rotisserie grill take-out business in the driveway of a house, and over time expanded, in somewhat haphazard fashion, into an actual restaurant. "Authenticity," a hot-button word recently, comes up often in discussions of Pok Pok because (a) Ricker is white; and (b) notwithstanding (a), the food at Pok Pok is regularly praised as being more "authentic" than what you will find at most typical Thai restaurants in the U.S.

The issue of "authenticity" gets a lot of attention lately. Is it "authentic" when Ivan Orkin, a white guy from New York, goes to Japan to open a traditional ramen shop? Is it "authentic" when Grant Achatz and crew set out to do a Thai menu for three months at their everlasting pop-up restaurant, Next? Why don't we ask the same questions about authenticity when they do a menu of Escoffier French classics from a hundred years ago?

What about when a Burmese-American and Jewish-American couple start serving dinner out of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out shop in San Francisco's Mission District, sometimes doing contemporary adaptations of Chinese-American classics prepared by a Korean-American chef raised in Oklahama? (Note: if you haven't yet, do check out the Mission Street Food book; it's often a little too pleased with itself, but is nonetheless a fascinating read for a multitude of reasons, the food being only one of them). And surely there's nothing "authentic" about Torrisi Italian Specialties serving up lamb's tongue gyro salads and curried cavatelli?

"Authenticity" is the mantra of many a typical food snob, and yet it's never entirely clear exactly what it means. There is a great piece in the Lucky Peach magazine by Todd Kliman called "The Problem of Authenticity" (sorry, not available online) which persuasively makes the case that it doesn't mean much at all. So many cuisines, even in their "native" forms, are capable of so many infinite variations, and so many "traditional" dishes are actually themselves the result of historical cross-cultural mash-ups that would today go by the sobriquet of "fusion" dishes, that labeling any one particular iteration as "authentic" is a fool's errand.

Kliman suggests, for instance, that Torrisi, with its attention to fresh, local ingredients and its effort to honor the foods of its immediate surroundings or "micro-culture," is authentically Italian in spirit, a different kind of faithfulness than to particular ingredients or their traditional combinations. As Torrisi chef Mario Carbone puts it, "Italian food is not sauce and cheese and pasta. It's an attitude. It's an approach."

Karen Leibowitz of Mission Chinese Food has a somewhat different take:
We feel authorized to make dishes outside our families' ethnic traditions, and we freely mix different cultures' ingredients and techniques, because we like to eat delicious food, wherever it comes from. After a while, sticking with 'authentic' food from your own identity is boring. (Especially if you're Jewish.)

All of which is a long way of saying: I'm not going to be the one to say whether or not Pok Pok and its chef Andy Ricker are serving "authentic" Thai food.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coba-Yakko-San - Cobaya Dinner with Chef Hiro-San

Tuna and Salmon Sashimi Salad

There is no restaurant I have eaten at more often than Hiro's Yakko-San. I literally can not count the times: for the past five years we've been there probably an average of once a month, but often as frequently as weekly, with Sunday dinner at Yakko-San being something of a family tradition. So yeah, I kind of like it.

Our kids grew up on their chicken katsu and kurobuta pork sausages, later finding their own favorites among the more than 100 items on the menu (for Little Miss F: kimchi tofu, octopus ceviche, seabass miso, lotus root kimpira; for Frod Jr., edamame, salmon onigiri, yakiniku don, shoyu ramen). For years Yakko-San was located in a hole-in-the-wall on Dixie Highway where the waits for tables often flowed out the front door. Recently they moved to a bigger, fancier location on 163rd Street Causeway which has more than enough room for everyone. It also has room to set aside a space for 30 guinea pigs, giving us an opportunity to do a Cobaya dinner there.

The Cobaya "mission statement" is pretty much parallel to what the Japanese call "omakase," or "It's up to you, chef." That's what we told Chef Hiro-san, and he prepared a seven-course meal, many of which had multiple components. I will be candid in saying that I was hoping it might be more adventurous - this was more crowd-pleaser stuff - but especially for those who had never been to the restaurant before, it was a good introduction to Yakko-San's" izakaya-style (often called "Japanese tapas") repertoire.

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobaYakkoSan flickr set. Here is the menu, with further descriptions and pictures below:

Chamame Edamame
Plum Wine
Tuna, Salmon Sashimi Salad
Crispy Fish Onion Salad
Nigori Sake
Shrimp Spicy Mayo, Fried Oyster
Hitosuji Junmai Sake
Kalbee Yakiniku and Spinach Butter
Akita Junmai Ginjo Sake
Seabass Miso Yaki
Kikuizumi Dai Ginjo Sake
Uni Garlic Pasta
Assorted Maki
Iki na Ona Dai Ginjo
Green Tea and Orange Mochi Ice Cream, Strawberry with Mint Cream
Dessert Pear Sake

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tasty n Sons - Portland, Oregon

Tasty n Sons

I love breakfast. For some, the first meal of the day is more about sustenance than savor, but I firmly believe that breakfast is every bit as deserving of attention, every bit as capable of greatness, as any other meal. Generally I don't have much of a sweet tooth, so I don't get overexcited about pancakes or waffles drenched in syrup, but you can stick an egg on just about anything and I'll eat it before noon - or pretty much any other time, for that matter.[1]

The folks at Tasty n Sons are clearly of the same mind. This funky spot in northeast Portland serves up a brunch menu six days a week till 2:30 in the afternoon, and even when they shift to dinner service, they still keep a few "breakfast for dinner" items on the menu. Even the shortened happy hour menu filling the gap in between is still pretty brunch-y. I like their style.

Speaking of style, Tasty - the second restaurant from Chef John Gorham, who opened the well-regarded tapas restaurant Toro Bravo in 2007 - abides by an aesthetic that we saw plenty of in Portland: bare bones construction with plenty of exposed elements, polished concrete floors, blocky wood tables, open kitchen. It's a look and feel that's simultaneously rough and comforting, and it goes well with beards and tattoos. The restaurant is one of several tenants in a renovated warehouse building that was originally an Oregon Food Bank storehouse, and its layout curiously reminded me of Cuines Santa Caterina in Barcelona, with a bar area in front (looking out through a windowed garage door) and counter seating all along the length of the long open kitchen.

There's much to choose from on the menu: more than 30 items are listed as either "smaller plates" or "larger plates," as well a short selection of "sweets." But this is far from just the multiple choice of ingredients for your omelet or waffle that you'll find in a typical diner. Rather, dishes range from chocolate potato doughnuts with creme anglaise to Burmese red pork stew with short grain rice and eggs two ways. With most of those dishes coming in smaller packages, and at very reasonable prices, you can have at least a couple (well I did, anyway) for a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style breakfast.

sweet biscuit and berries

You can start, for instance, with sweet biscuits with fresh berries. The biscuits are soft and tender, more doughy than flaky, and soak up the juices from fresh, lightly macerated local berries. A dollop of thick whipped cream never hurts.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Grüner - Portland, Oregon

the check

"New Alpine Cuisine" - is that a "thing" yet? If it's not, maybe it should be.[1]

With the meteoric rise of Noma to prominence among most lists of the world's greatest restaurants, there has been plenty of talk of the "New Nordic Cuisine." No doubt, the ultra-local and ultra-seasonal cooking at Noma is far more radical and ambitious than what's going on at Grüner, Chef Christopher Israel's restaurant in downtown Portland, Oregon. But Grüner makes a good argument that "Alpine Cuisine" deserves greater attention.

What Grüner calls "Alpine Cuisine" is the foods of a stretch of Europe including Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania starting in the Alps, and meandering along the Danube River out to the Black Sea - an area which Chef Israel claims, with only some poetic license, bears a resemblance to the geography of the Pacific Northwest. This is fare that typically is more hearty than haute. While the food at Grüner is not exactly precious, and still retains the gutsiness of its inspiration, it is done with a skilled hand; it is not so much Alpine food "reinvented" as it is "refined."

The look of the restaurant is more bauhaus than bierhaus: black-stained wood and glass frame the exterior and interior, while bare maplewood tables lighten things up a bit. The menu is simlarly modern: it offers a selection of small "snacks" (many of which are also available on a bar menu at some very friendly happy hour prices), roughly a dozen options for appetizers and salads, with a shorter list of about a half-dozen entrées, all of which stay more or less faithful to the theme.


Dinner starts with a pretzel twist and some rough-textured seeded bread. Both had their charms, but the clear favorite was the pretzel - dense, chewy, crusty and salty (recipe here).

liptauer cheese

Both were welcome vehicles for this "snack" of liptauer cheese, a creamy, light-textured house-made product punched up with paprika, caraway, shallots and herbs, which was equally good on fresh crisp radishes and celery. Right here was evidence of how this cuisine paints with a different spice and herb palette than much of the rest of Europe, to great effect.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Le Pigeon - Portland, Oregon

Le Pigeon

Portland has such prodigious natural bounty available to it that creating a fine meal need not be difficult work. With its proximity to both river and sea, there's abundant fresh seafood, and nearby farmlands supply excellent produce. Perhaps as a result, Portland has long been a good food town, but creativity has not generally been its calling card; who needs to be creative when you can so happily subsist like a bear on a regular diet of fresh wild salmon and berries?

When we last visited Portland five years ago, we saw some signs of change. The most interesting meals we had were on the then somewhat uncharted east side of the Willamette River, at ClarkLewis and Gotham Building Tavern, both run at the time by Chef Naomi Pomeroy. So I was intrigued to see during my trip research that Gabriel Rucker, now chef of Le Pigeon, was the sous chef at Gotham back when we had eaten there.

Since opening Le Pigeon, Rucker has been bestowed a Food & Wine "Best New Chefs" recognition in 2007, and the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year Award" this past May. Along the way, Le Pigeon has developed a reputation for offal-centricity, though from our experience I think that characterization sort of misses the mark. I saw no more "variety meats" than I'd expect to see on any menu, though they did show up in some unexpected places.

Le Pigeon is an intimate space, maybe 40 seats all told, roughly ten of which line a bar in front of the open kitchen. Several others are situated at communal tables, including a long table angled tightly along the expansive front window where we were seated.[1] The menu is also a fairly intimate affair, with a short selection of a half dozen appetizers and an equal number of entrées, plus a (seemingly incongruous) burger.


Rucker's creativity finds expression not so much in technique, which is largely classical, as in his mix-and-match approach to dish composition. "Eel, corn, watermelon, shiitake, cilantro" sounded like something you'd find in a mystery basket on a show like "Chopped." More bluntly, it sounded like a train wreck. It wasn't. Fresh-water eel is brought in live and slaughtered in-house, simply grilled, and the delicate but meaty flesh is paired with accompaniments that speak of the freshness of summer: sweet corn, even sweeter watermelon, lightly pickled mushrooms, a drizzle of bright cilantro vinaigrette.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Want a Burger and a Shake with that Pork Bun?

Richard Hales, chef/owner of Sakaya Kitchen, was not in pole position when the Miami food truck trend started. But when he unveiled his Dim Ssam a Gogo truck about a year ago, it quickly rolled to among the front of the pack, mobilizing Sakaya's offerings with some street-friendly contemporary Asian dishes and expanding them with some truck-only items. A few months ago Hales added a second truck, initially dubbed, somewhat uninspiredly, the "Sakaya Kitchen" truck. With a menu that was mostly a short-form version of the regular restaurant menu, the second truck primarily enabled Sakaya to be in two places at once (three, if you count the brick-and-mortar location in Midtown).[*]

Now that's all changed. Hales is rolling out not one, but two new trucks: the "Baketress" and "Burger Cheese Bun."

The "Baketress" will offer "a homey American dessert menu with an old southern soul," meaning soft-serve ice cream, fresh baked pies, made to order "hot now" doughnuts, handmade ice cream sandwiches, shakes and "re-created ice cream truck novelties." But while Hales has a sweet tooth, he doesn't claim to be a pastry chef. Instead he's bringing in some big guns to help: Vanessa Paz, formerly the pastry chef for Michelle Bernstein's restaurants. Those of you who were in attendance at our "Cobakayapaz" Cobaya dinner, when Chef Paz tried to kill us with more than a half-dozen gorgeous desserts (after seven savory courses from Chef Hales) will be anticipating good things.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Oregon Trail

Next week we're off to Portland, Oregon and surrounds. We've been a couple times before, but the last visit was roughly five years ago and it will be interesting to see what's new. Many old stalwarts are still around, like Higgins, Paley's Place, and The Heathman. But a couple places that impressed the most when we were last there - ClarkLewis and Gotham Building Tavern - have undergone multiple changes. The former at least seems to maintain some of the spirit of the place I visited in 2006, but the latter is unrecognizable.

In digging back through the archives, my fuzzy memory was happily surprised to see a now-familiar name was associated with both ClarkLewis and Gotham back then - Naomi Pomeroy. Chef Pomeroy, who recently got some extended airtime on Top Chef Masters, now runs Beast, a fixed menu ("substitutions politely declined") affair that has gotten much critical acclaim. And the sous-chef at Gotham Tavern? Gabriel Rucker, now the chef at Le Pigeon and recently named the James Beard 2011 Rising Chef of the Year.

With the kids in tow, we'll not be doing Beast, but Le Pigeon is on the agenda. The rest of that agenda, as usual, is filled with many more places than there will be opportunities to dine, but the short list includes Pok Pok, Castagna,[1] Clyde Common, Little Bird (Rucker's more casual sister restaurant), Grüner, Tasty n Sons, Ned Ludd, and St. Jack. Portland also has a vibrant food cart scene which I'm looking forward to exploring.

We'll also have a couple days on the Oregon Coast in Cannon Beach, and any suggestions for that area, as well as any and all Portland advice, are very much welcomed.

[1]Though the kids' patience or lack thereof, and impending chef shuffles, may take it out of the mix.