When Let’s Eat co-host Providence Cicero goes in search of a little culinary diversion, she often heads south to Portland. And her first call is to Karen Brooks, the longtime Portland food critic who chronicles the city’s rise to national restaurant prominence in the new book “The Mighty Gastropolis”.
“This book has got profiles, essays, recipes from some of Portland’s cutting edge restaurants and the real trend setters. It’s really the insiders guide to the gut of Portland dining,” Cicero says.
Brooks credits a rag tag group of independent, obsessed and one of a kind chefs with forging the city’s unique culinary identity.
“I noticed a group of chefs and talents that simply walked away from the conventions of dining. And by 2007 it’s like a movement started exploding out of every corner of the city,” Brooks says of what’s become one of the most popular restaurants scenes across the country.
Brooks says Portland is vastly different from Seattle when it comes to restaurant scene. She says Seattle has “more money, more sophisticated places, more technique driven, maybe a little bit more of a high end. Portland is a cobble it together mentality.”
That mentality has spawned a number of one of a kind eating establishments and unparalleled personalities unlike few found anywhere else. Among her recommendations:
Brooks calls chef Andy Ricker “the chicken wing master who literally built a shack in his front yard and now it literally rules the roost in New York.” Ricker won the James Beard Foundation’s best chef Northwest in 2011.
The brainchild of another James Beard award winner, Brooks says the ultra-talented and imaginative Gabriel Rucker made a name for himself with his twisted take on classic French fare.
“I mean this was a guy who would go into the basement and drill lamb heads with a power drill like a hit man out of Good Fellows,” she says of his inspiration for lamb brain shepherd’s pie and other offerings.
Brooks says owner and chef John Toboada is one of Portland’s “reluctant heroes”, part of a growing group of chefs that think small and prefer the simple pleasures of the kitchen and farm to celebrity and wealth.
“This is a restaurant that gets everything from one community supported agriculture program, never tells anybody, and weaves these very complicated menus around the produce that happens to walk in the door,” she says of the European-style tapas bar and enoteche.
In a space no larger than a dorm room, chef Kevin Gibson turns out unique, Italian-inspired dishes one at a time, like a personal cook.
“It’s like a TV show where there’s a chef just kind of standing there cooking just for you. He’s obsessive, like a sushi chef. It’s almost like he’s cooking with a camping stove. It’s just a giant blackboard menu, just him. No line cook. Cooking everything to order. You just tuck up on a little stool, it’s amazingly affordable it’s ultra local. It’s amazing,” Brooks says.
You walk in and a wood grill greets you like the burning bush It’s sort of this Gonzo Gaucho place,” Brooks says of the Argentine-inspired eatery showcasing prime local meats, fish and seasonal produce.
“The fun loving minds from Bunk Sandwiches have now come up with their love letter to Tex-Mex cooking. Trigger pulls off its own ideas about roasted chilies, masa, queso, grilled meats, and torta sandwiches, blistering—in true Bunk fashion—with craft and playful imagination,” Brooks says.
Brooks says the unique mashup of Asian influences from New York refugee Johanna Ware features “a motley of Korean noodles, Japanese comforts, Oregon larder, hallucinogenic heat, and bits of candied meat that tumbles through a parade of tight, precise dishes.”
Brooks says Ware is just one of a wave of chefs flocking to the city because they can afford to pursue their dream of having their own place.
“You have a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money who can find a little store front and say this is the food I’ve always wanted to cook.”
With all the attention comes the inevitable change, although the city’s unique figures are holding on hard to their identities.
“I think for some of these quirky, obsessive characters the pressure won’t change them. I think there are a lot of new models coming along that are maybe more money backed and responding a little bit more to all of this attention on the city. We’re being judged in ways that we were never judged before,” she says.