Portland's 10 best restaurants: You be the critic (poll) – OregonLive.com
Last week, we unveiled our ranked guide to Portland’s 101 best restaurants, plus Portland’s 2015 Restaurant of the Year, Rising Star and Cuisine of the Year award winners. Today, we’re splitting off Portland’s 10 best restaurants into their own post, complete with a poll listing our top 25 overall, ordered randomly.
This is your chance to be a restaurant critic for a day. Vote for your 10 favorites in the poll (or write them into the comments section below) and, next Monday, we’ll compile the top 10 into a list of our readers’ favorite Portland-area restaurants.
Related: Portland’s 101 best restaurants
— Michael Russell, Restaurant Critic, The Oregonian/OregonLive
No. 10: DAVENPORT
In 2013, chef Kevin Gibson left the cozy confines of Evoe, the sandwich shop and small plates bar attached to Southeast Hawthorne’s Pastaworks, to take a gamble on a full-fledged restaurant in the East Burnside space once home to June. The move has paid off handsomely. On a balmy Friday evening, Gibson and Davenport partner/bartender/sommelier/Jack of all Trades Kurt Heilemann oversee a warm, revitalized dining room, a place where locals linger over roasted vegetables, braised meats and Dionysian levels of fantastic wine. Davenport’s collection of Euro-centric dishes can seem random, though there’s some intense seasonality at play plus a healthy dash of Gibson’s whim. There’s aren’t really any must-try dishes here — the menu changes too much — though you might find good local oysters, velvety soups or the city’s best seasonal fritto misto. Turns out, Gibson’s small plates at Evoe scale up well. If they’re on the menu, consider the rare slices of teres major steak; the delicately seared scallops; or the coq au vin, with achingly tender chicken and morels soaked in a rich, heavenly sauce.
Order: There might not be a headlining act, but, during a visit this April, Gibson’s slow crescendo of delicious bites steadily built into one of my favorite meals of the year, anywhere. There were fresh oysters, creamy nettle dumplings, beautifully braised pork belly next to lemony pea shoots, seared scallops with snips of fennel and Cara Cara orange, plump meatballs in a heartbreaking tomato gravy. And it was all complemented by Heilemann’s bodacious wines.
Serving: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
No. 9: ST. JACK
Le food coma
Bouchons, the Lyonnaise restaurants that inspired St. Jack, are the kind of places where the wine hits the table before you glance at the menu and the rich food doesn’t stop until belts are loosened and shirt buttons are in need of repair. For years, St. Jack, the flagship of Kurt Huffman’s ChefStable restaurant group, conjured this ambiance — a marriage of hospitality and excess — from a charming, tumble-down building on Southeast Clinton Street. Last year, Huffman, chef Aaron Barnett and their team packed and moved the restaurant across the river, adding a luxe cocktail bar and an instant patina to a new development on Northwest 23rd Avenue. The menu, with its Gallic, snout-to-tail approach with braised escargots, seared foie gras and roasted bone marrow, survived intact. There’s good chicken liver mousse with port-poached prunes; crunchy, espellette-dusted pork rinds spilling out of their paper bag; and tablier de sapeur, thin pieces of deep-fried tripe meant for dipping in a caper aioli. Consider a salad, maybe the one with bacon and bacon-fried coutons, as a healthy base for clams meunière, oxtail Bourguignon, duck a l’orange, a truly great steak frites or the lovely fisherman’s stew, with its plump scallops, mussels and creamy, garlic-stocked broth. The rolling cheese cart and table-side dessert service promised for the new location never materialized. Instead, we make do with the impressive a la carte cheese list and the baked-to-order madeleines, small, soft, golden-crusted cakes in a tight-lipped ceramic bowl, still warm to the touch under a shower of powdered sugar. Let the food coma commence.
Order: Tablier de sapeur, fisherman’s stew, rib eye steak frites, cheese, baked-to-order madeleines.
Serving: Dinner and late-night (in the bar) daily.
No. 8: TORO BRAVO
Arriving at the end of America’s mid-aughts love affair with the tapa, Toro Bravo has outlasted its Spanish-inspired contemporaries by being bigger, brasher and just plain better. Don’t come here to recreate that superb seafood paella you lingered over in Valencia — the only authenticity here is fealty to the passion, vibe and infectious energy of a busy tapas bar in Barcelona or Madrid. Still, you’ll find plenty of things to savor between these blood-red walls. As with chef John Gorham’s other Portland restaurants, it’s all easy to get stuck in a happy rut here — my personal sticking points include the crisp patatas bravas, the oxtail croquettes, the seared scallops with romesco and the grilled “moorish” lamb chops. That latest craving? Manchego pillows — crisp little packets stuffed with molten manchego cheese. And always, without fail, meals here should begin with the sweet-salty crunch of bacon-wrapped dates, the pits swapped for marcona almonds, drizzled in pimentón honey.
Order: Bacon-wrapped dates, manchego pillows, patatas bravas, oxtail croquettes and whatever else catches your eye.
Serving: Dinner daily.
No. 7: ROE
With its intimate lighting, heavy door and walls of chestnut and gold, sitting in Roe, the seductive shrine to fine seafood, feels a bit like being encased in amber. It’s a luxurious feeling, which makes sense, given that this dining room hidden at the back of Southeast Division Street’s B+T Oyster Bar, happens to be the city’s finest seafood restaurant, a sort-of West Coast answer to Le Bernardin. Chefs Trent Pierce and Patrick Schultz bow their heads over their work, standing in a tiny kitchen equipped like a junior high science lab, working on a menu that changes each week but is always inventive, indulgent and refined. On a recent visit, there were folds of raw geoduck in ice wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, fat cubes of cool tuna in smoked kombu under a shingle of lime-sugar honeycomb crisp, a solo shigoku oyster with sake wasabi granita tucked under a tiny wakame duvet, and slices of butterfish beneath a mound of frozen foie gras shaved on top like so much snow. There was plump Maine lobster, good Dungeness crab and a deliriously perfect slice of salmon, each paired with a carefully chosen wine, often a chilly Teutonic white.
Order: Roe offers two menu options, a chef’s choice, seven-course extravaganza for $115 (reservations highly recommended, add $65 for wine pairings) and a four-course, guest-choice option. With the latter, two people can order eight separate courses, one each from the raw, shellfish, fin fish and dessert categories, for $75 per person (wine, $35). Unless you’re a high-flying solo diner, the latter option is the way to go.
Serving: Dinner, Wednesday to Saturday.
No. 6: NOSTRANA
There’s a reason this warm, gracious Southeast Portland restaurant has a wall filled with accolades, including a half-dozen James Beard Award nominations and The Oregonian’s 2006 Restaurant of the Year. Here, chef Cathy Whims and her team serve fine-tuned salads, beautifully blistered Neapolitan pizzas, juicy wood-charred steaks and faithful Italian pastas inspired by Whims’ mentor, the late Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. Don’t skip the Insalata Nostrana, which keeps the best attributes of a Caesar (the dressing, Parmesan and croutons) but ditches romaine in favor of bitter, spicy radicchio. Unsurprisingly, it pairs well with a Negroni, the restaurant’s signature cocktail. Two recent pastas, fettuccine with Hazan’s tomato-butter sauce and lumache — snail-shaped pasta — with a piquant sauce and crunchy pancetta, were remarkable in their distinction, both from each other and from most Portland restaurant pastas. The salt-crusted lamb, smokey rotisserie chicken and luscious porchetta all have their merits, though if you’re on a double date, the dry-aged, salt crusted bistecca Fiorentina in rosemary-garlic oil is a surprisingly good deal. Sure, it’s $75, but at 2.2 pounds, it’s big enough as an entree for four.
Order: Insalata Nostrana, pasta in tomato-butter sauce, porchetta, dry-aged steak, and, late-night, the $7 fork-and-knife margherita pizza.
Serving: Lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner daily; late-night Friday-Saturday.
No. 5: AVIARY
When it comes to restaurants combining high kitchen risk with higher customer reward, Aviary, the eclectic, often electric Alberta Street restaurant has few rivals. Like few other Portland restaurants — Le Pigeon comes to mind — Aviary chef Sarah Pliner and her team are willing to marry unusual ingredients and flavor combinations, but never at the expense of good taste. So you’ll find a refreshingly global reach to the menu, where a chicken skin and watermelon salad might be lined with baba ghanouj, then, for the next trick, a black cod fillet comes spiked with yuzu. Pristine shigoku oysters come with tomato granita; pan-fried sweetbreads with kimchi and green apple yogurt. If it’s on the menu, consider the black cod, debate the four cup chicken then settle on the New York strip steak smoked over Douglas Fir needles with potato puree, pickled daikon and bone marrow custard.
Order: If you’ve never been before, don’t miss the crunchy pig ears with Chinese sausage, smooth avocado and coconut rice under a tangle of greens, the one dish we get almost every time.
Serving: Dinner, Monday-Saturday.
No. 4: CASTAGNA
At Castagna, chef Justin Woodward has maintained the avant-guard approach and reverence for Northwest ingredients pioneered by lauded chef Matt Lightner, while tacking ever so slightly toward approachability. Today, the restaurant, one of the few in Portland to wear its modernist ambitions on its sleeve, serves two fixed-price meals, one at $95, the other, longer option at $155 (the latter the most expensive regularly occurring meal in Portland). Both begin with Woodward’s signature “snacks” — on one recent visit, those included a perfect bite of cherry-wood-smoked salmon, thin-sliced geoduck tossed in lime and covered with a sheet of lardo and a charred cippollini onion and pickled ramp in a sauce soubise so decadent it could fill a Cadbury Creme Egg. Among larger courses, we were particularly impressed with the cobia in an almost overwhelming crab-lemongrass-lime bisque; the small round of lamb loin topped with anise-flavored herbs and tongue-searing slivers jalapeño; and the fat, juicy, end-of-season morels and soft sorrel next to a disk of morel foam topped with a veil of bruleed Bavarian Malt. Desserts, including the signature potato-skin ice cream (trust us, it’s amazing), plus a half-dozen seasonal options, are equally impressive. The airy dining room looks a few years past its prime — my seat was eye-level with a large crack in the paint — and can feel half-empty, even on a Friday night (there’s a reason fine-dining in America has moved toward intimate 12-seat chef’s counters). But service is elite, seven of every 10 dishes deliver with verve and flavor and the restaurant remains a sui generis eating experience for Portland.
Order: If you can afford it, the chef’s tasting menu is the best way to see what Woodward can do.
Serving: Dinner, Wednesday to Saturday.
No. 3: OX
Start with the grill, practically primordial, its embers white-hot, sparks shooting out past red-faced cooks who pause, wipe their brows and take long swigs from jugs of water. Pan out to the dining room, warm and inviting, candles on tables, couples savoring each bite. This is Ox, The Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year in 2013, and the biggest Portland restaurant blockbuster since at least a year before that. Argentine-inspired, with top-quality meat, fish and vegetables all sacrificed to the grill. There might be too many must-order dishes to list here (another way of saying you can’t go wrong), but meals that begin with the ultra-rich roasted-bone-marrow clam chowder and the smoked beef tongue en vinagreta with horseradish and fried sweetbread “croutons” tend to go well.
Order: Graze from the grill, with its gorgeous bone-in halibut, earthy blood sausage, and succulent lamb, which arrives on a platter, a rosemary sprig smoking on top like a just-blown-out birthday candle (you always know when someone orders the lamb). But save room: Desserts, especially the signature hazelnut-brown butter torte, with its delicate chamomile ice cream and chevron of stick-to-your-teeth “honeycomb” candy, are better than you’d expect at a meat-focused restaurant.
Serving: Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday.
No. 2: LANGBAAN
Langbaan, literally “back of house,” sits in the ground floor of the boxy gray condo at Southeast Burnside Street and 28th Avenue. Enter through PaaDee, owner Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom’s casual Thai spot on the corner, head toward the bathrooms, make a U-turn, approach the trick bookcase there and pull on the meat-grinder handle. I’ve visited the covert restaurant tucked behind that bookcase half a dozen times, both before and after our 2014 Restaurant of the Year feature. Meals here are a landscape, with citrus and fish sauce as the reeds and mud, vegetables the foliage, meat and fish the beasts and fowl and tropical fruits the radiant bursts of a Technicolor sunset. The experience is a monsoon of ethereal flavors: fried shallots and lime, lush fruit and chiles, lemongrass and coconut. Month-to-month, Langbaan chef Rassamee Ruaysuntia will rotate its menus regionally throughout Thailand. In practice, that might mean more pork in the Northern Thai menu, more spice in the Northeastern, more seafood in the Southern. But the progression remains the same — about a dozen dishes total, starting with a few small snacks, a salad, a soup, then a rapid-fired procession of plates, usually including crudités, a curry, some meat and a bowl of plain white rice, all finished with a pair of coconut-rich desserts. There’s only one problem, and it’s a big one: The weekend after The Oregonian’s four-star review this February, Langbaan’s reservations booked out for six solid months, the complete extent they were available. To relieve the pressure, Ninsom added staff and an additional day of service on Sundays, but those tickets — now $70 a pop — were gobbled up just as fast. Today, Langbaan is the toughest seat to nab in town.
Order: A time machine, so you can go back four months and book a reservation.
Serving: Dinner, Thursday-Sunday.
No. 1: LE PIGEON
How many happy accidents had to converge to form Le Pigeon? Gabriel Rucker, the two-time James Beard Award winner, had to be looking for a new job after the closure of Gotham Building Tavern. The previous restaurant, Coleen’s Bistro, had to install the gorgeous copper hood that lends the space its warm glow. Andy Fortgang, the restaurant’s service guru, had to decide to leave Tom Collicchio’s restaurant empire in New York. And, after nearly a decade in business, the restaurant had to be comfortable continuing to evolve. These days, there’s a youth movement afoot at Le Pigeon, with young turks like Andrew Evan Mace, working with Rucker to put their own stamps on the menu. Creativity is the calling card here, especially on the left side of the menu, where the starters can be pieced together to make an intriguing meal. A meal in May roared with the full promise of spring. There was the bouquet of zucchini ribbons, sliced pickled tomatillo, fresh basil and translucent green almonds over slices of rich roasted pork. The slips of raw hamachi curved around slivers of jalapeno and shiso with dabs of foie-gras macadamia nut butter. Teriyaki pineapple cubes, charred on one side, provided nuclear bombs of sweetness. The strawberries both dehydrated and as a warm sauce poured over strips of beautifully seared duck breast, with peas, mint and green garlic all laid above swaths of a thick black lentil puree spread out on the plate like half of some massive Japanese kanji. Consider the namesake squab, though the presentation varies, and the pasta, recently angel hair with clams under a shower of forest-green dill Parmesan studded with clams and trout roe. There’s always beef cheek bourguignon, though the restaurant has never stopped tinkering with the recipe, and a fish, recently halibut poached in olive oil with fresh plucked dill. The foie gras profiteroles, of which every element — dough, cream filling, powdered sugar, etc. — incorporates foie gras, are as close to a food icon as Portland has, though you’ll want to take a deep dive into Nora Antene’s more seasonal desserts. Not every dish hits its mark — the blue cheese ice cream flavor had gone AWOL in the otherwise clever buffalo sweetbread pie. It was missed, and you hope the restaurant remembers that it reached these heights by always putting flavor above all else. But it’s rare to leave this restaurant without one “Oh my God” food moment. On its best nights, often when Rucker is on the line, personally handing you a perfectly composed plate at the first-come, first-served chef’s counter (still the best seats in the house), I’m convinced there’s no better restaurant within 500 miles.
Order: You can still order a la carte. Heck, you can still walk in at 5 p.m., sit at the counter and order a burger, an experience that might be unique among restaurants of Le Pigeon’s caliber. But the best way to experience the restaurant is probably the tasting menus, a five-course option for $75, seven for $95 (wine, $40/$55). The former — along with the impossible-to reserve $65 meal at Langbaan — is probably the best finer-dining deal in town.
Serving: Dinner daily.
— Michael Russell