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My wife and I recently returned from a week's stay in Portland, Oregon, a charming, totally livable city that is also no slouch gastronomically. If you're heading to the West Coast in the near future, you might consider some of the dining recommendations listed below:

ALLESSANDRO'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT & BAR, 301 SW Morrison Street, (503) 222-3900 -- Located in the heart of downtown Portland, Alessandro's does a brisk lunch business but is more subdued at dinner. You enter through a spacious, well-appointed bar and make your way through to the dining area. You begin with slices of dense and delicious Como bread from the local Grand Central Bakery accompanied by a luscious olive oil redolent of garlic and pepper. Salads are excellent starters here. The hot spinach is replete with fresh scallops, pancetta, and finished with a tangy sun-dried cranberry vinaigrette; and the Caesar sports a dressing that is intensely flavorful without overwhelming your palate with anchovy. The pastas are uniformly excellent here, as are the fish dishes. The halibut filet is sautéed with sherry, lemon, parsley and capers, and the salmon is baked simply with lemon and fresh herbs. The cioppino, classic seafood stew, is also highly recommended, as are the oysters almondine. Prices are moderate, and there is also a nice little wine list to complement your meal.

BRASSERIE MONTMARTE, 626 SW Park Avenue, (503) 224-5552 -- Anyone who has thrown on the feedbag at a bustling Paris bistro will feel at home the moment they cross the threshold. From its black and white tile floors, to its white-clothed tables topped with butcher paper, to its dim old chandeliers, this charming brasserie exudes an elegant-but-informal air that has hardly changed since the restaurant first opened its doors in 1978. The food has had its share of ups and downs over the years; but since Gene Hansen took over the kitchen reins a year ago, things have improved significantly. The sautéed Oregon snapper, for example, is marvelously fresh and crowned with small morsels of Dungeness crab and finished with a light and flavorful beurre blanc. The pan-roasted venison embellished with a hearty Cumberland sauce (a combination of red currant jelly, Port, orange and lemon zests, mustard and seasonings) is equally mouth-watering. The French fried artichoke hearts accompanied by a mustard-dill dipping sauce is not to be missed. Prices are inexpensive/moderate, there is live jazz seven nights a week, and food is served into the wee hours.

BOMBAY CRICKET CLUB, 1925 SE Hawthorne Boulevard (503) 231-0740 -- You step off the street into a different world; a world where East meets West -- and does so deliciously. There are tapes of cricket matches on the wide-screen TV and delightfully complex Indian and Middle Eastern aromas swirling through the air. By all means, go for a table on the balcony and enjoy the spirited goings-on down below. This is a fun place, so sit back and enjoy. You will find the food here exotic and plenteous, and the prices extremely reasonable. Start things off with a chaat, a salad of chilled garbanzo beans, potatoes, onions and fresh tomatoes spruced up with a dressing of mango powder, lemon, cilantro and garam masala. The Mediterranean salad, sprinkled with a dressing gently spiced with sumac, is also a good bet. Among the curries, the chicken saag (prepared with spinach) is particularly recommended; as is the lamb tikka botee, succulent cubes of lamb marinated overnight in a tikka sauce and fired in the tandoor oven. All the breads here are top-notch, especially the plain, potato and garlic naan. For dessert, the mango kulfi (homemade Indian ice cream) is hard to beat. Inexpensive/Moderate.

CAPRIAL'S BISTRO AND WINE, 7015 SE Milwaukie Avenue (503) 235-6457 -- Of all our dining experiences in and around Portland, Caprial's proved to be the greatest disappointment. Strange, indeed, as Caprial Pence enjoys quite an illustrious culinary reputation in these here parts. The "Cooking with Caprial" television show is seen on PBS stations around the country, she is the author of several popular cookbooks, Gourmet magazine named her restaurant one of the best in Portland and, in 1991, she was the recipient of the prestigious "Best Chef in the Northwest" award from the James Beard Foundation. So what went wrong? For one thing, Caprial is no longer at the stove in her own kitchen. Oh, she may pop in occasionally to chitchat with patrons... but the day-to-day cooking chores have fallen to Chef Mark Dowers. And while there is certainly no question that Mr. Dowers jazzy presentations belie the restaurant's stark minimalist decor, they are, in my opinion, a bit too innovative. The Northwest fare has been fused with such a hodge-podge of divergent traditions that sometimes it is difficult to comprehend precisely where the chef is coming from. The kitchen also displays a decidedly heavy hand with the sauces... which doesn't improve matters appreciably. An appetizer of pan-fried ravioli filled with feta cheese is perfectly cooked and artfully presented... but the rich veggie sauce all too quickly bogs down the palate. And that goes double for the seared eggplant and Maytag blue cheese spread -- besides, the accompanying crostini could very well do irreparable damage to your dental work. Entrees suffer from a similar fate as their predecessors. The wok-steamed salmon is wonderfully tender, but then it is gussied up with an overbearing mix of ginger, scallions and hoisin. As if to add insult to injury, the entire affair is plopped down on a glutinous mass of curried noodles sabotaged by an overly energetic lobster-peanut sauce. Simply too much going on here. The special pan-roasted sturgeon was smothered beneath a lethal dose of Sicilian tapenade that all but obliterated this lovely creature's delicate flavor. This was then perched atop a seabed of so-so garlic mashed potatoes and garnished with saffron cream and a roasted red pepper sauce. Once again, too much for the palate to bear. Desserts are, thank goodness, all that they should be. Indeed, Mr. Dowers would be well advised to take his cue from Pastry Chef Melissa Carey's homey creations and consider a bit more subtlety in his presentations. There is no question that the food is good here... However, it is certainly not up to the hype. There are a host of restaurants where one may feast on better vittles, shell out less long green, and receive better service. And speaking of service... My sturgeon was woefully overcooked, undoubtedly from sitting under the heat lamp for an inordinate period of time while our server was otherwise engaged. A great deal has transpired on the Portland dining scene since Caprial collected her James Beard in 1991. Her once cutting edge cuisine is now obviously playing catch-up. She would do well to spend more time in her kitchen and less time promoting her image. Moderate/Expensive.

CHEZ GRILL, 2229 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, (503) 230-4002 -- If you're in search of a good, inexpensive margarita, plus a wonderfully creative take on Mexican food, you've just found it -- and at downright inflation-busting tariffs. Your grilled fish taco may come stuffed with chinook salmon one day, ahi tuna the next. Your quesadilla may be infused with lamb, and your pork loin jazzed up with a mango-pepper marmalade. Everything here is impeccably fresh and certain to tantalize your taste buds. Whatever you do, be sure to start things off with the baked avocado stuffed with polenta, toasted hazelnuts, green onions, and jack cheese. Inexpensive, funky and fun. IL PIATTO, 2348 SE Ankeny Street, (503) 236-4997 -- Since its opening in 1994, this charming eatery has developed an extremely loyal following -- and rightly so. The ambiance is warm and inviting (you can easily imagine yourself in some romantic little hideaway in Greenwich Village), the dining room bathed in the soft glow of candlelight and decorated with a host of well-worn items from the Old Curiosity Shop. Ah... but the food. The food is Italian, incredibly creative, yet wonderfully comforting. It seduces the palate with its beguiling tastes and textures. The antipasto changes daily, and it is superb. My wife and I shared a copious platter containing cous-cous with rock shrimp, artichoke hearts, mussels, roasted red peppers, marinated chicken breast, Harvarti cheese, and an utterly delectable beet and rabbit salad. Entrees are no less inventive. A pork loin saltimbocca is delightfully tender and spruced up with creamy polenta and perfectly cooked cauliflower florets. The special of the day, however, stole the show. Seared sturgeon was presented on a bed of angel hair pasta tossed with arugula pesto and topped with a diminutive dollop of pepper/olive tapendade. Desserts are all homemade, and a lime cheesecake with Oreo crust dressed up with a yummy sour cherry Port wine sauce was out of this world. Prices are moderate, and Il Piatto is the recipient of the Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence for their outstanding selection of Italian vintages.

SAMMY'S RESTAURANT & BAR, 333 NW 23rd Avenue, (503) 222-3123 -- Several restaurants have inhabited the digs where Sammy's now resides, but this convivial pub-like eatery appears to have taken up permanent residence. The interior is all polished wood with high-backed booths dominating the main dining room and several tables for two in the cozy bar area. You may choose from a variety of appetizers and entrees here, including some interesting pasta and Greek dishes. However, I would urge you to stick with more straightforward items, which the kitchen does best. Steaks, for example, are available with a number of interesting accoutrements (i.e., mushroom sherry demi-glace, Santa Fe chili pepper sauce, garlic-rosemary sauce, moutarde hollandaise or peppercorn sauce), as are the pork chops, lamb chops and mixed grill. House specialties include Northwest pan-fried oysters and rack of lamb Dijonaise. If you happen to stop by for lunch, be sure to order the fish 'n' chips; the halibut is ever so lightly breaded, and the French fries are the best I have sampled anywhere. Even if you don't plan to eat here, this is a great spot for a cocktail before or after dinner. Sammy's also serves breakfast on the weekends. Moderate/Expensive

SOUTHPARK SEAFOOD GRILL & WINE BAR, 901 SW Salmon Street (503) 326-1300 -- Ensconced in the building formerly occupied by the B. Moloch/Heathman Bakery and Pub, most Portlanders are of the opinion that South Park's casually sophisticated decor is a vast improvement. The changes are more than skin deep, however. The Mediterranean cuisine, under the guiding hand of Executive Chef Paul Ornstein, is as classy (and delicious) as the ambiance. Seafood is clearly the way to go here, so you may wish to start things off with the wood-fired oysters baked with spinach, Parmesan and bread crumbs or, perhaps, the wood-oven-baked piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp and cod and finished with a creamy bechamel sauce. Denizens of the deep are also very much in evidence among the entrees; and when it comes to finny creatures, the ahi tuna au poivre is the clear winner. Prepared medium-rare, it is presented reclining on a bed of yummy mashed potatoes and adorned with a bracing red wine demi-glace. Among the specials, the seared scallops set atop a tomato/chive risotto are definitively first-class. For dessert, be sure to try the caramelized apple upside down cake garnished with cinnamon mascarpone ice cream or the outrageous espresso turtle sundae. There is an extensive, award-winning wine list here, along with numerous special selections available by the glass. And the cozy wine bar is the perfect spot to enjoy an intimate pre or postprandial libation. Moderate.

WILDWOOD RESTAURANT & BAR, 1221 NW 21st Avenue, (503) 248-9663 -- With its ultra-chic decor, Wildwood feels more like San Francisco... but the food is Northwest all the way. Executive chef/owner Cory Schreiber is a master at transforming traditional ingredients into absolute feasts for both the eye and the palate. His skillet-roasted Washington mussels literally melt in your mouth, and they come swimming in a beguiling broth spiked with Chardonnay vinegar. Soups change daily and are always worth considering. The recently sampled pureed flageolet bean and winter vegetable soup, for example, was incredibly tasty, its flavor further enhanced with ham hocks and sage croutons. If you really want to see what the kitchen is capable of, don't hesitate to begin your meal with a salad of fried oysters and pancetta; it comes garnished with a yummy aioli perched atop an herbed crepe. Entrees change daily, so you never know what delightful possibilities may be in store. Finny fare is a particular favorite here, however, so be sure to try one of Mr. Schreiber's piscatorial creations. On one evening, it may be the incredible pan-roasted black bass on a silky potato puree; on another, the clay-oven-roasted whole red snapper takes center stage. But be sure to save room for one of Jennifer Welshhons' decadent desserts. I vote for her Meyer lemon pudding cake adorned with cookies and whipped cream. You will find some excellent Oregon vintages on the reasonably-priced wine list. Moderate/Expensive

WILLIAMS ON 12TH, 207 SE 12th Avenue, (503) 963-9226 -- Everything about this lovely diminutive restaurant is pure delight: the polished hardwood floors, the gilt-framed oils that adorn dark green walls, the wonderfully comfortable chairs. There is even a discreet open kitchen tucked into one corner where you may observe chef/owner Bill Henry perform his culinary magic. Indeed, the superlative quality of his fine American/French cuisine most assuredly belies his tender twenty-five years. He clearly demonstrates a sense of style that often escapes chefs twice his age. There are a select number of appetizers and entrees, and all are completely up to the mark. His starter of thyme pappardelle pasta is sprinkled with morsels of luscious air-dried salami and chioggia beets, and then finished with a delicate and delicious lemon creme fraiche. And his ethereal Dungeness crab cakes are embellished with fennel, roasted peppers, frisse, and a fabulous aioli. Couples may even wish to share a plate of assorted aged French and Italian cheeses garnished with slices of bosc pear. Entrees are no less impressive. The pan-seared scallops are sheer buttery pleasure. They are accompanied by perfectly roasted leeks and potatoes, arranged on a scrumptious seabed of julienne veggies and consummated with a light vegetable sauce. Utterly superb! Vegetarians will positively revel in the apple-roasted heirloom acorn squash. Individual halves are dressed with pearl pasta, chioggia beets and goat cheese, and then encircled with a ring of herb oil. The grilled veal chop with a shitake/dried-cherry sauce and white truffle potatoes is outstanding, as is the tender and succulent garlic stuffed grilled chicken with cave-aged Gruyere and red thumb potatoes. For dessert, be sure to sample the light and delicate chocolate mousse cake or one of the homemade ice creams. An exceptional dining experience. Moderate/Expensive.

AND IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE TOURING THE NORTHERN WILLAMETTE VALLEY WINE COUNTRY just to the southwest of Portland, be sure to pay at call at the following:

THE DUNDEE BISTRO, Corner of Highway 99 & Seventh Street, Dundee, (503) 554-1650 -- A delightful, completely informal stopover featuring excellent food and a first-class selection of local wines. Right next store, you will find the Ponzi Wine Bar, with various local vintages available by the glass or the flight. McMENAMINS HOTEL OREGON, 310 NE Evans, McMinnville, (503) 472-8427 -- A charmingly restored hotel featuring some very good creative pub fare. Highly recommended for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or an overnight stay. TINA'S, 760 Highway 99, Dundee, (503) 538-8880 -- Owners Tina Landfried and her husband, David Bergen, work their culinary magic in a squat little building by the side of the road. The interior is quite cozy, however. You will also discover a wonderful selection of reasonably-priced local vintages by the bottle or by the glass. An absolute must for those prowling the wine country. Bon Appetit!


The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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