four portland restaurant trends
i spent my birthday weekend in portland. i was inebriated and uncomfortably full the whole time. it was glorious.
though both west coast cities with happening food scenes, seattle and portland’s different personalities and politics are plainly articulated through restaurants. these are four things i saw significantly more of in portland than seattle, for better or worse (mostly better).
substitutions politely declined
as a server, this is about the most glorious sentence that could be printed on a menu (perhaps with the exception of “we politely request that you bus your own table”). it means you’ll no longer have to crawl back to the kitchen and ask, so respectfully, as if the request was your own, “is it possible to substitute steak for clams in the clam chowder? um, and they’re also allergic to salt…”
if you’re “allergic” or vegetarian, simply order something without your allergen or meat. and don’t go to beast, where the website clearly states, “beast has a lot of meat all over the menu. we (somewhat) politely decline substitutions.”
when buying a painting, you don’t get to ask the artist to please take out that tree because you’re allergic to it. a chef is an artist, their dish is the way it is as a result of much thought about how each flavor plays against the next. removing the tree upsets the balance of the art – so does removing the chives. i can only hope this trend spreads to seattle, and quickly.
i know there is communal dining in seattle, and it’s gradually becoming less of a novelty, but in portland it’s more rampant and less scary. one long table is inherently a risk to its sitters. perhaps your neighbor can teach you something, can entertain you, works in your field and can get you a job. but the steak knife wielding stranger at your elbow might also ask you after every bite, “what do you think of the soup? what do you think of the fish? i think it’s a little salty. is that tarragon? i’m pretty sure there’s tarragon in there. i’m sure there is! i love tarragon!”
I don’t want to be prodded at and i don’t want to hear anyone else dissect the food (as much as i like to do it myself). in portland, people overwhelmingly were able to sense when others at their table just wanted to have dinner with the person they came to dinner with.
(for reasons i can’t understand) half bottles are an unusual find in seattle. in portland, they’re as common as absinthe. if we’re all eating small plates, why aren’t we drinking from small bottles? i often loose interest in a bottle of wine once halfway through, the same way i do when faced with a mountain of entrée.
generally more interesting wines than glass pours, half bottles are ideal for lunch, or the hour you need to waste before you catch the train.
if it’s an economic concern for restaurants, i can attest that though spending $80 on a bottle of wine isn’t something i’ll do often, spending $40 on a half bottle of bubbles and then $40 on a bottle of red at meat time hardly fazes. it’s not that i’m that deficient math, but rather that trying two different wines, and having my wine correspond more precisely with my food, makes it worth it to me.
part of the motivation, to be sure, is that diners these days are interested in what happens in the kitchen, and not just to make sure the chefs wash their hands. it’s the communal table idea, again – we’re all here to share an experience, whether eating or cooking it, so why not be in the same room? diners think it’s cool to have a chef hand them a plate of food at the bar and chefs, rather than waiters, get to hear the appreciation.
at sel gris, the kitchen is immaculate and chefs wear real chef jackets (a pdx rarity). at le pigeon, plastic quart containers full of various sauces were dipped into just inches from our heads. one of the chefs wore a clyde common t-shirt. i don’t have a preference between jackets and t-shirts (though i like to see tattoos), if they’re carried off professionally.