In late September I was invited to watch Justin Woodward, the endlessly inventive chef at Castagna, prepare several items from his signature "snack" course in the restaurant's immaculate kitchen. One, a sort of sesame cookie covered in a sesame butter shell that looks like a Thin Mint, requires a dunk in a foggy bath of liquid nitrogen to harden the outer layer.
Woodward dropped them in, let them sit for a moment, then fished them out with his bare hands.
"I've lost a lot of feeling in my fingers," he said. "So this is easy."
Two weeks earlier, in the kitchen of our Restaurant of the Year, Podnah's Pit, chef Rodney Muirhead casually mentioned that wood smokers like the one he operated for four years in his previous location "occasionally explode." "One of my guys lost most of the hair on his face once," he said.
Cooking professionally is really, really hard. The hours are lousy, the pay is low and the work is tedious, painful and often dangerous. It's a wonder plates ever make it out of the kitchen at all, let alone that they taste good. From the chef who meticulously arranges every dish with tweezers right on down to the prep cook who brushes the dirt from endless piles of mushrooms each week, everyone in the kitchen works more, and more intensely, than you or I would likely care to. But the cooks, waiters, bartenders and dishwashers at the 100 restaurants highlighted in this guide make serving excellent food seem, if not effortless, at least graceful. They all merit far greater praise than mere mention in these pages, but I hope this year's Restaurant Guide nonetheless conveys the joy and appreciation we felt while researching it.
Portland is now home to so many fine restaurants that narrowing the list down to our 100 favorites is a trying exercise. The process is imperfect, and I imagine many readers will disagree with some of our choices. If you do, please feel free to send me an email. This guide is a continual work in progress, and I always appreciate feedback.
Unless otherwise noted, all restaurants are wheelchair accessible. Hours and prices are accurate as of Sept. 30, 2011, but restaurants are capricious; check the website or call before you go. Each restaurant is assigned a dollar rating referring to the cost of most entrÃ©es on its menu:
$ Most entrées cost less than $10.
$$ Entrées cost $10-$20.
$$$ Entrées cost $20-$30.
$$$$ Entrées cost $30 or more.
That's it; you're good to go. So—what's for dinner?