Karen Brooks' new Portland-dining book, The Mighty Gastropolis (Chronicle, 256 pages, $24.95), is a torrid love affair with Portland food and chefs. It is strange to see her so. Brooks, who's been writing about Portland food for more than 30 years, beginning in a column with her then-husband, Gideon Bosker, in Willamette Week and continuing through The Oregonian and now Portland Monthly, is perhaps best known as Portland's grande dame of the vicious takedown.
Brooks has sheathed her sharpest knives for her current magazine post, which may be why Gastropolis is mostly a show for the fans in the bleachers. In this broad-ranging collection of chef interviews and restaurant bios (written in collaboration with Bosker and Teri Gelber), Brooks is speaking not so much to Portlanders as for them, cheering on a mythologized Portland that people covet droolingly from afar: a place of punk-rock chefs, impromptu backyard dining clubs, local lardons and casual-affordable genius that "waged war on America's conformist culture of food to create something of their own, far removed from the white-hot centers of Michelin stars."
Still, it's not a history, it's a yearbook. Only some pictures get signed. Restaurateurs Bruce Carey and Micah Camden receive not a footnote, while impresario Kurt Huffman gets a photo spread.
And even though the book includes copious and welcome recipes, it is the chefs and the culture of Portland's restaurants that are highlighted; the dishes are less often pictured. Among food porn, this book is Penthouse Letters, a grinding mash note, its interlocutor surprised by sudden good fortune and near-insane with relish. Well, it's fun. No denying that knowledgeable enthusiasm is contagious.
Yet we still fondly remember Brooks from her younger, meaner days. Appended here, a smattering of our favorite Brooks daggers from over the years.
Stepping Stone Cafe, 1978 in WW
"Avoid the mocha pie, which looks like raw liver and tastes as if it were made by Firestone."
Jake's Famous Crawfish, 1979
"This soupy, intolerably rich crab-and-cheese casserole is about as exciting as the boxed macaroni-and-cheese product tolerated by college freshmen, and slightly saltier."
Crane and Company, 1982
"Steer clear of the pork ribs, which are low on meat and awash in a sauce that has as much soul as your brother-in-law's patio-manufactured barbecue concoction."
Papa Haydn, 1983
"Skills here are such that even a sandwich can be a cataclysmic failing. You order a turkey sandwich, for example, hoping for something a little sparing of calories and receive a few thin slices of turkey on a wet mattress of bread so inundated with butter that you push it aside for fear your arteries will harden on the spot."
[T]he Japanese are repelled by the idea of leftovers at the table. In olden days, noblemen were so loath to leave unsightly things behind that they wrapped the carnage of their meals in paper carried for the purpose, tucking little packages into the sleeves of their kimonos. If you eat at Ginza, my advice is that you bring a manila envelope and wear large pockets."
The Heathman Restaurant, 1985
"This is a dining establishment where interior design is all, and where food, service—and occasionally you—are nothing."
Harborside Restaurant, 1986
"What this place calls fried calamari with cocktail sauce, the rest of the world calls fried rubber bands with Heinz 57."
The Hobbit, 1989 in The Oregonian
"But it hurts to drop $12.95 on a pasta dish that brings to mind the kind of food you were condemned to eat at school lunches five days a week. It's painful when the spicing in your blackened halibut is as loud as the saxophone. And it's a crime to receive a filet of salmon that tastes not so much cooked as blow-dried."
"At Benvenuto's, what you see is a kitschy Italian restaurant charging Atwater's prices for food more inspired by the Joys of Jello than The Classic Cuisine of Italy...the cave-aged Italian Gorgonzola' dressing is so watery you need a snorkel to find the greens."
Koji Osakaya, 1993
"The premises are as functional as a guillotine and as cozy as a hospital corridor."
Jo Bar and Rotisserie, 1995
"This is another place, as they say in marketing-research circles, targeting today's culinary thrill-seekers—folks weaned on Wonder Bread and frozen vegetables, who graduated to whole wheat and bean sprouts, moved on to pasta and sun-dried tomatoes and have now turned their focus on wood-oven things and baby greens."
Vat and Tonsure, 2003
"The Czech Republic serves better vegetables than what you find here: the ever-present clumps of dead broccoli on the side and pathetic out-of-season tomatoes in most salads. Meats such as lamb chops or sherry roast pork can be perfectly juicy or tough as Donald Rumsfeld. And sauteed prawns can be as exciting as Josh Groban's latest classical outing."
Cobras and Matadors, 2005
"Some restaurants are not just merely bad, they are triumphantly so."
Ten 01, 2007
"Hollywood had Ishtar. The music world has Britney Spears. Portland dining has Ten 01—a case of grand ambition gone terribly wrong.... Dishes at this splashy new restaurant are conceived as if they were the last on Earth and every flavor known to man and beast must be sampled before the hour of annihilation. What else could explain the kitchen's bizarre concoctions?"
"According to one designer, the dining room at Lucier is meant to 'feel like an island,' complete with a glass bridge crossing a gold-tiled water canal running around the perimeter. I'm afraid that the only islander who would claim this place is Gilligan.â
GO: Karen Brooks will sign copies of her book (and chef John Gorham will provide "sips and bites" therefrom) at Tasty N Sons, 3808 N Williams Ave., 621-1400, tastynsons.com, on Saturday, Dec. 22. 3-5 pm. Admission free. Brooks will also read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Friday, Jan. 4. 7:30 pm. Free.