IMAGE: JASON LANDIS
Eating well on downtown escapes to Hood River and Vancouver.
My assignment: dine at two fine restaurants outside of Portland but still close enough to arrive home in time for the late evening news. I could have eaten in Seattle at 5 pm and helicoptered back to PDX, but using a more orthodox means of transportation-like my car-still allowed me to discover two destinations worth the trip.
First, there’s the Abruzzo Italian Grill, which is housed in an overgrown shack in Hood River and jammed every night with casually dressed diners, though that informality somehow doesn’t clash with the elegant Deruta ware on the tables. The restaurant is named for a region of Italy on the Adriatic Sea, noted for famous feasts of 30 courses that can last two days. Though you won’t eat such extravaganzas at Abruzzo, you will enjoy digesting a fine meal on the hour drive back to Portland.
One of the restaurant’s nice touches is providing half-orders of the primi, the pasta dishes that serve as a first course. Abruzzo serves a witty dish called calamarata, little calamari, pasta rings tossed with a spicy red sauce, pancetta and, surprisingly, mint (half-order $9.95). The pasta and squid echo and play against one another in a combination that’s lively and fresh, earthy and salty. A more refined starter is made up of fabulous seared sea scallops set upon a pool of jade cucumber gazpacho, punctuated with a dollop of jumpy tomato-and-red-chili salsa ($10.95), a combination of green, white and red colors reminiscent of the Italian flag.
There’s an impressive lineup of pastas, most of them a bit elaborate for first courses, but great for a full dinner. Of the main course entrees, two stand out. Tender, perfectly executed Painted Hills beef steak, is showered with truffle-oil-splashed arugula and set off with polenta, nicely laced with mascarpone for smoothness and roasted olives for saltiness ($21.95). Then there are chicken breasts wrapped in prosciutto, stuffed with artichoke hearts and gorgonzola ($19.95). The cheese oozes out of the tender chicken to flavor crunchy white beans and lemon-splashed nuggets of spinach, another example of Abruzzo’s clever way with colors and textures.
The panna cotta ($6.95) is smooth as fresh mountain snow, and covered with a lake of Oregon blueberries for a mild and tart contrast of flavors. Any regrets? No espresso is available, a rude reminder that you aren’t in the real Abruzzo after all.
A fine restaurant in a shopping mall seems incongruous, but that’s what you’ll find when you head east out of Vancouver, on Highway 14 to Camas. To create Roots, chef Brad Root has drawn upon his experience at Wildwood, one of Portland’s premier kitchens for Northwest cuisine. At his place, the open kitchen with counter seats and the superb food are a welcoming draw, despite the restaurant’s plastic laminate tables and uncomfortable chairs.
Roots serves a flavorful onion tart, piping-hot, jammy with deeply caramelized Walla Walla sweets and just a hint of apples ($7.50), and another satisfying starter of prosciutto and figs with shaved Parmesan ($7.50).
But the entrees are where Roots shines. First, there’s the generous portion of braised short ribs from Painted Hills, surrounded with a ragout of shelled beans, a medley of autumn colors from burnt umber to vermilion to celadon to saffron, and flavors that display how variegated legumes can be: gastronomic pleasure and virtue all in one ($20.95).
Then there’s a plate of albacore tuna, which comes meltingly rare, crusted with fennel seeds whose hint of anise marries beautifully with the meaty fish, accompanied by a panzanella heady with olives and basil. Together, the whole dish offers sheer hedonism in the harmony of soft, tender fish against the crunchiness of the Italian bread salad ($19.95).
For dessert, you’ll find real Oregon flavor in the luscious, sweet blueberry cobbler ($5.50), or savor ricotta fritters, which taste as creamy as New Orleans beignets, floating amid poached yellow peaches and homemade vanilla-bean ice cream ($5.95).
As depressing as the evening news can be these days, after my two recent road trips, I’m convinced even the 11 o’clock broadcast sounds better on a full and contented stomach.
Tracking down culinary capital on weekend coast and desert getaways.
We townies are snobs. When we dare to venture outside the city limits-for a desert hike or a romp at the coast-we brace ourselves for dismal dining options: Salty Sam’s Clam Shack, the Greasy Gullet, Dairy Queen. But Portlanders aren’t the only Oregonians who know that the Beaver State has all the makings of a world-class culinary capital: a long growing season, abundant fresh seafood, meats and artisan dairy products. If you were a hotshot chef seeking new waters in which to make your next splash, you could do worse than the small (Mirror) pond of Bend or the quiet waters of Nehalem Bay.
You might regret taking windy Highway 53 to the coast, unless, of course, your route leads you to discover the Nehalem River Inn. The Inn is nothing new; this cozy wayside between Mohler and Nehalem has served as the North Coast’s special-occasion supper destination since before balsamic reduction became popular. What’s new is chef Ryan Hamic, a rising star who counts the James Beard Award-winning Bay Area chef Bradley Ogden among his mentors.
The food here is cosmopolitan, the service unpretentious and pleasant. A revamped menu focuses on fresh Northwest seafood, inventively prepared. A prawn salad mingles large poached shrimp with slices of avocado and grapefruit ($8), while a delicious escolar filet ($27) is delicately seared, then paired with velvety sweet potatoes and a savory onion marmalade.
It’s easy to drive past the inn’s humble roadside building, but the building’s low profile hasn’t stopped city types from discovering the secret. Now if only the restaurant would revamp the Early American-meets-Holly Hobby decor, the big-city snobs wouldn’t have much to complain about.
All the fresh ocean air might pique your craving for a fat glass of wine-something bold and crisp but not too, you know, urban. Then you’ll be well served by Vino Manzanita, dubbed “a simple wine bar” by owners Gary Brown and Pawel Michal. Vino offers appetite-whetting dishes ranging from Marcona almonds and tart green olives ($4) to a substantial French goat-cheese terrine ($10), dressed with roasted-garlic tapenade, basil pesto and sun-dried tomatoes. The wines, including exotic Euro vintages and boutique Northwest and Napa finds (smoky cabs, fruity zins), are served by the glass or the bottle-even to go, if you’re rushing down to the beach for the sunset.
If days spent on our sodden shores-or too much cabernet-leaves you feeling the need to dry out, head east on your quest for fine cuisine. Bend is blowing up, and the poky village you once knew has already warped into Oregon’s Aspen or Park City.
Jody Denton is largely to thank for the dining improvements. Will nothing douse this celebrity chef’s flaming spatula? After launching three Bay Area restaurants in four years (LuLu, Azie and the stunning Zibibbo in Palo Alto), Denton brought his signature wood-fired oven cooking to Oregon’s high desert.
Merenda occupies an enormous two-storied space on the town’s main drag, and the restaurant has charm to spare, with its exposed brick walls, beamed ceilings, and a giant open kitchen. Here you’ll find asparagus-and-prosciutto wood-fired pizza ($5), olive-oil-poached albacore tuna ($21.95), and a spring risotto with fresh peas, tomato and reggiano cheese ($12). The food, though elegantly prepared, comes across as pleasantly light and casual, the perfect end to a day of carving powder or, say, driving your Hummer around town.
Roomy as Merenda is, the dining room and glitzy bar fill up with vacationing jet-setters and wheeler-dealers camouflaged in fleece vests, so consider making a reservation.
Also adding to the Bend scene, chef Gavin McMichael and co-owner Burk Daggett have christened the food at their restaurant, The Blacksmith, as New Ranch, or high-end homestyle cooking. The movement originated in Texas, a meat-and-potatoes mecca and McMichael’s home, but transfers neatly to Oregon’s cattle country. A souped-up meatloaf with house-made ketchup figures on the menu ($15.95), as does a 16-ounce ribeye with “barbed-wire” onion rings ($27.95). McMichael, a seasoned guest-ranch cook and TV-show chef, is partial to cinematic plating, like his cider-brined pork chop ($23.95) teetering atop a butte of smoked-cheddar mac and cheese and braised greens.
If you can still manage dessert, consider the sampler, an assortment of all-American sweets ($24 for four, including a vanilla-bean-spiked banana split and an obscene brownie sundae). Since May, when the restaurant made Condé Nast Traveler’s list of the world’s hottest, it has become harder to snag one of the 15 tables in the charming wedge-shaped brick building, erected in 1923 to launch-guess what-a blacksmith shop.
Nehalem River Inn34910 Highway 53, Nehalem, (503) 368-7708. Dinner Thursday-Monday. Reservations encouraged. $$$ Expensive.
Vino Manzanita387 D Laneda Ave., Manzanita, (503) 368-8466. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.
Merenda900 NW Wall St., Bend, (541) 330-2304. Lunch and dinner daily. $$ Moderate.
The Blacksmith211 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend, (541) 318-0588. Dinner nightly. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.