The Best Thing I Ate This Year...

Our food writers pick their favorite Portland meals of 2011.

TOO GOOD: Central chef Jake Martin's tuna crudo ranks among Portland's favorite dishes.

BEN WATERHOUSE: On a miserable, soggy day in mid-November, my wife and I sought shelter from the cold at Five Spice (2446 SE 87th Ave.), a Cantonese restaurant that opened this spring. It's a pleasant, under-decorated sort of place with a menu that rewards adventurism. The cold sliced beef tendon was good, if you don't mind the chewiness, but the real gem was the goose hot pot off the specials board ($16). It came out bubbling—a wide, shallow bowl of thick brown broth with islands of bean curd skin, lotus root and big hunks of chopped roast goose. As the rain turned to sleet, we scalded our mouths and fingers as we gnawed on the tender bird and slurped the savory broth. For a moment, winter evaporated; our world was all hot goose.

KELLY CLARKE: I grew up in Milwaukie. Although the suburb is only minutes outside of Portland proper, for decades the best—or only, really—thing to crave around that culinary wasteland were the pumpkin milkshakes that popped up at Mike's Drive-In every October. Everything changed when I bit into one of Pascal Sauton's roasted lamb sandwiches ($8.75). The French chef, who spent years cooking for the Keller crowds at his downtown bistro Carafe, opened his specialty market, deli and cooking-class haven Milwaukie Kitchen & Wine (10610 SE Main Street, Milwaukie) last month. The lamb was perfect: thick slices of pinky leg meat with a crunchy little crust redolent of rosemary and piment d'Espelette smothered in garlicky harissa aioli and a mellow piperade of onions, tomato and peppers all wrapped up in pillowy Ken's ciabatta. There wasn't any cheese; it didn't need cheese. And I've never said that before about a sandwich. There isn't anything particularly fancy about this—or most of Sauton's country Frenchified deli grub—it simply tastes exactly as a sandwich should. Going home again never tasted so good.

MATTHEW KORFHAGE: For me, this was the year of the mackerel. Or, at least, it was the year I discovered that mackerel is truly the bacon of the sea—a fatty, salty heart attack of a fish that massages the umami-starved reptile brain into sweet submission. It is izakaya food, and so it was at Syun, Shigezo and Biwa I found the best of the form. Nonetheless, I'm giving the nod to the tuna crudo ($11) at downtown's Central  (220 SW Ankeny St.). The dish is a blending of raw sushi-grade tuna, miso and cucumber, topped with thin-sliced radish and a scattering of shiso (an Asian minty-spicy herb). It's quite simple, but the flavors and textures blend complexly, delicately—I'd described it in an earlier review as being flavored almost like a good gin, through subtle aromatics. "I don't think it's that subtle," a recent dining companion told me, "but it's really good."

AARON MESH: "Oh, that's smoky," Matthew Korfhage said when he tasted my soup at Shigezo (1005 SW Park Ave.), and all of a sudden I felt better about thieving his favorite restaurant of 2011. Slurping the Tokyo ramen ($9.50) at this izakaya in the Roosevelt Building, the first and only American incarnation of a popular Japanese pub chain, is like riding a log flume. The splashdown lands you in a thicket of green onions, snappy seaweed and ramen noodles hand-pulled on the Park Blocks. There's a slice of chashu pork on top, and it's possible to gussy up the bowl with extras like boiled egg or corn. I never have. The chicken and shoyu broth is simply too rich on its own. It's as if gravy had been distilled to its most ethereal essence, and it makes me homesick for a place I've never called home.

MARTIN CIZMAR: The best thing I ate in Oregon this year? Probably a quart of fresh marionberries from Sheridan Fruit Company (409 SE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.). I'm new to town, having moved from Phoenix in October. The best things I ate in 2011 were back there, maybe a bowl from Pho Thahn or a machaca burro from Carolina's. But in the desert they grow oranges and iceberg lettuce, not plump berries. Those marionberries were hyper-real: giant, nearly the size of walnuts, with a complexly tart sweetness. I've since learned the marionberry is pure Oregonia, a blackberry cultivar created by our state ag school. There has, in fact, been a proposal to make the marionberry a state symbol. So far, it's been thwarted. That's a damn shame. If I had my druthers, they'd be enshrined next to the tree on my new license plates.

RUTH BROWN: Can I do two? I'm gonna do two. The single best thing I ate in Portland this year, the dish that just made me say "fuck yes," was a head of radicchio, roasted with—I think—fontina cheese, melted between the leaves, at Olympic Provisions (107 SE Washington St.). There may or may not have been a touch of balsamic vinegar. Clearly my memory of this is a bit fuzzy, but I do remember with perfect clarity how immensely satisfying it was: a simple, inspired combination of bitter, salty, creamy, savory and fatty that hit my gastronomic G-spot. However, I must give an honorable mention to the egg sandwich ($5) at Bingo Sandwiches at the PSU Farmers Market (875 SW Harrison St.), which has consistently made my Saturday morning all year. They fry that egg so over easy, it splodges out of the English muffin and drips down your fingers in a perfect, gooey mess of mustard, pickled jalapeños, cheese and yolk. It will be a long winter without one.

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