Indulge me a moment. It was 1990, and I was reviewing Zefiro for the paper. My first line was: "This may be THE place." I meant not only that this restaurant heralded something novel in town, but that it could just make something utterly new of Portland itself. That was a prescient gamble, for I realized at the time that while it might turn out to be true, it might not.
Looking back now, it's fair to say that before Zefiro there was no culinary "scene" in Portland. And, in hindsight, I'd also venture that Zefiro was also a catalyst for the radical transformation of the city and not just its gastronomical centerpiece. Portland's transcendence into an increasingly sophisticated urban food experience dates from both the establishment of a particular urbane kitchen—wine-poached pears in a cornmeal crust, risotto of the day, and the first truly excellent Caesar salad the city had seen—and the cosmopolitanism it brought with it, at first a bit self-consciously and tentatively, then gradually becoming natural and comfortable in its own skin.
When Zefiro closed a decade later, some life breath whooshed out of the city. And yet not entirely so, because Zefiro started a whole catalog of restaurant legacies and more vitally so, a spirit, a way of being that has indelibly marked Portland and its gastronomy.
By that phrase, I don't mean the fancy cars parked out front on Northwest 21st, the occasional celebrities in the dining room, nor the Danny Meyer-like polish of Bruce Carey's suave hosting. I mean the spirit of seasonality, freshness and locavorism (though that word hardly existed during Zefiro's heyday), inspired by Carey but more crucially by the great cooking of chef Chris Israel and dessert maven Monique Sui—each of whom has gone on to other wonderful restaurants including Grüner and Castagna.
cuisine was Mediterranean—French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan—and it
tried hard to render the dishes from those sea-girt regions as
faithfully and authentically as possible, the main ingredients were
sourced from local growers, fishermen and other purveyors. It wasn't
quite time for menus to pay tribute to those suppliers of field and
forest and nearby waters, but that would come. We didn't yet see Israel
cooking dishes over camp stoves at a nearby farm for Plate &
Pitchfork, but that too would come for other restaurants that inherited
Zefiro's heart, soul and marrow.
Roger Porter teaches English at Reed College. After leaving Willamette Week, he was a restaurant reviewer for The Oregonian for five years. He has co-edited, with Sandra Gilbert, The Norton Anthology of Food Writing, due out next year.
Zefiro Review, 1990