Sunday, October 25, 2009

Food and Spirits on Portland’s Distillery Row

We duck into the austere building, narrowly escaping a typical Pacific Northwest rain shower. The room is small and simply furnished. The glass display counter is framed with distressed wood and several large barrels are arranged throughout the room. A collection of what appear to be medicinal bottles neatly line one shelf. Other shelves display bottles that are tall, sleek and frosted.

We are standing in “The Apothecary,” the tasting room of House Spirits Distillery at 2025 SE 7th Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Our host is Matt Mount, a distiller at House Spirits. He lines up two shot glasses and pours us each a sample of Medoyeff Vodka. My sister-in-law, Ramiza and I gaze at the strikingly-clear liquid in our glasses as Matt begins to spin a few tales of the craft distillation movement in Portland.

“You swallow spirits,” advises Matt. “Don’t taste and spit as if you were tasting wine.” He gets no arguments from us. The swallowing technique allows you to appreciate the full flavor of craft spirits.

Matt Mount is a distiller at House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon

Matt describes the characteristics of Medoyeff Vodka, made from rye grain, and referred to locally as M Vodka. The taste is subtly-sweet, bright and bracing. Medoyeff is the family name of owner Lee Medoff. M Vodka is a Russian-style vodka filtered through charcoal and limestone, meant to be served ice-cold with food. In Russia, vodka is typically consumed with small bites of meat and cheese.

The founders of House Spirits were brewers, who wanted to make whiskey. In addition to existing lines of gin, vodka and aquavit, House Spirits Whiskey will be released in the spring of 2010. Matt says that once you master brewing, distilling is a logical next step. He says the curiosity and willingness to experiment that inspired House Spirits is all part of the indefatigable Portland entrepreneurial mind-set – We do world-class wine and we have great microbrews, so now let’s make our own spirits.

The movement is growing. Seven spirits companies in the Southeast Portland industrial area have banded together to create a district called Distillery Row, an area that is 16 blocks long and five blocks wide. Together the companies produce over 20 different types of liquors including vodka, gin, rum and whiskey as well as absinthe, aquavit and flavored liqueurs. Matt says the partnership is good for everyone’s business and good for Portland.

House Spirits Apothecary Line is small-batch, limited edition spirits.

House Spirits also collaborates with local restaurants to explore the sensory pleasures of food and spirits pairings. Matt, a former bartender, says the focus at House Spirits is on appreciating the extraordinary flavors, the culinary experience, and the communal effect of food and spirits. “It’s all about family, community and socializing,” he says.

We watch as Matt pours a sampling of Aviation Gin and inhale a delicious potpourri of floral and spice aromas. Aviation Gin is a Dutch-inspired 100 percent rye grain spirit made with juniper, cardamom, coriander, lavender, anise seed, sarsaparilla and dried sweet orange peel. “We’re bringing the juniper down and the botanicals up,” explains Matt. The taste is exhilarating. Ramiza takes a sip and has an idea. “This would be an amazing match with Indian food,” she says.

We purchase a bottle and the following night she prepares a feast for the family – Split Pea Vada, Tomato Chutney, Mango Chutney, Cucumber Riata and Chicken Curry. We sip Aviation Gin from colorful tea glasses and the floral and citrus flavors do an exotic dance with the aromatic curry and spice. The inspired pairing is just the kind of creativity and ingenuity that Portland is famous for.

I sampled the food, wine and spirits of the Portland, Oregon region September 27 through October 2, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Portland’s Food Cart Ambassador

Blogger Brett Burmeister chronicles the Porland food cart culture.

This is how far my truck food obsession has gone. I’m standing on the edge of Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon – some 2,500 miles from home – about to meet up with one of the city’s leading experts on food carts for a bite of lunch.

I’ve been advised to watch for a guy who is 6’ 2” tall – with mutton chops – who goes by the moniker Dieselboi. This might make my parents slightly nervous, but I, however have plunged head first into the fast moving world of mobile food where eating a square meal, dining with strangers and scavenger hunts are all part of the adventure.

My truck food junkie friends are going to be very jealous.

Within moments, a guy fitting the description approaches me. In “real life” he is known as Brett Burmeister, he’s a native of Portland and for the past year he’s been chronicling the city’s burgeoning food cart culture at the blog Food Carts Portland. Brett knows the carts, he knows the chefs and he also knows the prime public spaces to eat if it happens to be raining, which sometimes happens in Portland. He seems to relish his role as ambassador for one of the city’s hottest culinary trends.

“I was born and raised here, so I’ve always loved Portland,” says Brett. “Whenever relatives came to visit, we would always go 24-hours-a-day showing them stuff – the mountains, the ocean, this and that. It’s in my blood. I have to show people and tell people about my city.”

After brief introductions we walk a few blocks to a “pod” on SW 9th Avenue and SW Alder, where a number of Portland food carts are clustered. Compact vehicles resembling tidy recreational trailers - with vivid signs and awnings - line the street. Business people are strolling the sidewalk and scrutinizing menus. “These didn’t exist five or six years ago, this whole block of food carts,” Brett explains.

I ask about the proper terminology. What’s the difference between a food truck and a food cart?

“Unlike the trucks, our food carts don’t have to move,” says Brett. “Most of the food carts that are downtown – they’re parked. They’re on wheels and they can go somewhere, because that’s the code. The county said if it has an axel, it’s a food cart versus a restaurant.”

More than 400 food carts are clustered throughout Portland in “pods.”

So what sparked his passion for food carts? Does he remember the first time?

“It was in Pioneer Square and it was Honkin’ Huge Burritos,” Brett recalls. “It was eighteen years ago. It was college. We were downtown protesting as you do in college. There was this line, so we stood in line, because we didn’t want to go to McDonalds or anything. It was a vegetarian burrito. The “small” could feed two people. So the Honkin' Huge, was just … huge.”

Brett gives me a quick overview of the menu options available at the pod. The choices include Bosnian, Japanese, vegetarian rice bowl, German bratwurst, Korean, Vietnamese and Polish. It’s kind of an enormous outdoor international buffet. At the risk of dusting off a tired cliché, my eyes are already bigger than my stomach.

“The first ones started out as ethnic carts, mostly,” Brett explains. “That’s America. That’s how most small businesses start. It’s a family. It’s like, I know how to do this. And, they create something. It’s only been in the past couple of years that it has branched out into what I call artisanship.”

He says food carts are a great option for entrepreneurs. “I think it’s a good foray into a restaurant – if somebody has that aspiration. It’s inexpensive, and you can try new things.”

A street location also offers a food artisan great visibility. “If you’re a restaurant on the outskirts of town or in a neighborhood, how do you get hundreds, thousands of people walking by your restaurant and literally walking by your kitchen every day?”

Brett says the food carts also mirror Portland’s famous “do-it-yourself” attitude. “We love to find something - beer, coffee, chocolate - and then take it to the nth degree. It’s kind of become, I want to have the coolest, most unique cart.”

He is both street-smart epicurean and community advocate. And, there is no doubt the food cart culture of Portland is piping hot. A casual diner can sample soup, vegetarian rice bowl, barbecue, Mediterranean, crepes, po-boys and even fried pie. The movement is supported by the city of Portland as part of a 25-year plan to develop community oriented sidewalks. At last count, there were more than 400 food carts, clustered in six different pods. There’s even a food cart on Mount Hood.

“My parents had a phrase that when you came to Oregon you were handed a set of galoshes,” says Brett. “Now, we joke that when you come to Portland, they hand you a food cart.”

Playing the field is part of the fun. “We’ll just pick a cuisine, or a pod, and say Yeah, let’s try that today,” Brett says. “I like all kinds of food. I’ll try it all.”

We step up to Ziba’s Pitas to place an order for lunch. Ziba pops her head out of the window and describes our menu options. She has silver hair, bright eyes and a warm smile.

Ziba Ljucevic serves authentic Bosnian fare at the Ziba’s Pitas food cart on SW 9th Avenue and SW Alder in Portland.

We order the Burek, a meat pita filled with lamb, onions, potatoes and spices. The full plate is served with a side of ajar, a spicy red grilled vegetable sauce and a salad of sour cream and cucumbers. We also purchase a Tikvenica, which is a pastry filled with zucchini.

“Wait till you taste it,” says Brett of the Burek. “It’s brilliant.”

We cross the street and enter the atrium of the Western Culinary Institute where there are a number of café tables. “We find places in buildings where we can go eat our food, without having to pay for the restaurant seating.”

The Burek from Ziba’s Pitas is lamb, onions, potatoes and spices, wrapped in golden phyllo dough.

I ask why he’s recommended the Burek. “It’s meat,” he laughs. “The potatoes and the lamb – it’s almost a buttery flavor. And the phyllo - it’s flakey and just makes me feel warm inside.”

Indeed, it is addictively-savory, rib-sticking food. I abandon any measure of restraint and my helping is gone within minutes.

Recently, Brett’s been engaged in a friendly rivalry over which city has the best food carts – Portland or New York? NBC News filmed a segment on the controversy, and the New York-based blog Midtown Lunch and the mayors of Portland and New York City have all joined the debate.

“We’ve been playing that up for the whole media factor,” says Brett. “It’s awesome!”

The topic prompted some intense discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Bloggers commented that – while the diversity of New York food options is impressive – you can’t try it all at lunch, while in Portland, hundreds of choices are within walking distance downtown.

“The hope was that NBC would have their news story up around that time, and we could just kind of feed on the buzz,” say Brett. “I guess there were other important things going on in the world. I don’t know – the G20 Summit?”

We finish our lunch, and walk several blocks to check out another pod. We pass a food cart serving hot dogs. The cart is called Bro-Dogs and they specialize in a jalapeño and cheddar dog. Brett gives a nod to the proprietor, Scott. “Hey Bro-Dogs!” he calls. “What’s going on? I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve been missing you,” says Scott.

“I’ll swing by tomorrow,” replies Brett. “Will it be brolicious?”

“It will be the most brolicious!” promises Scott.

It’s just one of the many connections Brett Burmeister has made in his hometown, while eating lunch on the go.

According to Brett, the people of Portland like to brainstorm new concepts for food carts and pods. “I’m really looking forward to when we have the Happy Hour Pod,” he says. “You’d go down and grab some sliders, and then you’d sit down and get a martini. Maybe a beer.” One night he proposed the idea to a cart owner who promptly said, “No, I’ve already asked.” Apparently, Portland blue laws might stand in the way.

Can Brett imagine a day when he might tire of food cart cuisine? Can he foresee a morning when he wakes up and decides he’s had his last food cart meal?

“Only if the doctor says my cholesterol is too high.”

I sampled the food, wine and spirits of the Portland, Oregon region September 27 through October 2, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bewitched by Voodoo Doughnut

I am a very sensible, high-fiber cereal guy. That’s my breakfast, plain and simple.

Yet, on this particular morning in Portland, Oregon I am compelled to leave my lodgings at an early hour and seek out something wildly improbable for my morning meal. An irresistible, supernatural force draws me towards SW Third Avenue. I start to perspire. I feel my pulse racing. Is it witchcraft?

No, it’s Voodoo.

If you are faint of heart, read no further. I am about to take you on a perilous journey into the world of the dark pastry arts.

I almost miss the unassuming brick facade of Voodoo Doughnut, but something pulls me to the threshold. Inside, the lobby is about the size of a large closet. I see arcane brick-a-brac and an entire wall covered with New York Times obituaries of celebrities who journeyed to the spirit world in the past year.
There are perhaps thirteen customers squeezed into the small space – hipsters, seniors, tourists and business professionals in neckties and cashmere pullovers – all similarly spellbound, and ordering dozens of doughnuts. It’s as if some powerful conjurer has cast a hex over the city of Portland, awakening the childhood sugar-coated breakfast fantasy that lives deep within our collective psyche.

I wait patiently for nearly 15 minutes and place my order, which is magically concealed in an alluring pink box. I nearly run back to my hotel. By this point, I am burning with fever. I split open the box and indulge with sinful abandon, starting with a wickedly-luscious traditional cake doughnut studded with sprinkles:

Triple Chocolate Penetration:

A gaudy hallucination of Fruit Loops floating on an allegorical bowl of milky white frosting:

And, the ultimate in daybreak decadence, The Bacon Maple Bar – sweet, smoky gluttony:

The experience has forever changed me. Bagels are banal. Fiber cereal is forgettable. Orange juice is ordinary. I am bewitched, perhaps possessed. From this day forth, I carry the mark of Voodoo Doughnut.

I sampled the food, wine and spirits of the Portland, Oregon region September 27 through October 2, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Oregon Pinot Noir

My first impression of Oregon’s Williamette Valley is that the setting seems somewhat ordinary. There’s a typical interstate highway, a Dairy Queen here or there and plenty of weekend traffic congestion.

But turn down a country road and the scene changes. More than 200 wineries are tucked into the surrounding hills. Garlands of shimmering green grape vines tier gently upwards, hugging the low slopes. Although relatively young in winemaking terms, the landscape looks a bit like the Burgundy Valley in France. The eyes adjust to – what appears to be – deep-black gemstones clinging to the vines.

It is harvest time and workers are plucking fat bunches of pitch-black grapes. The Pinot Noir grape is a finicky variety, but it has thrived in Oregon, and loves the cool climate, protected by the Cascade Mountains in the East and the Coast Range mountains to the West. For me, it’s an escape from urban madness, and I relish the opportunity to get lost among the vines for several hours.

At the Sokol Blosser Winery in the Dundee Hills, they are pouring an inky-black Pinot Noir. The Sokol Blosser Winery is family run, and the 85 acre estate is organically-certified. It is one of the original wineries in the region and was started in 1971.

A sip of Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir is both shadowy and sweet, with flavors of black cherry and earthy minerals. It is a delicious plunge into darkness on a brilliantly sunny Oregon afternoon.

I sampled the food, wine and spirits of the Portland, Oregon region September 27 through October 2, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Potatoes! Sweet!

The harvest at Restoration Farm has taken on an autumnal hue. Heaps of sweet potatoes shine like burnished copper nuggets in the mid-morning sun.

How to prepare? Savory or sweet?

Sweet Potato Walnut Bread is a hearty autumn treat, scented with whole wheat, cinnamon and earthy walnuts. The sugars in the grated sweet potato caramelize as the bread bakes, creating a luscious sticky-toffee quality.

Sweet Potato Walnut Bread

(Adapted from “From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce” by the Madison Area CSA Coalition)

1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cups vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Sift flours, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in a mixing bowl. Combine oil, eggs, and vanilla in a separate bowl and mix well. Stir grated sweet potatoes into wet mixture. Combine wet ingredients with flour mixture. Stir in walnuts until just combined. Spread batter in loaf pan. Bake until wooden skewer inserted in center comes out dry, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Let stand on a rack for 15 minutes. Use a sharp knife along the edges of the pan to release the bread and continue to cool.

In the fields, there are signs that the growing season at Restoration Farm is drawing to a close …

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Strange Visitors

Halloween is approaching and it’s time to revisit those spine-chilling horror film classics like War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. At Restoration Farm, there has been an invasion of extraterrestrial produce. Are you ready for Attack of the Kohlrabi?

Invasion of the Daikon Radish?

Night of the Chinese Cabbage?

We have two options, Earthlings. Run for our lives … or make slaw!

Kohlrabi is a relative of broccoli, and is thought by some to be a hybrid of cabbage and turnip. The globe is actually a swollen stem. It can be eaten raw or cooked, and is similar to a crisp Granny Smith apple, although not as sweet.

The Daikon radish resembles a giant ghostly carrot. The white flesh can be eaten raw or cooked, and has the sharp, slightly pungent taste of turnip.

Chinese Cabbage invaded planet Earth in Asia in 500 A.D. While not offering much in terms of nutritional value, the lacy leaves are great in stir fries and soups, delivering lots of fiber and few calories.

The best thing about slaw is you really don’t need a recipe. The food processor is your best weapon against attack. Mine contains a full head of cabbage, one large radish, one head of kohlrabi and some sliced peppers. The dressing is 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 4 tablespoons sesame oil, 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon honey and 1 teaspoon dry mustard whisked together. Toss with chopped peanuts and black sesame seeds.

So, if you happen to hear something go bump in the night, or come face-to-face with an alien at the farm stand, make peace with a big bowl of slaw.

May the Fork be with you.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved