It is hard to believe that not long ago there was no mecca for pasty, thin-haired dorks cursed with bad skin and blessed with unbounded cultural irony, postmodern fashion sensibilities and the ability to apply calculus to the organization of MP3 files.
But in the hipster kingdom of Portland, Ore., they reign supreme: Tube socks are royal garb, public transportation is a good excuse to don a porkpie hat and a skinny tie, and skin blemishes are, like the city itself, sexy-ugly. More to the point, these people feed with even more style than they apply to mustache waxing and with considerably more substance.
Locavorism, innovative chefs and creative venues have all been anointed into the elite strata of vintage T-shirts, home brews and long boards, and the result is a kind of inverse to the rest of the country. In Portland, local food feels like the norm. It’s easy to think that a Portland chef would not believe that there is a place—called the rest of the planet—where frozen foods and volume condiments arrive in giant trucks from thousands of miles away.
It’s not true, of course—the majority of Portland’s restaurants operate within the status quo. But it’s easy to eat out, for weeks at a time, and never touch that kind of normalcy. On a recent trip, I didn’t have time to go to half of the local-centric restaurants I wanted to—I missed out on pandanus leaf at Pok Pok, brunch at Tasty n Sons, charcuterie at Olympic Provisions and tapas at Toro Bravo—but I still fatted myself like a doomed calf, glazed my eyeballs with carrot butter and got nasty with everything from doughnuts to duck.
Le Pigeon is the kind of restaurant that is almost commonplace in New York and San Francisco these days—casual vibe, impeccable food, honest prices. It sets itself apart by being about the size of the average dovecote and by never allowing chef, owner and tattooed madman Gabriel Rucker to leave the small open kitchen. Instead, he is chained to the heavy leg of the burner where he bobs and weaves (the exhaust hood is lower than his lank), and delivers lamb’s tongue, pig’s ear, bone marrow boudin blanc and whatever concoction strikes him with the seasonal ingredients at hand.
Muscular, jovial restaurateuring beats cage fighting any day, and Rucker is just the kind of delightfully macho chef to pull it off. A beef cheek bourguignon may occasionally be over-salted, but one hardly cares. The menu is daring, swashbuckling even.
Less drama-filled but more broadly sensual is the experience at Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast. A six-course prix-fixe menu changes weekly and is served at large communal tables. An open prep area sets the stage for operatic servings of each impeccably presented course.
At Le Pigeon, I had been developing a theory that there’s a kind of machismo inherent in new American chefs so I doubted Pomeroy’s claim that a restaurant called “Beast” would have a distinctly feminine feel. But I was wrong.
Even Pomeroy’s charcuterie plate exuded a comforting, delicate assurance. The courses and palate cleansers (like a citrus and Campari sorbet before the flat-iron steak) flowed together with touches of understated ingenuity. The optional wine pairings were profoundly well-matched. As capable and flesh-oriented as Beast’s offerings were, Pomeroy’s skills came through in a clever salad, a fine soup, and a farro, pea and porcini risotto.
Pomeroy will be a contestant on Iron Chef America this September, so maybe she’s a little bit macho.
Santa Fe has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to food talent, but it’s also true that skilled chefs who are willing to experiment with menus, atmosphere and accessible pricing aren’t exactly racing to open eateries here.
It’s a problem that needs solving. But how do we encourage a boom in innovative eating without attracting all the pasty people?
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