There is nothing better than a weekend getaway to visit a good friend, particularly when that friend lives in a city like Portland. Last weekend I visited my pal Emily there. Emily and I met 18 years ago in a photography class we both took as a creative outlet from jobs that robbed us of our free time and inner peace. Then and now, Emily challenges herself to learn new things and channel her abundant creativity (then it was photography, now it's metal smith jewelry making). I took that course to pursue my love of photography and, more urgently, to provide a creative outlet to balance the workaholic life of a first year law firm associate.
Then Emily and I lived in San Francisco. When we needed stress relief, we stole away together on day trips to Bodega Bay, Napa, and Tahoe and vacationed in NYC, Hawaii, and Fiji. Several years ago she moved to Portland and now we try to plan several visits each year -- in her city or mine. Luckily I'm now in a job I love, but any job can be overwhelming and stressful at times. Emily still is the person I turn to when I need a break. Just an evening on the couch with her and a good bottle of Pinot Noir fuels me up to go back to my daily routine with a little more perspective on what's really important in life. So off to Portland I went to get that much needed relief.
Portland has such a chill vibe, but it is bursting at the seams with creativity. When you plan your visit, consult a trusted guide to steer you to some places fitting your appetite and budget. One source for tantalizing tips is Jen Stevenson's fun little guide called 100 Best Places to Stuff Your Faces. I've eaten at many great restaurants in Portland, but my all time favorite is the original Pok Pok for Andy Ricker's authentic and crave-inducing Thai food. Since it was closed temporarily, we had to get our fix elsewhere. Here's where we ate last weekend that I recommend to any Portland visitor:
Coava Coffee Roasters - 1300 SE Grand, Portland, OR
This place is a must for coffee aficionados. I've been a fan of Coava coffee beans for a couple of years after discovering them at my local coffee shop in Oakland (Bica Coffeehouse). So I stopped by Coava's industrial chic brew bar and roastery to grab a cappuccino and drip coffee chaser to go and was delighted to find my breakfast there too: absolutely decadent pastries from Little T Baker.
Tip: watch Jerry Seinfeld and Fred Armisen visit Coava in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Sen Yai Noodles - 3384 SE Division Street, Portland, OR
Sen Yai is a sister restaurant to Pok Pok with a focus on Thai noodle dishes. It was a fun place to grab a quick lunch (and a cocktail). Emily chose Phat Thai, featuring thin rice noodles in a tamarand-fish sauce with peanuts. I opted for something a little more unusual: Lakhana's Kuaytiaw/Mee Krob Lat Na, which lured me by the menu's description: "Home-style recipe from an old friend who makes this classic for her husband and four sons when they are hungry and missing their village in Thailand." It featured fried crispy wide rice noodles with pork, egg, phak khanaa (Chinese broccoli) stewed in yellow bean sauce and soy sauce. It was weird and wonderful. In faux "ladies who lunch" fashion, I polished it off with a cocktail mixing vodka with Thai Basil flavored Pok Pok Som Drinking Vinegar. Deliciously refreshing.
Ava Gene's - 3377 SE Division Street, Portland, OR
We stopped by Ava Gene's for cocktails and appetizers on Saturday night. Arriving promptly at 5:00, we nabbed seats at the bar. The Derby Revival (pictured left) was my first pick -- a frothy and balanced beverage featuring rye whiskey, grapefruit, pecan, honey and cinnamon. I also loved The Bad Penny, their twist on a classic Manhattan with Bourbon, Bianco Vermouth, Nardini Tagliatella and bitters, while Emily loved her Fratelli Nuovi, a sultry update on a Dark and Stormy with Ramazzotti, lime, 151 Rum, Ginger Beer, Muscovado, and Tiki Bitters.
On the savory side, we devoured the Gnocco Fritto (a delectable, hollowed fried dough) with proscuitto, parmigiano, chiles and honey, a generous wedge of pecorino cheese, and an insanely good salad of Apples, Delicata Squash, Peanuts and Chiles. The salad also featured rice grown by Pennie Lane's organic farm on Sauvie Island. The rice was fried and rounded out the salad with an added richness and complexity. It was a memorable and fun dish.
Ava Gene's menu is classically rustic Roman fare and the atmosphere is sexy. It should be on everyone's list of places to dine in Portland. Plan ahead and make a reservation far in advance to fully enjoy this uber popular spot.
Roman Candle - 3377 SE Division Street, Portland, OR
Roman Candle is a great spot for a casual dinner. You order at the counter after perusing their selection of slab style pizzas and sit at community tables. We ordered and loved the Tuscan Calvary Salad with raw shredded kale, garlic, chiles, lemon and a dusting of sarvecchio cheese and a few slices of pizza: Margherita for some and Mushroom (maitake mushrooms, taleggio, ricotta, mozzarella, and rosemary) for me. Delicious, fast, and easy, it is the perfect place to take kids and people who want great food without any fuss.
Salt & Straw - various locations in Portland
This is, quite simply, unadulterated ice cream ecstasy.
It's a good thing there's a long line at Salt & Straw, since it gives you plenty of time to study the extensive flavor menu. I found it hard to choose, but I landed on the Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache.
I've had some really good ice cream in my life -- Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphrey Slocombe, Smitten, and Ici (Berkeley) among them, but I proclaimed my scoop at Salt and Straw to be, quite possibly, the very best I'd ever had. More research may be required in order to confirm these findings.
On our way out, I noticed a couple sharing a tasting flight of three scoops. That's definitely in the cards for my next visit.
On Emily's couch and cozy club chairs, we did, in fact, consume a few bottles of Pinot Noir -- all beside a roaring fire and in the company of her husband, daughter, and lovable lab. I returned home Sunday with a full belly, a warm heart, and a nourished soul.