Veritable Quandary, Portland, OR

I have been skiing vigorously all day, and I’m as tired as a dog – so what you’re getting here is going to be a spot shorter than usual. Veritable Quandary (VQ to locals) is a bar and restaurant serving killer-fantastic cocktails, and food which is thoroughly decent if not extraordinary. It’s right next to the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, with an excellent view of the Willamette river. Look out for the portrait on the inner wall of the conservatory featuring someone looking like a female, Victorian Charles Atlas.

The drinks are simply fantastic. At the top of the page is a VQ-8 – the house Bloody Mary, made with a home-infused beet vodka, making it a gorgeous, lurid magenta and giving the whole drink wonderfully earthy depth. Try the aromatic martini made with limoncello and a lavender-infused vodka (again, made in the bar) – wonderful stuff.

Another time, I think I might be tempted to visit VQ for their drinks and bar snacks alone. I had one of those bar snacks as a starter – these dates (left), wrapped in pancetta and stuffed with goat’s cheese and Marcona almonds. Lovely sticky, sweet, salty, crispy, squashy things to nibble alongside a drink. Dr W’s snackish starter was a very tasty rabbit terrine (below), served with huge hunks of fresh, toasted brioche, a couple of mustards and some chutney.

Main courses thrilled me less. Barbecued boneless beef short rib was always going to be unsophisticated, but the saucing was altogether too much, and the meat itself felt sad and overdone (although this could have been a result of a too-fierce sauce masking the joint’s own flavour). The barley risotto it was perched on top of, though, was great, full of chunks of apple and roast butternut squash. Dr W’s steak was…a steak. A perfectly nice steak, although we both felt we could have happily swapped it and the short rib for a few more of those far more interesting starters.

Full of meat and cocktails, we had two $1 truffles for dessert. They were sticky, dense and coated the inside of your mouth beautifully. I’ve since heard from friends that other desserts are also great – the home-made ice-creams and sorbets (look for flavours like roasted hazelnut, spiced cider and red wine-pomegranate) and the souffles got a particular mention. Head to VQ for views, cocktails, dessert and nibbles – and, like many other Portland restaurants, uncommonly attractive waiting staff. What’s going on there?

Tanuki, Portland, OR

Two pieces of background cultural information before we begin. First up, a Tanuki is an alcoholic, raccoon-dog, Japanese trickster god, who (as in the picture to the right) has a habit of using his scrotum as a disguise, an umbrella, a weapon, a makeshift bivouac and so forth. (If you’re one of those for whom one classical Japanese scrotum-humour Tanuki woodcut is not enough, see this page to get your fill.) He’s also a patron god of bars…which leads us to point two. The Portland joint named for Tanuki is not exactly a restaurant. It’s a very tiny izakaya – a sake bar offering salty, spicy foods to accompany the drinks. And woe betide you if you turn up here expecting sushi, because you’ll be a) disappointed and b) liable to be beheaded by the angry whirling blades of Janis Martin, a chef who just happens to offer one of the best-value and most aggressively delicious omakase menus I’ve sampled. (Janis says it’s not, strictly, an izakaya, but an akachochin – a sort of dive bar. Don’t believe her. This is top-quality dining in a place that just looks like a dive bar.)

We pushed open the door to find a little room seating only 16, lighting that felt like a photographic darkroom, a blue fug of savoury, perfumed steam coming from the kitchen, a soundtrack of post-punk theremin music, and a TV balanced on top of the sake fridge showing a Japanese chef disembowelling herself. (Comedy, I think. These things don’t necessarily translate, but they’re sure as hell fascinating.) I am not usually prone to snap judgements, but from the moment the picture on the television changed to three rubberised Japanese zombies whose eyeballs kept falling out, I was pretty sure I was going to like Tanuki.

The menu embraces Okinawan, Japanese and Korean dishes, all designed to complement (and get you to order more) sake and beer. If you’re familiar with Korean seasoning and heat, you’ll be at home with what’s going on on the plates here. What’s on offer changes daily, but you can expect to find tofu made fresh in-house, real grated wasabi, local and impeccably raised meats, home-made pickles and some extravagantly weird spicing on the list every day.

Tanuki is pretty uncompromising; this is not a menu that panders to the daft and squeamish. ‘Crab brain’ miso, Japanese drinking vinegars and tiny duck hearts threaded on a bamboo skewer take pride of place. The bar is in-your-face scuzzy, the food designed to cram every taste bud you own with sensation. I chatted briefly with Janis about the off-beat setup here, and she mentioned something that drives me mad in Europe and clearly drives her mad in America too – the tendency of new ethnic restaurants to cater solely to high-end, top-class diners. None of your gleaming walls, shimmering waitresses and horrendously overpriced sushi here, more’s the joy. Somehow, I suspect that eel on a stick simply wouldn’t taste as good with a cloth napkin, anyway.

Order sake, and plenty of it. We chose a Korean gukhwaju – a rice wine flavoured with mountain chrysanthemum. Those intimidating-sounding drinking vinegars are actually delicious, and are a good non-alcoholic way to calm burning tongues; there’s only the slightest hint at an acidic fermentation behind a sweet mulberry, plum or strawberry syrupiness that seems designed to quench and soothe.

You can order directly from the menu, or pick a price-point for an omakase meal selected by the chef. We asked the waitress (helpfulness in human form – what I wouldn’t give for a dose of American service culture back in the UK) what sort of amount she recommended two hungry people spend, and she said that $20 a head should be plenty for a full meal. Ten courses later, we left reeling and plump. Two dollars a course per head!

Dishes seemed to get larger as the night progressed. We opened with a soft and meaty hamachi tuna sashimi, seasoned with some of that fresh wasabi and shoyu. We’d barely finished it when a dish of creamy and impeccably fresh uni sashimi (alive, says Janis, until the moment she orders it), on paper-thin slivers of lemon with sweet soy and more of that wasabi arrived. Hoshi kyui, a jellyfish, cucumber and wild herb salad in a hot and sour dressing, packed a fish-sauce umami bite that had us reaching for the drinks and then dipping straight back into the salad the moment we’d swallowed every mouthful. Skewered eel fillets in a sweet soy glaze, oily, salty and crisp, arrived fresh and hot from the grill, accompanied by some of the pickles that are made weekly in the kitchen.

Nasu to ebi nikkei was one of the larger dishes, and came with pearl-like sticky, short-grain polished rice. Elegantly de-veined shrimp, so fresh that they gave to the teeth with a crunch, were poached in a cinnamon tea, and served with a miso-dense eggplant and bok choi preparation. Things were starting to get seriously spicy by now, and our thoughtful server arrived with a pitcher of iced water.

The kitchen uses a huge number of different soy sauces. Shiro, tamari – you name it, it’s probably represented somewhere on the menu. We had two delicate, light meat balls made from wild boar, which came drenched with a gummy, sugary Korean soy.

Suki wagarashi nearly had me beaten. These pork ribs, cooked until the meat was falling stickily and glutinously from the bone, were rubbed in a Japanese mustard and sesame marinade that packed so much heat that I stopped being able to feel my lips. Fortunately, the next couple of courses stepped back from the spice a bit – lonngganisa, a fatty, porky Pinoy sausage, came sandwiched between two deliciously crisp and cooling slices of fresh grilled lotus root. And joy of joys – a baked char siu bun.

They saved the best, spiciest, saltiest and largest dish for last. Jajang bop – a huge claypot stuffed to the brim with steaming hot rice layered with shredded, salted, gelatinous pork, cubes of the kitchen’s fresh tofu and some unbelievably tasty fermented black beans. A raw egg lay on top with a generous portion of kim chee, dosed with a sinus-clearing amount of chillies, some fresh herbs and fat, long beansprouts. We stirred the bowl with chopsticks to scramble the egg through the hot rice, and kept on eating long after our distended stomachs and burning tongues were screaming to our brains to stop.

The lighting (and my fear of chefly beheading – Janis seems quite strict) stopped me from taking any pictures of what we ate, but there are plenty on Tanuki’s own website if you want to get a feel for the look of things; they’re very accurate depictions of what you end up eating. I only get to spend about one week a year in Portland, if that, and it’s fast becoming one of my favourite cities for eating in the world. Something has to be done about this parlous state of affairs; I wonder how the guys at Tanuki would feel if I turned up in their garden with a raccoon-dog-scrotum tent and set up house?

Typhoon, Portland, OR

Update, Jan 2009 – I’ve just been back to Typhoon, one year after I wrote the post below. It’s still just as good as it was last year – if not better – and the changes that have appeared on the menu since I was last here are fabulous. Try the lemongrass barbecued chicken if you get a chance, and tell them I sent you!

Remember Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas? Gourmet Magazine had heaped hyperbolic praise on it, and called it the USA’s best Thai restaurant. We had a good, but not shockingly good meal there in December, but I left unconvinced that the continent lacked any Thai places better than this. What do you know – it’s barely two months later, and I’ve found somewhere that beats it hollow.

We visited Typhoon‘s glossy, vampy Broadway branch at the Lucia hotel in Portland (tel. 503 224 8285). The Lucia is a very stylish boutique joint – all modern murals on the toilet doors, architectural flower arrangements, frosted glass, leather, lacquer and velvet. Typhoon’s styling sits well here, and the restaurant was busy both nights we visited (be sure to book).

Service is tight and charming. We’d asked for a booth when booking our first meal at Typhoon, but arrived to find that the booth that had been earmarked for us was still full (writhingly so) of a couple who were maybe enjoying their meal a little too much. No problem for the hostess – she put us at what she and the waitress referred to as ‘the Mafia table’, a great big booth meant to seat about six, on a platform commanding one end of the restaurant, with a great people-watching view. Thoughtfully, both places were set so that we were next to each other on the side of the giant table with the view.

If it’s your first visit, it’s absolutely essential that you choose something interesting from the extensive tea list (there’s a link to a pdf of the full list at the bottom of the linked page) and that you order the Miang Kum for your starter. It’s the house special, and a rare dish that I’ve not found in any other Thai restaurant. Miang Kum is a peasant-style dish consisting of freshly roast peanuts (not a hint of bitterness here – the peanuts had been roasted that evening); tiny preserved shrimp; little cubes of ginger; slivers of bird’s eye chilli; miniature dice of lime, flesh, skin and all; shallot pieces; and freshly toasted, shredded coconut. You take a pinch of each ingredient and wrap it in a fresh spinach leaf, daubed with some of chef Bo Kline’s sweet signature sauce, and pop the little parcel in your mouth. An astonishing burst of flavours results – bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and deeply savoury all at once. I roared through the shrimp rather faster than the other ingredients, but our attentive waitress went straight to the kitchen to find some more – and when we came back later in the week and ordered the Miang Kum again, she recognised us and brought out an extra bowl of the shrimp. There’s service.

This dish sets the quality for the rest of the meal. Ingredients are fresh and bright, and sourcing is impeccable – the prawns at Typhoon are wild, not farmed, and only cuts like tenderloin and sirloin are served. “How,” asked Dr W, “are they making things taste this much without MSG?” I can only guess that there was magic in the fish sauce.

Almost everything we ate on both visits was a standout. Papaya salad was clean, fresh and full of zip. The house fried rice arrived looking unexceptional – but once in the mouth was nearly good enough to make me give up cooking. Pineapple rice, full of curry spices and the fresh fruit, could have made a generous meal on its own. Eggplant Lover made the most of this vegetable’s ability to soak up flavours (black bean in this case) and of its gorgeously velvety texture, contrasting beautifully with chunks of tofu. The larb, lip-numbingly hot, was much better than the Lotus of Siam version. Dr W ordered half a five-spice roast duck with buns from a specials list and hasn’t stopped talking about it since. The beef with grapes was inspired. And neither meal left us with room for pudding.

Sometimes I look around myself in Cambridge and wonder what the hell we’re doing. Perhaps our problem is high property prices making restaurant pitches unaffordable to everybody but the mega-chains like Wagamama, All Bar One, Pizza Express, Pret a Manger and Subway. This doesn’t excuse the downright lousy quality of some of our independent restaurants, though – we’re particularly weak on good Asian places. We don’t have any good, well-priced food of the sort that Portland seems to offer several times on every city block. Don’t the English care about what they’re eating? If you’re lucky enough to be in Portland, grab the opportunity to visit Typhoon and congratulate yourself on being in a city where identikit cardboard meals aren’t standard.

Andina, Portland, OR

Andina (1314 NW Glisan, Portland 97209, tel. 503 228 9535) is the only Peruvian restaurant I’ve ever come across. It is, at the time of writing, one of Portland’s most popular and fashionable restaurants. I should have paid attention to this fact and booked rather than just rolling up on a Thursday night in the hope of finding a free table.

There wasn’t one, so Dr W and I ended up in the bar area, sitting hip-to-hip on a window bench at a very small table. Surprisingly, this seating arrangement turned out to be absolutely delightful; a man in a Panama hat played the guitar and sang so close to our seats it felt like he was serenading us; we tiled our table with two rounds of tapas; we were able to squish up against one another very pleasantly; and we came home filled with proximity- and music-engendered lust (and oysters). All the same, I don’t recommend the bench if you’re dining with anybody whose thighs and manly ribs you do not feel comfortable being pressed against.

Peruvian food is completely new to me. Almost all the South American food I’d tasted to date had been based around corn – Mexican tamales, nachos and a million meaty, tomato-y things wrapped in tortillas. There was the Chilean place in Madrid years ago, which I hope is non-typical, where we had rice cooked with some tomato puree, some mince, and a fried egg. Here at Andina the starches are quite different, and the emphasis switches from meat to seafood. Peruvian (or what this restaurant is calling Novoandean) food has some distinct Japanese influences as well, alongside some really interesting pre-Colombian flavours. It makes for a mixture of flavours you’ll be hard-pushed to find anywhere else. There are also some extremely handsome waiters. I like this place.

Your meal opens with a moist quinoa bread served with three ajíes, or Peruvian spicy salsas. The passion fruit and habañero one in particular is to die for – and these have enough kick to prompt you to explore the exhaustive drinks list.

Around the bar, bottles of rum lie on their sides, infusing with fruits to the accompaniment of salsa music. There are some superb cocktails on offer here (Portland seems to be a great town for cocktails), and we particularly enjoyed a frozen something called Guanabana…do doo…do doo do, which was made with banana-infused rum, guanabana puree, nutmeg and gloriously creamy almond milk. If you’re not on the booze, you’ll find yourself well catered for, with some fresh juices and concoctions like chica morada, made from purple corn, lime, pinapple and sugar syrup.

Potatoes, of course, make up a goodly proportion of Andean carbs. I wasn’t expecting them to provide colour as well, though, so the lurid violet of the Causa Morada, a cake of mashed purple potato sandwiched with smoked trout and flavoured with key lime juice, came as a real surprise. This is a visual treat, and tasted absolutely great. (Portland Food and Drink, a website I found immensely helpful in making restaurant choices in the city, has a great photo of the octopus version here.) I found the tortilla (a thick potato and onion omelette) a bit stodgy and certainly less exciting, but Dr W disagreed with me and wolfed the whole thing.

There were several oyster varieties on offer, most from the nearby Pacific coast, alongside a few Atlantic ones. We went for the local Kumamoto oysters. These are one of my favourite oysters; small, but with a deeply fluted shell, they’re juicy but not large enough to be snotty. Zingy ingredients like mangos, radish, shitake mushrooms, ginger, cucumber and more of those chillies made up the pisco rocoto, chalaquita, mango-radish and nikkei salsas served alongside, all a great foil for the richness of the little oysters.

Ají de huacatay pops up in several places on the menu, and the allergy-aware waiters will warn you that this is a peanut-based sauce. It makes for a spicy dip for deliciously fresh prawns coated with smashed quinoa and deep fried. (This is an unbelievably toothsome, crispy way to ‘breadcrumb’ food, and has inspired me to ignore my deep-seated dislike of pretend-doctor Gillian McKeith, the awful poo lady, and buy a pack of quinoa to experiment with.) The
ají de huacatay also serves as a dip for the very savoury beef-heart kabobs – slim strips of the flavourful, chewy muscle of the heart, marinated and grilled on sticks.

Chorizo was good, but I kind of wished I’d ordered something else – I love the stuff, but it wasn’t very new or exciting compared to some of the other things on the menu. Musciame de Atun (which I think was meant to come with some kind of sauce, but which arrived naked) was something I actively disliked: a cured tuna, dried and almost gamey, presented in slices. This is more likely to be my problem than the restaurant’s, though; I’ve never found a cured tuna I have enjoyed – and Dr Weasel loved it.

Everybody’s favourite South American ingredient, chocolate, stars on the dessert menu and in some great after-dinner drinks. The Torta de Chocolate was what I’ve always imagined the River Cafe cookbook’s infamous Chocolate Nemesis (a mysteriously non-working recipe which has ruined many dinner parties) should have tasted like. This made me giddy. Dense, not too sweet, unbelievably creamy, moist and rich, it’s worth a flight to Portland just to sample it. I rounded off the meal with a boozy hot chocolate drink.

Andina deserves its wall-full of awards. If you’re visiting for the first time, I’d recommend doing what we did and going for the tapas rather than the large plates, so you can get a good sampling of the unusual flavours on offer. There are vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menus on offer as well, so you can take your picky friends.

Radio silence

I hope you’ve all been missing me. Dr W and I are away for a few weeks’ work and (mostly) skiing on the West Coast of America. Normal service will resume in mid-February, but in the meantime I encourage anyone who happens to be in Portland, Oregon, to run as fast as they can to Typhoon at the Lucia Hotel on Broadway, where the Thai food is even better than it was at Lotus of Siam in Vegas. (LoS is the restaurant that Gourmet Magazine called the best Thai in the USA. Perhaps I caught them on a bad night and Typhoon on a very good one, but although LoS gave us a great meal, Typhoon gave us one that’s making me consider a bigamous marriage so I can get a green card and come and live in Portland so that I can eat there every night.)