Friday, June 27, 2008

The Portland Report

Last weekend I got sent to Portland, Oregon for a work trip. That said, it was one of those trips where a well-to-do company treats its valued customers like gold for a couple of days and then tells them about new product innovations and picks their brains to find out what other directions they should be looking in for other developments. All this to say there was really only one day of work involved; the rest was dinners, receptions, and some sightseeing. As far as work trips go, I think I might be spoiled forever.

Portland has a reputation for being a local food town, but because most of my meals were paid for and scheduled by the company, I didn’t really get to choose where I ate most of the time. Not that we were badly fed; quite the opposite. It’s just that I don’t think I really sampled much local flavor, but that’s all right; it’s a lovely city and one that I think I’ll be returning to in future, Chris in tow, to check out more of the sights and do some serious locavoring.

Here, then, with caveats, is a report of what I ate, and where. I travelled with two members of the association I work for, and both of them were lovely people: a woman in her fifties and a man who’s a year younger than me. We were all pretty wrecked by the time we got to the Marriott in Portland, as we’d been awake since 5 a.m. and had to change planes in Chicago. I don’t like flying, so my adrenaline rush had just worn off and I was shaky and sweaty; none of us had eaten much that day. We checked in and agreed to meet downstairs in an hour to go forage for something to eat.

The concierge proved to be a valuable resource; we wanted to walk, and we wanted someplace where we could just get a light meal and a drink. Fortunately, our hotel faced the Willamette River, and there was a nearby boardwalk with several restaurants. She suggested that we check out the happy hour at the Marina Fish House, a hexagonal “floating” restaurant just off the boardwalk. You walk out to it on a wooden pier, and from the upstairs patio, there’s an amazing view of the water, the bridge, and all the boats going by.

The food wasn’t gourmet by any stretch, but there was an excellent selection of bar snacks at great prices – crab and seafood cakes for $2.95, for example, or oysters on the half shell at $1.50 apiece. Us girls ordered cosmopolitans, our companion had a couple of bloody marys, and we snacked happily for an hour or two in what had turned into brilliantly hot and sunny weather. In fact, I got a little sunburn on my shoulders. Yes, in the Pacific Northwest, I got my first sunburn of the year. Who knew?

In any event, it was a great place to spend an afternoon, and we all felt much refreshed afterwards. We went back to the hotel to freshen up before the evening’s welcome reception at the hotel, where I drank some very nice Oregon pinot noir (Duck Pond, I believe the label was) and we availed ourselves of some heavy appetizers (sliders, spring rolls etc. – nothing exciting). By 8 p.m. (11 p.m. for our body clocks) we were all exhausted and headed back to our rooms for some peace and quiet.

Despite being exhausted, I slept horribly and woke up very early. I hate jet lag. I was glad I’d ordered a light breakfast of fruit, yogurt and granola from room service – first time in eons that I’d had room service, and it was very nice. I even took a photo of it. Out I went to check out the Japanese and Rose gardens, which were lovely. I stayed a little too long, though, and by the time I got back into the downtown bit of the city, I was starving and had no idea where to eat lunch. I thought about taking the streetcar up to the Pearl District, but it was Sunday and I feared a lot of places would be shut. Fortunately, my little guidebook listed a Thai restaurant on a street I was near, so I headed for it and had some very tasty tom yum goong (chicken lemongrass and coconut soup) at the Hotel Lucia branch of Typhoon. It’s a small classy restaurant and it was pretty quiet on Sunday afternoon, so I was served quickly, if absentmindedly. I had a lovely iced glass of mango juice and decided to follow the guidebook’s suggestion and begin with what the author described as an indispensable dish, Miang Kum. The menu calls it a “rare Thai peasant dish. Wrap a pinch of toasted coconut, shallot, ginger, lime, peanut, dried shrimp and Thai chili in a spinach leaf with Bo's signature sauce, then pop in your mouth to burst in a medley of flavors.”

I disagreed, significantly. The plate arrived with a stack of very fresh spinach leaves, alongside a ramekin of sticky sweet brown sauce (tamarind, I think) and very small piles of the other ingredients. The Thai chilis were sliced but not seeded, and one was all it took to convince me that they were a bad idea. The limes were chopped up with the rind still on, and the dried shrimp were microscopic. I made a valiant effort to eat it all, and managed most of it, but it wasn’t my idea of fun. I would have vastly preferred salad rolls, but I’ll know for next time.

The soup was delicious, though there was far too much of it. When they say large, they mean it – this was almost a tureen. I ate 2/3 of it and it lasted me until dinner, five hours later. If you’ve never had tom yum goong, it’s a lemongrass and chili infused coconut milk broth with slices of white chicken and chunks of fresh mushrooms, finished with a garnish of green onion and coriander leaf. The only one I’ve had that was better is the one at Baan Thai in Centrepointe, here in Ottawa.

Dinner that night, post-shopping, was with the whole group (about 40 of us) at the Portland City Grill, a restaurant that sits atop a 30-storey office tower, with panoramic views on all sides. It was a brilliant sunny evening, and the city looked utterly stunning. We arrived to find a platter of sushi rolls, salad rolls, skewered shrimp and ahi poke (marinated raw tuna) at the centre of each table, which was delightful, especially the tuna (I really have to try making that). Then there was a lovely mixed green salad with mango vinaigrette, followed by a surf-and-turf plate consisting of a small steak (cooked medium, which was overcooked for my liking, but surprisingly tender) and a chunk of broiled monkfish, on a pile of delicious mashed potatoes with two huge asparagus spears, a wedge of roasted golden beet, and a few grilled peppers. Not bad, for group food. Dessert was vanilla crème brulée, well-executed except for the peculiar dollop of whipped cream in top, which I ate first. The fresh raspberry was nice, though.

Unlimited Oregon pinot noir flowed throughout the meal, which was wonderful, and they even had decent decaf to finish the meal. The view made the whole thing sing, though – what a gorgeous place, with the views of the wide river and the green-topped West Hills on either side.

The following day was the “working” day, and they served us breakfast in the Presidential Suite at the hotel and lunch on-site at their HQ in Salem; nothing to write home about. Dinner, however, was quite the production, as it was on a riverboat cruise down the Willamette. Drinks were served on the upper bar deck, along with olives, cheese and charcuterie. The hardworking bartender was shaking up pink drinks as fast as he could, poor guy. (They were yummy, too.) Downstairs, dinner was served at tables with views out the huge windows of mansions built on the banks of the river on both sides. After simple green salads, we were offered a choice of either steak or salmon and since I’d had the steak the night before, I went with the fish. It was nicely cooked, and generously sized, with an herb-infused coconut milk sauce and some uninspired rice and veggies alongside. The steak was delish, as I learned thanks to my co-traveler’s offer of a taste, and came with a gorgonzola butter sauce and potatoes. Desserts were out of a bakery box, but decent: a choice between key lime pie (could have been tarter and more fluid, but tasty) and New York cheesecake. Quite a reasonable meal for shipboard fare, I must say, though not groundbreaking.

It was also the last full meal we had until the following night, sadly. Due to some flight delays, I had time to grab breakfast at the hotel, but that was it until we got to Dulles airport in D.C. and found a decent restaurant to have a sit-down dinner. If you’re ever stuck in Dulles, I recommend Harry’s in the B concourse – great turkey burger and coleslaw, which hit the spot nicely alongside a glass of shiraz.

All that said, I nearly cried into my plate the following night when, back at home, Chris grilled up some simple pork chops and peppers, alongside potatoes and onions cooked in a tinfoil packet. I was craving simple food after a weekend of few choices, rich sauces and desserts, and an unfamiliar bed. It’s nice to travel, but it is so wonderful to come home.

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