Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tequila Research Findings

The column I wrote for the Portland Phoenix this month was a little outside my comfort zone. I was assigned a topic for February's "Food Feast": tequila. (Portland Phoenix, A tequila-tasting education: Sampling the nectar of the gods at Zapoteca

Prior to my research, I knew very little about tequila: I like it, and Patron is expensive. So in order to write a knowledgeable column about the spirit, I had to take to the bars for an on-the-fly education. Rough assignment. 

My first stop was The North Point with my friend Luke, who has always tried to talk tequila with me, but I never had a place in my brain for the info. I tapped him for recommendations and as a drinking buddy, figuring he'd know the bars around town with the best selection and could talk the lingo with the bartenders. 

They're so friendly at The North Point. The bartender and the owner were very excited to be part of our tequila tasting, serving up a flight of the three styles of Kah tequila. Kah is fun because it comes in white, yellow, and black skull-shaped bottles. The reposado was my favorite, and it turned out to be my favorite style of most brands. 

I enjoyed the Centenario reposado, which was $13, I believe. Reposados are aged two to twelve months, and so are more nuanced and mellow than unaged or silver tequilas. Anejo tequilas are aged longer in charred barrels, so they can taste smoky like scotch whiskey.

After two Centenarios (silver and reposado), I tried the Patron reposado, which was a step down in my mind, after to the Centenario. It tasted comparatively flat. Also, drinking tequila is not a cheap hobby; my tab was $40 for the three drinks. 

The following weekend, I finished up my research at Zapoteca, mecca for tequila selections. Zapoteca has upwards of 80 brands of tequila and mezcal and offers nine tequila flights. The flights are half-ounce pours of one brand of tequila in the three styles. 

I tried Tres Generaciones flight ($18), which tasted distinctly different between the silver and the reposado. I didn't notice too many different flavors in the anejo. A spicy side of sangrita, made from fire-roasted tomatillos serves to cleanse your palate between sips. 

Tequila-loving Luke was along for this trip too, and after the bartender picked up that he was an aficionado, he was offered this Herradura Port Cask Finish Reposado. It was heavenly; very full-bodied for a reposado, tasting more like an anejo with some sweetness from the port cask aging. 

After my flight, I spotted a beautiful minimalist bottle on the shelf and we ordered a drink from it - Casamigos, which turns out is George Clooney's brand. It was very good, but apparently very expensive (by the bottle) for what it is. There are a lot of celebrity-owned tequila brands, ones from Justin Timberlake (901), Sammy Hagar (Cabo Wabo), John Paul DeJoria (aka Paul Mitchell; Patron), and Santana (Casa Noble). 

I learned a lot about tequila in a short time; it felt like overturning a rock and discovering all the life teeming underneath. I'm looking forward to continuing to expand my knowledge with LFK and El Rayo Cantina's selections of tequila. If like many, you fear the hangover of tequila, know that like all liquors, the better they are, the easier they are on you. After three tequila drinks, I felt fine the next day. Drink up!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fat and happy at Miyake's place

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on January 30, 2014

The pigs make a racket, squealing and grunting, anticipating another meal, as we gingerly approach on paths of melting snow and ice. I’m in Freeport, where chef Masa Miyake has turned his Freeport backyard into a full-fledged hog farm; farm manager Emily Phillips built paddocks for the pigs and moved them closer to the house for the winter.

“They’re pretty food-motivated,” laughs Phillips. The pens house four different breeds of pigs, all of them eager to sniff us. They crowd against the fence, pressing their round noses against our legs. Phillips points out different breeds as she scratches the back of a fat, black pig named Raisin.

Miyake’s farm is one of many projects keeping the Portland chef busy. In the past six years, Miyake has opened three restaurants — including his Diner which just opened its doors in the original Miyake space on Spring Street — and turned his 3.5-acre Freeport property into a breeding ground for rare and heritage varieties of pigs. Phillips cares for about 15 pigs at Miyake’s farm, breeding them in the hopes of creating uniquely flavored meat. Twenty more of their feeder pigs are being raised by the staff at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, also in Freeport. Miyake’s farm-raised pork is served in all of his restaurants, with Pai Men Miyake using the most of it in their ramen and dumplings. (The pork buns aren’t made with Miyake farm pork, since the farm doesn’t yet produce enough pork belly to supply the popular menu item.)

Miyake started his pork production by raising two breeds of pigs: Landrace and Guinea. Landrace are the typical pink pigs that are bred to be lean and muscular; Guinea hogs are a smaller, rare breed that is unique to the United States. These pigs were frequently raised by homesteaders attracted to their small stature, high fat content, and their rooting behaviors, which helped till garden beds. Phillips says chefs have grown bored with Landrace pigs and are attracted to the high fat content and flavor of Guinea hogs’ meat.

Phillips is looking forward to the birth of three litters of piglets in March. She successfully bred two Mangalitsa pigs, a curly-haired Hungarian breed that’s frequently referred to as the ‘Kobe beef’ of pork. Raisin, a Guinea hog, bred with a Ossabaw Island boar, so her piglets will be a unique hybrid. Phillips’ goal is to establish a strong breeding stock, which is a long process. In the meantime, she’s busy with the daily care of the animals and managing the restaurant’s office operations.

Restaurant co-owner and manager Will Garfield explains that chef Miyake started raising the pigs to provide his customers with a meaningful story about their food. “You can find pork anywhere,” Garfield says. “I can pick up the phone and get six different types of pork from different purveyors. But we wanted at least to be moving in a direction where we could say, this is Miyake farm pork.”

Miyake and his partners aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel with their farming endeavors. They recognize that they are first and foremost a restaurant group and will never be able to farm on the same scale as full-time farmers.

Phillips and Miyake are instead looking to differentiate themselves in the market with their unique pork and produce. Phillips says, “We live in such an amazing place with so many knowledgeable and efficient local farms that produce really quality stuff. So we’ve been trying to envision how we can dig out our little niche within that.”

Phillips took a year off from growing produce on the farm, but is planning to plant Japanese vegetable varieties this year. With her care in the fields and on the farm, and Miyake’s talent in the kitchen, the food at the Miyake restaurants is in good hands.

Find Miyake farm-raised pork at Pai Men Miyake | 188 State St. | 207.541.9204 |

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Quiet Dining at Hugo's

A. and I went to Hugo's last Friday to celebrate our two-year anniversary. The end of January is a great time of year to have a special occasion - everyone needs a mid-winter pick-me-up that doesn't coincide with New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day crowds. Plus, reservations in Portland's hot spots are plentiful this time of year. Last year we went to Fore Street and this year, we decided on Hugo's, a decision cemented by a generous gift certificate from my friend Margot (many thanks, M!). 

In case you missed it, Hugo's was purchased last year by the general manager and two chefs, who were working for longtime Executive Chef Rob Evans. I'll save all the juicy details for my book (ahem), but the evolution of Hugo's is an interesting one. Evans was known at Hugo's for his deconstructed menus, seemingly familiar dishes presented in avant-garde ways. The current management has taken Evans' ideas and run with them, creating a dining experience that's fun and accessible. 

The switch to the new management also came with a restaurant renovation, and it's a luxe environment, with beautiful woodwork, leather bar chairs and booths, and exposed brick walls. The majority of the seating is along the bar and open kitchen, which creates a more casual feeling than the food might imply. After being in the restaurant for an hour or so, I realized the atmosphere was pretty casual; the decor creates a formal feeling, but the service was casual. The bartender hummed along to Steve Miller Band while he worked and chatted with us about coffee and drinks for a while. 

A. and I had cocktails to start - you can see my Navy Grog above, the presentation of which made me laugh. This rum and grapefruit cocktail was served with a metal straw encased in an ice cone, a perfect warm-up for a frigid February night. We both ordered the tasting menu ($90 per person) and selected our courses from the three Farmed, Fished, and Foraged menus (aka meat, seafood, and vegetable focused). 

After the signature flaky biscuits arrived (and were quickly devoured), we received our first course - I had the fluke carpaccio, thinly-sliced fish with dehydrated olives and little strips of lemon. A. chose the crispy, fried sunchokes and mushrooms. 

Let me just say out of the gate that I immensely enjoyed everything I had. The portions are small-ish, but by the time you're finished five courses, two bread courses, and three little bites, you're full. The courses are paced nicely, with about ten to fifteen minutes in between. All in all, our meal took over three hours. 

My second course was roasted cauliflower with mushrooms, pine nuts, and chorizo. I don't know what the bowl was painted with, but isn't it a beautiful presentation? 

Andrew was delighted with his mussels and Brussels sprouts course. The chefs coated each piece with potato flour and fried them, and served them under a blanket of light, fluffy Hollandaise sauce. The mussels and sprouts were fantastically crunchy.

An in-between bite of Kampachi with pickled kumquats on a salt block was so fresh, tasty, with a little zing from the chili oil. 

My loup de mer fillet, a type of European seabass, was served with parsnips (roasted and fried as chips), and pickled radishes, with little dots of what tasted like lemon curd. A. had the braised beef, a rich dish full of charred onions and radishes, and topped with fried onions. 

My savory courses ended on a high note with this roasted lamb dish. Two lamb medallions were served on top of an arugula puree and celeriac "sheet," with more parsnips. The lamb was so delicious and gone in a few bites. And I'm just learning I love celeriac. 

A. had the "Neeps and Tatties," a turnip, potato, and oatmeal dish that is traditionally serve with haggis. No haggis here, instead the filling was wrapped in cabbage leaves and served with apples, mustard, and celery. 

A palate cleanser of celery sorbet, oat granola, and carrot and Urban Farm Fermentory cider gels was the most unexpected flavor of the meal. Celery sorbet sounds kind of gross, doesn't it? But it worked, sweet and cool with a lingering celery finish. 

A.'s dessert was a take on tart tatin, with apples, creme anglaise and a pie crust sliver. I did not love my dessert, "caramel," a flan over bits of broken pastry - the pastry and the custard were a little tough. I was, however, really into the little sugared citrus cubes presented alongside chocolate and brittle to end our meal. 

You can tell the food takes center stage at Hugo's. This time of year, there's room for you to sit the bar for just drinks, if you just want to sample their creative cocktails. Courses can also be ordered a la carte at $22 each. But if you can afford it (and our bill was $290 with tax and tip), Hugo's is well worth the splurge. Everything was delicious, reimagined yet approachable. 

In sitting at the bar, you do get interrupted a fair amount (with ten courses, the servers are coming and going a lot), and the food does arrive from behind you rather than from across the bar, like if you were ordering a burger at Rosie's or something. It sounds like a small thing, but I was surprised a few times by plates of food at eye level as they were being placed onto the bar in front of me. If you're looking to have a more intimate experience, maybe request a booth. 

Hugo's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

First Look: Central Provisions

The much-anticipated Central Provisions opened last night on the corner of Fore and Wharf Street. I stopped in for a (two plus hour) happy hour and had a cocktail and some small plates. The two-story restaurant is in a space which was formerly a women's clothing shop and has been beautifully redone with exposed brick and warm wood. 

The Fore Street floor has an open kitchen with bar seating and tables along the wall and front windows. The restroom is behind a beautiful sliding barn door. I didn't make my way downstairs, but I understand there's a bar and maybe an entrance to Wharf Street.

I met my friend Cupcakes and her girlfriends; we sat in the window right next to the front entrance. I remarked that if I were crotchety or not bundled up as well, that I would have been cold with the draft coming from the wall behind me and the front door. 

I enjoyed a Corpse Reviver #3.5 ($11), a bittersweet pink cocktail of Campari, bourbon, bitters, and maybe vermouth? It was delicious. There's a long list of house cocktails and several draught beers. A. enjoyed a Bissell Brothers Substance. 

The menu is all small plates, with some larger portions of a few constituting as entrees. We shared the artichoke, ricotta, and chicken skin cold plate ($10), intrigued by the chicken skin. It was finely diced and sprinkled on top, lending a really nice smoky, umami touch.

We also shared the ham and cheese croquettes served with pomegranate honey ($7) and brussels sprouts with horseradish and Pecorino cheese ($9). The brussels sprouts, while delicious, are roasted to order? So took about an hour to come out? I can't see that being sustainable, but maybe just a product of opening night.

The menu is very intriguing, with small plates of sweet breads, skate wing, razor clams, suckling pig, and sardines. I love that the menu is all small plates, encouraging sharing and lingering. However, I could also see where you could stop in for a bite, spend a lot of money, and still feel like you haven't had dinner.

But Central Provisions is a beautiful restaurant and immediately felt like a place that was welcoming to everyone. I'm sure it will be immensely popular with young and older folks alike. It seems to strike a nice balance between a special occasion place and a casual, but upscale, after-work spot. Enjoy!