Portland is having its most exciting year of dining in the last two decades.
Yes, we are still living during times when such a statement must be presented with a caveat. Restaurants and the entire food world that is peripheral to them are still feeling hard times, choking on the harsh air of clueless Portland leadership, and facing the very real and continually rising costs and inflation. Within this fragile ecosystem, we at Feast have certainly not been immune.
None of this can be understated.
And within that environment, restaurant closure porn seems irresistible—and this why it continues to dominate food news.
But with that caveat, and having been in the culinary universe long enough to recognize momentum when it appears, we believe that right now there is truly so much to celebrate.
Consider this: Kann and Okta are two of the most inspiring restaurant openings in the history of our city and region. They happened within a few weeks of each other. There’s also Phuket Cafe and the revival of Langbaan, Earl Ninsom’s Thai tasting menu-only restaurant that arrived this summer with new energy and a new address. There are also notable pivots: Berlu’s adoption of Vietnamese inspiration and direction is both smart and delicious; Roe’s rebirth as Tercet is a Downtown Portland story of creativity and resilience.
What’s most interesting about all of the aforementioned places (excluding Kann), as well as many more mentioned below, is that so many restaurants are adopting price-fixed menus. Such a trend would have been unthinkable two years ago, but it’s true: tasting menus are making a comeback.
Matthew Lightner’s Okta in McMinnville features a 10-plus course tasting menu with flexible pricing depending on the day of the week, Langbaan made its return in a brand new space right around the same time Okta debuted, and República debuted a brand new tasting menu restaurant to national acclaim in the deepest and darkest days of the pandemic. There are epic “pivots” toward prix-fixe from PDX culinary stalwarts like Le Pigeon and Maurice, who have adopted tasting-menu formats for all or part of the time, respectively.
And right around the time we were wrapping up our editorial for this edition of the Feast newsletter, we received the news that Japanese-inspired Nodoguro was making its return. The four seatings at $250 each sold out in minutes. Nodoguro, welcome back! There are, of course, many more examples, and we don’t have the time or space to name them all.
As diners, we love this direction. And as partners to the industry, we think you should be pretty thrilled, too.
First, tasting menus and price-fixed options are an invitation from a chef to experience their restaurant exactly as that experience was intended. Restaurants are the most personal of businesses, and this feels especially true in Portland, where we love a 30-seater. So why not take a journey?
Second, a tasting menu involves a surrender. At times the world remains heavy, and at press time, we are in the middle of the election cycle. So for this week at least, spending energy deciding what to order feels overwhelming. Bring on the chef’s choice and let the chef do the thinking on your behalf.
Third and most importantly, tasting menus are a great way for restaurants to manage costs and staffing. For all of us who watched some of our favorite restaurants fail over the last several years, we believe that everyone who loves restaurants should support whatever moves and decisions restaurants need to make to keep going, to continue to pay their staff, and to stay afloat.
In Portland, the charm and originality of our neighborhoods is our greatest asset and appeal, and we believe restaurants top the list of attributes that define our neighborhoods and makes them unique.
So for this edition of the Feast newsletter, and for the next two weeks on social media (Instagram and TikTok), we’ll be diving into tasting menus, chef’s choice meals, and prix fixe feasts.
We are excited to share.
– Mike Thelin
Co-Founder, Feast Portland
Okta’s Duck Egg Custard, Peas in McMinnville. Photo by Evan Sung.
PRIX FIXE FEAST
We Portlanders might be more inclined than most to give over discretion to the chef, to place ourselves safely in their culinary hands and say “Absolutely, please surprise me.” But we also live in a city where prix fixe and chef’s choice are not exclusively bound by formalism or fine dining—there’s some of that, and it’s quite good, but it’s just part of the story. Over the last six months it’s been our privilege here at Feast to experience all sides of this spectrum in Oregon food, from lifetime core memory multi-hour hour meals at places like Okta and Tercet to no less stirring set menu takeout experiences from Sibeiho Sibeiho, Dutch-Indonesian-Portland rijstaffel mash-up at Gado Gado, forager’s dinner at Morchella, and the unreal bounty of the “Lao Table” service at Cully’s Khao Niew. Here’s ten of the city’s most interesting set menu dining experiences available right now, presented in no particular order or hierarchy, other than with the caveat that you must trust the chef — in chef we trust.
Editorial note: Feast readers may notice that a few of the city’s most rightfully famous tasting menu experiences—such as República, Le Pigeon and Langbaan—are not detailed below. These places are so very worth your time and contemplation—and they are famous for a reason. We’re focusing on experiences we think offer a chef’s menu on par with these top destinations.
Khao Niew “Lao Table”
Ae Sangasy, Narong Ittihrit, and Nong Phimmoungkhoun’s Laotian restaurant Khao Niew is a gem, a marvel, a destination. It is also a sports bar—one of the city’s great rooms for watching the Blazers—and functions as something like a community living room for the Cully neighborhood in which they reside. In this way it feels utterly and completely Portland: outstanding food and drink without fuss and artifice, gleefully mashing up different threads of city life today in a way that feels natural and cohesive. Of course, we should be eating spicy mushroom larb and slurping bowls of sukiyaki whilst watching Justise Winslow sink jumpers from the elbow.
Khao Niew’s “Lao Table” service requires an advanced reservation, and it’s very well worth the effort. You’ll be served a specially arranged table brimming with herby, spicy Lao sausage and sticky rice, Tom Yum soup, truly hot papaya salad, housemade jerky, yum woon sen, egg rolls, fried shrimp, and whatever else Sangasy & co. feel like putting out that day, plus fried banana for dessert. This all goes great with the restaurant’s full bar and multiple beer taps, or bring along a bottle of wine from home for a reasonable corkage.
Sibeiho Sibeiho “Sunday Tingkat”
Holly Ong and Pat Lau’s Singaporean condiment company, Sibeiho Sibeiho, is also quietly one of Portland’s best restaurants one night a week. On Sundays, they offer a traditional “tingkat” style take-out service, modeled on the homecooked to-go meals that Lau and Ong enjoyed as kids. Orders are placed via ticketing system, and subscribers to Sibeiho’s newsletter get informed week by week on what’s on the menu. I’ve done this a couple of times now, most recently in service of writing this newsletter, for which the tingkat was turmeric curry chicken thighs with potatoes, fresh pickles, a coconut veggie curry, sambal peanuts with anchovies, tofu with tomato and egg in sambal, and luscious, steaming, slightly sweet coconut sticky rice. One composes a plate (or two) at home, but this is otherwise restaurant cooking at an extremely high level, and one of my personal favorite “set menu” dinners anywhere in Oregon right now. Be sure to add jars of sambal or kaya jam to your order, and place that order in advance, because they *will* sell out!
The rijstaffel at Gado Gado. Photo by Christine Dong.
Gado Gado “Rijstaffel” Oma’s Hideaway might get the lion’s share of the attention, but Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly’s flagship restaurant Gado Gado is home to a distinctly Portland take on rijstaffel, an Indonesian feast with Dutch influences that’s a must-do should you ever find yourself in Amsterdam. At Gado Gado, the service starts with a procession of sambals, each explained in a nuanced discussion with your service along with instructions on how to use them throughout the meal, plus house pickles, followed by bites of sausage and shrimp shumai with hot mustard, chicken satay, and black bean noodles with uni butter and lobster broth. Then the main event arrives: clove-scented rice and roti, blistered tomato curry, shrimp ceviche in chimichurri with longan fruit, hardboiled quail eggs perched above spicy sambal with leek and chives (served with shrimp chips), sweet braised pork, beef rendang, and for dessert, apple cider donuts with orange and cardamom and pandan coconut milk jam. The end result splits the difference between tasting menu and ordering family style, for much less than it costs to fly nonstop from PDX to AMS.
They are conducting a little symphony every night in McMinnville at Okta, chef Matthew Lightner’s classy, deftly executed multi-course tasting menu built on Oregon seasonality and produce from the project’s own farm. From the baking (Hayley Byer) to the cocktails (Amithyst Phoenix) to the wine (Ron Acierto) to the pickles and fermented things (Larry Nguyen), Lightner has assembled a remarkable team to help him execute his vision, and all of it is supported by the grace and sophistication of the accommodations upstairs at Tributary Hotel. But zeroing in on the food is critical here; do not be lulled into waves of uninterrogated pleasure, or come with somewhere else to be. One gives oneself over to the room here, and while diners are free to enjoy the ride, you’ll get so much more out of the experience by thinking critically and contemplatively about the high degree of difficulty and subtle execution on hand. We’re still in the early days of Okta; many of the restaurant’s house ferments and experiments have still yet to be served. I absolutely cannot wait to go back, and how many multi-course multi-hour dining experiences make you feel like that?
Tercet Tercet is brimming with ideas, but it also feels oddly comfortable and familiar, as though this tasting menu restaurant off Broadway in the Morgan’s Alley building has been there already for years. There’s something throwback about it, from the little plate of composed snacks you’re served upon seating to the housemade sourdough bread to the pretty-as-a-picture composed plates of black cod, quail, and beets with albacore and buttermilk. The dining room feels transportive and comfortable, very much the sort of place where you want to say “yes” to the wine pairings, or peruse the restaurant’s impressive, vintage-focused wine list (one of the city’s best in this wino’s opinion). On a recent visit, we were served a sophisticated dessert of matsutake mushroom and pinecone syrup; over the summer we ate smoked partridge with a bottle of 2001 Mayacamas Chardonnay. Little hints of London and Paris and California can be found throughout the experience, as though ideas have been borrowed from far afield then brought back to Portland with an Oregon lens. This, too, is an old idea, and speaks to earlier days of fine dining in the city—a fluent conversation between what’s here now and what’s come before, one that I evoke very much as a complement for the experience at Tercet.
Kee’s Loaded Kitchen “#Loaded Plate”
Over the last five years Kiuana “Kee” Nelson’s eponymous food cart has transcended the limitations of restaurantdom, and in 2022 feels more like an institution, a point of pilgrimage for soul food lovers from around the country, and a meta-narrative on fame, small business and #cheflife rendered post after post on social media by Nelson herself. Appearing in Aminé videos, Netflix spots and Tillamook ads is undeniably cool, but the food at Kee’s #Loaded Kitchen draws whole orbits unto itself. Here the #Loaded Everything Plate is Nelson’s take on set course dining, offering a little bit of everything she’s making that day in the truck, which if your lucky will include Nelson’s world-beating smoked pot roast, fried chicken cutlets (“w/ the gold dusS”), #Loaded baked potatoes, and her rightly famous “Mack & KEEs” macaroni and cheese serving. I particularly dream of Nelson’s desserts: strawberry cake, mini sweet potato pies, vanilla poundcake with fresh fruit, oreo cake…all this can be yours, truly #Loaded indeed.
Dining at Måurice feels like being given a front row seat to the inner workings chef Kristen Murray’s mind — an only-in-Portland fusion of Scandinavian fika and French country cuisine, elegant and quirky and utterly personal. Murray is expressing a distinct point of view here, which is part of what makes Måurice great, but it also requires a degree of submission to that vision, which is why it’s the perfect place to enjoy a tasting menu. Eggs with caviar over amaranth tuile, smoked melon with oysters and shiso leaf, eggplant with figs and white chocolate, and all of it offset by either tea or wine depending on if you’re drinking that day. (The non-alcoholic pairing here is one of the city’s best.) Murray is well known for her work in pastry, working previously with Barbara Lynch and Marcus Samuelsson, and you may be tempted to supplement the tasting menu with a wheel of black pepper cheesecake or lemon souffle cake—to which we say go for it. Supporting this place in 2022, after what has been a very difficult few years only extenuated by the restaurant’s location off West Burnside, feels like a requirement for Portland food lovers.
Fine dining Downtown at Tercet. Photo by Foundry 503.
In other cities, fine dining restaurants run like businesses. In Portland, our restaurants tend to be more personality driven, and at Berlu, chef Vince Nguyen’s built one of the city’s most intellectual, delicious, and rule-breaking restaurants not just in Portland, but the entire Pacific Northwest. Nguyen is gleeful in his willingness to adapt and smash expectations, fluently melding fine dining with Vietnamese traditions—think a “crab seven ways” service that winks and nods at the classic “Beef Seven Ways” dinner, or a delicate, half-sized banh xeo crepe, or a bread course with coconut cream and caviar. Nguyen uses familiarity as a jumping off point for creativity, and the end result is endlessly sophisticated, and all of it is capably met with wine pairings from wine director Katie Sombat. Here at Feast, we think this is one of the city’s singular prix fixe experiences. No, let’s go beyond the city—for the state of Oregon, indeed, for the entire Pacific Northwest, this is travel-worthy, destination-worthy food of the sort that a certain French tire company really ought to get around to writing about, once our corner of the world is deemed worthy of recommendation. If it’s true that Portland is right now entering its most interesting phase for food and restaurants in a decade, Vince Nguyen is a ringleader, a major focal point for where Portland food is today and what it means to be a diner right now in our city.
Navarre “We Choose”
John Taboda’s Navarre was an early forerunner of today’s booming chef choice menu scene in Portland, and one of the city’s first destinations for idiosyncratic, natural-leaning wine. It remains a beguiling and at times challenging dining room, capable of extreme pleasure and a touch of frustration—that’s how you get the pearl from the oyster, after all. All this makes Navarre the idea place to order from the restaurant’s “We Choose” option, in which choice is removed from the diner, and the seasonality, erudition, and loyalty to specific regions of cuisine from around the world are given full pride of place. Navarre has proudly marched to its own drummer since 2001, and it remains an interesting and unique window into John Taboda’s mind. Prix fixe in the right hands allows you to see the personality of a chef, and the “We Choose” at Navarre offers a distillation of the concept. Oftentimes at the best of restaurants, you are better off with a guide.
Katy Millard and Ksandek Podbielski have since 2015 run one of Portland’s most important restaurants, garnering multiple James Beard nominations and national press mentions in The New York Times and Bon Appetit along the way. Dinner at Coquine is available as a prix fixe menu with two options, four courses or seven, with wines chosen by Podbielski, interwoven intimately throughout the food. The room is beautiful, the neighborhood is quiet, the food is finely pointed and profoundly seasonal, drawing on Millard’s close relationships with the region’s farms and purveyors—her pastas are an event, in particular, as are desserts.
In a city of pandemic pivots the one they undertook at Coquine was particularly interesting, and included a subscription produce box (to further support those purveyors), the opening of Coquine Market directly adjacent to the restaurant, and the introduction of a more casual “oyster happy hour” on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But the prix fixe here remains one of the city’s most important, an elemental, deeply felt expression of modern Portland food and drink through the lens of owner-operator artisans.
Fluke crudo on the November tasting menu at Coquine. Photo by Katy Millard.
3 Restaurants That Don’t Offer Prix-Fixe But We Wish They Did Do you ever find yourself at a rad restaurant, and say to your tablemates, “Damn—I kind of wish they’d just choose for us?” Here’s three Portland restaurants we *wish* currently offered a prix fixe menu option.
Kann — Enough good praise can’t be heaped on Gregory Gourdet’s Kann, but will you humbly permit us at Feast to register the most delicate of critiques? There should be a chef’s choice menu here. Many—perhaps most—Portland diners enter Kann with a limited understanding of Haitian culinary traditions, and Gourdet is such a font of knowledge in this regard, I wish we could simply let him choose for us. Not that I wish for this reservation to be any more difficult than it already is, but a chef’s choice menu at Kann would be a glorious thing.
Higgins — As much as we love Higgins for the history and the charcuterie, a tasting menu here would allow diners to experience a sort of living history of Portland. Founder Greg Higgins is something of a last man standing from the late 90s/early 2000s wave of Portland culinary influence, and it is more or less our mandate here at Feast to discuss his restaurant in every issue. Give us a set menu, Greg!
Nostrana — Cathy Whims’ temple to Portland-Italian dining, Nostrana, is basically impossible to do wrong. Just want a feather-light pizza with a pair of scissors to cut at the bar, and maybe a glass of wine? Perfect. Want to order 12 things from every corner of the menu? Also perfect. But it might be good fun to give up control and let Whims and her team decide, for example, if I need both the Umbrian lentils with salsa verde and the braised Tuscan kale, because quite frankly I cannot make up my mind.