A couple of weeks ago, a longtime Feast collaborator shared how her Feast body memory kicks in when the fall air lands on Portland in the beginning of September. “The cooler mornings remind me that it’s almost time.” I was feeling it, too. For all of us who produced the festival over the years, the change in season from summer to fall means it’s almost showtime. After a decade, this mix of excitement and anticipation is still something you feel to your core.
But even in the absence of an actual festival this year, we want to take this issue of the Feast Newsletter to celebrate this perfect time of year, when the waning summery days overlap with the bounty of the fall. September in Portland is often reliably perfect–not too hot, cool and pleasant mornings, and the absolute best time of year to visit a farmers market. This is why we chose September for Feast way back when. It’s also the time we ramp up our wine country trips.
In this issue, Jordan takes us back to wine country, where our collective imagination invariably drifts during this harvest time of year. And then we explore some of our favorite bottle shops here in Portland. Being the only major American city so close to a world-class wine region is something we take for granted.
Fall at the PSU Farmers Market. Photos by Alan Weiner.
DON’T FORGET THE MACRON
As the leaves start to turn, Portlanders intrinsically find themselves drawn to the WIllamette Valley in search of wine-soaked afternoons spent lost among the rolling green hills, bathed in the amber light of changing seasons. The tasting rooms are ready for you to putter your way across the backroads, and leave with new treasures by the case. But there’s a new destination that’s just opened that has earned extensive buzz, and not just locally (perhaps you caught the preview feature in Vanity Fair). That would be Okta (stylized as ōkta, with the macron diacritical), chef Matthew Lightner’s greatly anticipated new destination restaurant in the heart of downtown McMinnville, which opened in high summer and is now settling into its third month of service.
Zooming out, I think ōkta represents one more arrow in the quiver of a point we keep making here at Feast, which is that 2022 is the most exciting year for restaurant openings in Oregon in… a decade or longer? Perhaps ever? The possibility and excitement of the moment can be felt the moment you walk into the restaurant, as stunningly designed and immersive as any dining room on the West Coast today. To call it a must-visit for restaurant lovers in the Pacific Northwest is frankly sort of an understatement; this place simply must be on your go-to list in the weeks and months ahead, a status readily embraced by Lightner’s approach to hyper-seasonal, hyper-local food, much of it sourced from the restaurant’s own working farm.
When you go, I think there are a few things to keep in mind to maximize the experience. Because that’s what this is: experiential dining of a scope and scale we’ve not quite seen before in Oregon, in a manner that requires sort of giving yourself over to the moment in a way that feels all-encompassing and impactful. Some tips:
If you can, make a night of it. Matthew Lightner’s ōkta project is the centerpiece of a marvelous ecosystem, one that includes a charming, sumptuously appointed nine-room hotel. The Tributary Hotel alone is worth a visit, a small collection of beautiful rooms that come stocked with outstanding baked goods courtesy of baker Hayley Byer (I am still dreaming about the fresh baguette), plus outstanding coffee and tea selections, curated packaged snacks for before or after dinner, a fridge full of sparkling water, and a gauzily lit vibe that frames the wider experience in a sort of hospitality surround sound. In the morning you’re greeted by an elaborate continental breakfast, and all of this is included with the price of a room reservation. I loved this hotel, and think it’s sort of a vanguard experience for what hotels in the Pacific Northwest can be coming out of the pandemic. It’s also one of the region’s more expensive stays, with rooms starting at $875, a fact that places this squarely on the “special occasion wish list” for most of us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Visit the bar. Chef Lightner has attracted some pretty serious talent to this project, chief among them bartender Amithyst Phoenix and larder chef Larry Nguyen. You’ll taste Nguyen’s pickles, kojis, and cultured butters throughout the dinner at ōkta, but a visit to The Cellar, ōkta’s dedicated cocktail bar and wine lounge, is a must. Perhaps start with pitch-perfect negroni, or whatever your pre-dinner drink of choice might be, but be sure to explore the cocktail menu. I keep thinking about the drinks I ordered here, like the Sea Born, a profoundly oceanic martini riff made using Hawaiian vodka and a housemade kombu cordial, or the Pain Away, in which reserve rum is paired with honey pollen from ōkta’s working farm and a homemade tepache from the fermentation program. Farm-to-table dining is pretty well-established, but farm-to-table drinking in this style feels really engaging and exciting to me. The bar is now open exclusively to restaurant and hotel guests, but will debut to the general public in October.
Settle in at the restaurant. Dinner at ōkta will run around two hours, during which time you’ll be served more than one dozen individual courses, including multiple desserts. Dress nice, it should go without saying—you’re still in Oregon, yes, but this is a fine dining experience in a beautiful restaurant, so let’s all look the part, shall we? Service here is on par with some pretty lofty comparisons: It’s not so much stuffy as it is impressively thorough (my water glass was never half full for more than 20 seconds). Ceramics throughout the dinner are stunning, made exclusively for the restaurant by ceramicists Lindsay Osteritter and Lilith Rockett. Beverage director Ron Acierto has built a impressive, wide-ranging wine program for the restaurant—wine pairings are playful and evocative, but I can’t help but admitting to a ping of jealousy towards the table next to mine, who opted instead to simply drink a bottle of Cru Burgundy throughout the dinner, presented in arrestingly beautiful Zalto glassware. It’s worth noting that the entire bottle list is available to drink downstairs at the bar, or in your room upstairs.
Expect subtle excellence. I was stunned by dishes like duck egg custard with edible succulents (paired with a glorious glass of amphora Champagne), creamy truffle tarts with a flavor that strolled for a valley mile, gloriously creamy and profoundly Oregonian hazelnut crab with tofu, and a beautiful cut of beef dusted in coffee, served with summer chanterelles. For dessert, a half-lemon filled with lemon sorbet and meringue stood out, as did a round of Hayley Byer’s bread service with cultured butter. My visit to ōkta was within the restaurant’s first few months and I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to return as seasons change. I feel like a winter menu here, with Larry Nguyen’s preserves and ferments in full flower of their glory, and Matthew Lightner’s approach to root vegetables and proteins to the fore, is going to be a thing of beauty.
TLDR you must go, if you haven’t already done so. Make a night of it: done right, this should be at the very least a 24-hour excursion, with a walk around downtown McMinnville and a visit to some fun vineyards as part of the wider experience. The restaurant is impressive, but embraced as something bigger, I think this becomes a pretty singular new expression of hospitality and dining in the Pacific Northwest, and so very, very worth your time.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we could all do with a little comfort from time to time. This became blinkingly true for me over a past weekend in September, as I watched market vendors and food trucks announce closures or reduced hours due to creeping wildfire smoke and hazy air conditions. It appears that we’ve dodged a worst case scenario on this front in 2022, at least compared to 2020,but it meant I had to recalibrate a few days worth of farmers market activities and walking plans in favor of something similarly divertive in the great indoors.
And so I did what I do whenever I get stressed out: I went to bottle shops.
The best sort of coping methods in life aren’t outright self-destructive, but they should be at least a little self-indulgent. And for me there’s some kind of magic in the habit of haunting wine shops, beer caves, and other assorted distributors of all things capped and corked. I guess this is like a form of retail therapy, which science has proven to be a very real mood lifter. I don’t always buy something each time I visit, but I walk around, take in the label art and selection, consider the eccentricities of each individual shop, and learn more about the wines by dint of osmosis, soaking in the knowledge of the room and occasionally asking questions along the way. This is a traveling habit for me, something I inevitably find myself doing on any and all visits outside the state. But Portland’s bottle shop scene, I’m happy to report, is really second to none; I think we live in one of the best places for bottle shops anywhere in the country, aided in no small part by the lack of Oregon state sales tax. Each bottle shop does something a little different than the other, allowing for a second level of self-directed curation to take place depending on what you’re looking for—and what mood you’re in.
Which is how I know to suggest visiting Vinopolis on NW Glisan if you want to lose yourself for hours amongst the stacks of grower Champagne, Grosses Gewächs riesling and Burgundy I cannot afford, or popping in to Cru & Domaine at NW 24th and Thurman to gaze longingly at the vintages from yesteryear displayed wondrously in the shop’s tasteful backroom, or to duck into Flor—the new wine shop from longtime Le Pigeon wine experts Andy Fortgang and Sergio Licea—if I’m hunting out a particularly difficult to find culty wine from a producer like Chanterêves. There’s a difference between what they sell at somewhere like Providore—accessible, Euro-leaning, built for shopping alongside dinner from that gorgeous grocery store—and somewhere like Division Wines, the sort of place where local winemakers take enormously pride in being stocked, and you’re sure to find something culty and rare amidst the shelves.
Meanwhile, the scene at Négociant, the new bottle shop from Bar Diane on NW 21st, feels transportive, the sort of “Portland-French” experience people used to talk about, a place with the unique ability to convince you to stay and have something to drink and snack on before leaving with a bottle for dinner; 45th Parallel on N Lombard gives me European vibes in a different way, in the sense that you can happily sip and shop here as though you were at the Parisian caviste—or maybe hanging out at Domaine LA, for a more domestic reference—because there is nothing on earth that makes me more amenable towards buying wine than drinking wine. You could go to Wizer’s Fine Wine in Lake Oswego and hang out with the old guys, swapping war stories about the Battle of Robert Parker; you could check in on one of the buzzy new tasting series they’re hosting at Mt. Tabor Fine Wines, another classic Portland city wine shop that still feels vital and fun here in 2022. I also really like checking in on what’s happening with the natural wine folks at Ardor and their next door wine bar, Nil, another superlative spot in which to sip and shop. I used to have to hunt for wines like this in California and New York, but the selection and expertise at Ardor can hang with shops in bigger cities, and they’re always pouring something I want to drink at the bar. Great people watching here, too.
Or you could do what I find myself doing most often of all, which is returning again and again to E&R Wine Shop on SW Macadam. Founder Ed Paladino and his small, dedicated team have built a nationally notable collection of wines from around the world, with a year-over-year dedication to exhaustive vineyard travel across Europe as the intellectual backbone of the program. It’s a place of learning and discovery for me, a beautiful library of bottles and ideas, and increasingly it’s home to an unrivaled collection of vintage bottles from yesteryear, in case you’re interested in exploring the world of vintage wine or shopping for your birth year.
In Portland’s bottle shop scene there’s always somewhere new, something else happening, and happily far too many places to explore in any single exploratory essay (or worse, listicle), which is a way of saying this is a non-exhaustive list of cool places to buy wine around town. This style of retail was pretty profoundly threatened by the pandemic, and in reality your cell phone is also now a bottle shop, which I find both horrible and intriguing in equal measure. But there’s nothing else for me quite like physically going to one of these places and losing yourself for a while.
Earlier, I said something about “learning by osmosis”, as though my bottle shop habits were in service of some wider metaphysical, Aristotlian pursuit of knowledge and philosophy. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I think deep down, somewhere in my soul, I have accepted these places to be like a form of art gallery, a place where I go to escape the rest of the modern world and embrace something more beautiful and bigger than myself. I don’t so much turn off my brain as let my brain go to some other place, away from my phone and my job and my life, accepting an unfiltered surfeit of pleasure and consideration to flood my neurons with contemplation and wonder.
Bottle shops are, as my mom would say, my happy place, and Portland in 2022 offers a glimmering constellation of such stars, little planets in glass and cork, within which I may happily play explorer whilst whiling away the hours. If you see me in a bottle shop, say hi—I want to know what you’re searching for, too.
It’s a stuffed degustation right now for where to eat across the city, so wear something comfortable and strap in… In Downtown Portland, Toki’s brunch continues to be excellent, in particular the steak & eggs dolsot bibimbap with char-grilled hanger steak and mustard gravy… Buzzy breadmaker Josh Fairbanks makes an outstanding spelt loaf—this is the bread of the moment right now from the Tartine Baker alum and pizza maker at Scottie’s… The “Usual Grain bowl” at Mama Bird from chef Gabe Pascuzzi, with zingy/minty pesto, arugula and marinated chickpeas, is a go-to healthy option… Late summer BLT season is still surprisingly in effect, and Sammich‘s rendition (a pile of thin crispy bacon, a thick slab of heirloom tomato, and an a wrist-thick chunk of iceberg) is a masterpiece… Speaking of seasonality, by the time you read this, it will be too late to try the more-peach-than-actual peaches peachiness of the peach sorbetto at Pinolo Gelato, but even if so, a trip to Pinolo is never a bad idea… The OG wings at Sunshine Noodles are a contender for the city’s best, though a basket of the traditional Buffalo wings paired with weekend football at Tinker Tavern is also highly recommended… Speaking of noodles, we are so happy (and late to report) that Pho Kim has reopened on 82nd Avenue after a many-months hiatus, home to perfect pho and Bun Cha Ha Noi, a deconstructed bun plate with several varieties of charred meat, springy dry noodles, and a fistful of fresh herbs… The lunch curry rice (kare raisu) at Sushi Ki-ichi in Tigard tastes like autumn, and should be ordered with a crunchy-crispy calvary of tempura shrimp… On one particularly hazy, fiery day earlier in the month, the fog was cut with help from Danwei Canting’s deep menu of baijiu, a diverse category of distilled white spirit with intense aromas and flavors—try sipping a shot of Lucky Cat alongside a Yanjing beer alongside a set of jiaozi dumplings… Speaking of exciting new openings, this past weekend the long-awaited Jojo restaurant opened in the Pearl District, met with long lines and many Instagram tags—their new garlic chicken burger is stinkily great, served with a single stick of chewing gum for garlic breath abatement, and the drinks list is especially clever, offering a pretty compelling version of this popular cart gone brick & mortar… In more opening news, they’re now open at Sousòl, the cocktail lounge beneath Kann, which features an entirely distinct menu of cocktails and bar snacks away from the service upstairs: turmeric-dough beef patties, Trini-Chinese chicken wings, spiced nuts, and transportive cocktails… All dispatches formatted for the hungry and curious, send dining tips to email@example.com
Karen Brooks takes stock of the long view experience at Cafe Olli the way only she can, in a considered and thoughtful review for Portland Monthly.
Lizzy Acker for The Oregonian on Mole Mole, “the ultimate family business” spanning generations, with a narrative as deep as the recipes—part of a wide-reaching food cart package published this week by The O.
Jason Vondersmith for The Portland Tribune, reporting on author Teresa Griffin Kennedy’s new book “Lost Restaurants,” a love letter to long-departed Portland eateries like The Monte Carlo, Fryer’s Quality Pie, and DuPay’s Drive-In.