Portland seems to have it all -- a vigorous local wine industry, great microbreweries, local farmers committed to sustainable agriculture, and a critical mass of talented chefs who love Portland's laidback lifestyle too much to be lured elsewhere. It just isn't fair.
Portland's leading restaurants were well ahead of the curve in America when it came to cooking with local, seasonal ingredients. Even restaurants that have been around for more than a decade hardly seem to fit the label "old guard." They certainly aren't stuffy -- just look at downtown's Higgins (1239 SW Broadway; tel. 503/222-9070; www.higgins.ypguides.net), where the tri-level layout and open kitchen nicely loosen up the clubby wood-paneled decor. Whipping out a constantly changing menu from that open kitchen, chef-owner Greg Higgins brings subtle new flavors into play with familiar classics, as in a honey-and-chili-glazed pork loin; a saffron-and-fennel stew of prawns, mussels, calamari, and halibut; or the "whole pig plate" composed of various pork cuts, roasted or braised, served with sausage, baked beans, and braised greens.
Another top choice is Paley's Place (1204 NW 21st Ave.; tel. 503/243-2403; www.paleysplace.net), a small, bustling dining room in Nob Hill, in a charming Victorian house with a front porch often stacked with baskets of local organic produce. Chef-owner Vitaly Paley uses them to interject fresh accents into traditional bistro fare such as spit-roasted suckling pig, corn-and-crab risotto, or superb sweetbreads with Paley's crisp signature fries. The standout Italian restaurant in Portland has long been discreetly elegant Genoa (2832 SE Belmont St.; tel. 503/238-1464; www.genoarestaurant.com), where the handful of linen-draped tables are much in demand for romantic occasions. Service is attentive, and while the prix-fixe menu changes every 3 weeks, you can count on an intriguing interplay of robust flavors: sweet onion and Gorgonzola ravioli with walnut pesto and African pepper; grilled ono with Taggiasca olives, potatoes, and orange; or duck breast with a port wine-and-peppercorn sauce.
Younger Portland chefs are bringing their A-game to the table, too. In southeast Portland, right across the Willamette from downtown, Le Pigeon (738 E. Burnside St.; tel. 503/243-2403; www.lepigeon.com) is a casual brick-walled bistro with a mismatched clutter of furniture. Inspired by farmers' market offerings, chef-owner Gabriel Rucker likes to mix things up on the menu too, trying out fresh combinations such as hanger steak with tomatoes, feta cheese, and pancakes, or a rabbit appetizer with prosciutto, peaches, and truffles. In the northeast part of town, Toro Bravo (120 NE Russell St.; tel. 503/281-4464; www.torobravopdx.com) offers creative Spanish-inflected tapas, such as manchego-and-paprika fritters with spicy salsa roja, griddle-cooked bacon-wrapped dates, or sous-vide suckling pig with sherry cream potatoes and truffle jus. The dining room is boldly colored and bright, and trendy communal tables encourage diners to mingle.
Portlanders are happy to put aside trendiness, though, when it comes to breakfast. Every weekend morning downtown, you'll find lines down the street waiting to get into brunch at Mother's Bistro (212 SW Stark St.; tel. 503/464-1122; www.mothersbistro.com). Crowds pour in for satisfying repasts like the buttermilk biscuits topped with sausage gravy and eggs, crunchy French toast, or migas (eggs scrambled with jack cheese, onions, peppers, and bits of crispy tortillas). Chef Lisa Schroeder's comfort-food lunches and dinners are pretty fine as well -- think meatloaf, mac 'n' cheese, pierogis, and long-braised pot roasts. Everyone in town seems to be there -- everyone, that is, except the hordes who've driven out to the Original Pancake House (8601 SW 24th St.; tel. 503/246-9007) instead. This white-frame local landmark really is the original, having been around for nearly half a century. In a homey dining room that looks like someone's vintage lake cabin, they serve 20 different flavors of pancakes in steaming stacks from 7am until afternoon. If that doesn't start your day off right, nothing will.
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