Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Best in Show: Chow Hounds

Fuhgeddabout the Bite. Dump Taste of the Nation and definitely nix Oktoberfest. I have just experienced the ultimate Portland foodie event. It's Provvista Specialty Foods biyearly open house. They're a local food wholesaler and they throw open their doors to local food retailers and restaurants for an over-the-top all-you-can-eat extravaganza featuring many of the meats, cheeses, oils, vegetables and fruits they carry, handed out by their vendors from all over the country and, from the Italian, Spanish and French accents I heard, all around the world.

They also had a live band, the smoked pizza guy from the Portland Farmers' Market (with smoker!) and some very nice Spanish folks with giant pans of paella. The vendors are lined up and down the aisles of Provvista's new warehouse, with table after table of wonderful things to eat and drink. Oh, did I forget to mention the beer, wine, espresso, eau de vie and bottled waters?

There were also several opportunities for foodie celebrity-spotting. My personal high point was meeting (and photographing) the founder of Cypress Grove Chevre, Mary Keehn, talking cheese with Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery. I mean, their cheeses are fantastic, but getting to meet these two progenitors of the artisanal cheese movement in this country was a true moment of grace. Together they moved small-production owner-operated dairy products to the forefront of Americans' consciousness, not to mention to the front of our dairy cases.

And that was only slightly cooler than meeting Paul Bertolli of Fra'Mani Handcrafted Salumi and having him personally slice me some of his amazing Salame Gentile because "it's so much more moist when it's freshly sliced." It was all I could do not to bite it right out of his hand! While we loved Armandino Batali's Salumi in Seattle, with his unusual spicing of traditional meats, Fra'Mani has perfected the art of bringing out the richness and full flavor of the meat itself. When it's sliced so thinly that it's translucent, it practically melts on your tongue and fills your mouth with it's salty, meaty flavor.

OK, enough with the food porn...we came away with great ideas and new products to try. You can get many of the cheeses and Fra'Mani meats at our neighborhood patisserie, Foster & Dobbs, and many of the packaged products at New Seasons and Pastaworks. And you have two whole years to figure out how to get into the food business so you can go. It's like I imagine heaven might be, only there you'll never get full or gain weight. And, even on this earth, that's an experience not to be missed!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Harvest Dinners at Castagna

I don't mean to pimp one restaurant over another since we consider ourselves equal opportunity eaters but, darn it, Castagna is one of our favorite haunts and their food is, to us, some of the best this town has to offer. Plus the fact that owners Monique and Kevin are the nicest folks you could hope to meet and are not only committed to food that is local and sustainably grown, but have helped to start the farmer's market explosion that we all take for granted.

And now, hot on the heels of their summer rosé dinners, they're offering a series of harvest dinners based on the French vendange, or grape harvest, where workers and friends come to harvest the grapes in mid-September and gather for a meal each day to share gossip, compare notes and enjoy the fruits of the harvest.

The dinners will feature appetizers, an entree and dessert with two glasses of wine for $50 and, if the rosé series was any indication, there may be more in store. An amazing deal for what is sure to be some fantastic food, the schedule is as follows:

  • Sept. 20, Loire Valley: Featuring fricassee de canard et cepes with wines from Chidaine, Touraine and La Grande, Saumur.
  • Sept. 27, Alsace: Featuring choucroute garnie with Zind-Humbrecht Riesling and Pinot Blanc.
  • Oct. 11, Burgundy: Featuring boeuf bourgignon with wines from Francois Gay and Chandon de Briaille.
Details: Castagna, 752 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (corner of 18th); Phone 503-231-7373 for reservations.

Hardy Plants, Fall Version

Many of you gardeners know about the Hardy Plant Society's annual spring plant sale at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Hillsboro. If you don't, imagine a big barny space that, instead of cows and chickens, is filled floor to ceiling with plants, trees, bulbs and all things green and growing. Then add in hordes of plant lust-filled gardeners who've been reading their garden catalogs and plant books all winter, making lists and just waiting for this two-day event. It's every man for himself, the check-out lines are long and the volunteers harried.

Now imagine the same space full of the same nurseries and wholesale plant vendors with only with half the people, no lines to check out and a much saner, quieter experience. And it's in September, one of the best times of the year to plant in the Northwest. All the gardeners are burned out from a spring and summer of planting, watering, worrying and obsessing about the plants they bought last spring, so they've taken to their armchairs with their catalogs and G & Ts. Which means smart shoppers have this plant sale and our wonderful Indian summer to get a jump on next spring.

More Lunchin'

OK, I know I've dissed the ladies who lunch in the Pearl, but this is a place you can take your auntie, your mom or your friends for a very nice and very different lunch experience. It's Andina, a much ballyhooed entry in the hot-new-cuisine sweepstakes nationwide, and they feature "nuevo Peruvian" cuisine. That means lots of fresh fish, meats and vegetables, plus plantains, Andean grains and peppers. If you've been there for dinner, you know how good it is, and at lunch the price is a bit less and the selections are almost identical.

I met friends Monique and Sylvia there, and we sampled the menu starting with several small plates including the yucca rellena, cheese stuffed yuca with an aji Amarillo cheese sauce and a causa mixta nikkei or potato cake filled with spicy tuna, crab salad and shrimp. They have several cebiches, the national dish of Peru, usually made with raw fish marinated in lemon or other citrus juices along with salt, chiles, onions and garlic. We had the tuno nikkei, a tuna, aji amarillo, soy, pickled ginger and Japanese cucumber salad-like dish. The tuna was some of the freshest I've had and meltingly tender, in a truly unique preparation that I can't wait to have again.

They have great cocktails and a nice selection of wines, but if you want to have an authentic Peruvian beverage, go for the chicha morada, a non-alcoholic blue corn-based spiced drink that is pleasantly refreshing and different than anything you've ever had.

This place rocks with a difference that's worth experiencing. Too bad it's not on the east side!

Details: Andina Restaurant, 1314 NW Glisan, Portland; Phone 503-228-9535.