Monday, September 05, 2011

Travels with Chili: Astoria Redux

I can't say it was better than our Fourth of July camping trip that featured the 14 Dozen Raw Oysters Throwdown (which we demolished, by the way). But when you get a weekend in Astoria that includes a room that may well have one of the most spectacular river views ever, and then get to have fresh-off-the-boat Oregon albacore prepared by the best chefs in town, well, that makes for a pretty memorable getaway.

The room was in the Cannery Pier Hotel which, unlike most hotels with "pier" in the name, is actually built on…yes…a pier sticking out into the Columbia River. As a matter of fact, the balcony of our first-floor room was just a few feet above the water that lapped the pilings supporting the building. The first morning as I stood in my plush hotel-supplied robe drinking a cup of coffee, a giant container ship chugged past a few dozen yards away, an awesome sight when you're just waking up, let me tell you.

In another unusual twist, the bathroom had a claw-foot bathtub discreetly placed behind a cutout in the bathroom wall, allowing the bather a view of the Astoria-Megler Bridge that soars over the hotel (top photo). And for those who prefer to let someone else do the driving, the hotel sports three 40s and 50s-era cars whose driver is happy to squire passengers around town.

On arrival the first afternoon we were desperately in need of some snackage, and found the Bridgewater Bistro conveniently situated on the waterfront next to the hotel. Though we were a little early for happy hour, the big barn-like space and deck with views of the water had a promising small plates menu that was perfect for our needs.

With a beer for Dave and wine for me, we ordered their calamari, boquerones of local anchovies and the oyster sampler. The oysters (above right) were local Willapa Bays, served as shooters with vodka cocktail sauce, smoked (on slaw) and in the shell with a crazy Bloody Mary sorbet. Though I'm not a big fan of mignonette or sauce with my raw oysters, the tomatoey, spicy sorbet complemented the flavor and creamy freshness of the oysters perfectly, and I'm going to be trying to recreate it here at home.

After a quick nap and some claw foot bath action, we decided to walk the mile or so downtown to Clementes where we were meeting our tour group for dinner. It was a clear, balmy evening and the half-hour stroll along the waterfront promenade was just the right preamble (no pun intended) to our dinner.

Gordon and Lisa Clement owned a nearby chowder restaurant and felt there was a need, as well as a market, for a dinner place in Astoria that featured local seafood and organic produce. They began working with area farmers and fishermen to develop their menu, which not only means everything is fresh but also seasonal, a nice fit with Gordon's love of Italian cuisine. He also has a deft hand when it comes to seafood and understands how to make the most of it while doing the least to it, as exemplified by the amazing albacore carpaccio with blood orange infused olive oil (left).

Another chef, Christopher Holen of Baked Alaska, demonstrated his love of local albacore and a bit of his native Alaskan bravado the next day with a dish called Thundermuck Tuna. It's basically a tuna loin dusted with locally roasted coffee grounds, seared rare and served with a honey ginger sesame sauce, balsamic reduction and pickled ginger. Not everyone's cup of tea (or coffee, as the case may be), but certainly original.

At that demonstration we also got a taste of a special lager brewed for Astoria's 200th birthday, a Pre-Prohibition 1811 Lager from Fort George Brewing, presented by affable head brewer Spencer Gotter. A light and refreshing beer with a nice backbone of flavor, he was excited to let us know that it was going to be appearing in stores soon…in cans! For those of you who haven't heard, cans are the new container of choice for many brewers, the technology having vastly improved over the tinny-tasting nastiness that most of us remember.

The one place we didn't make it to was the Blue Scorcher Bakery, a collective business that shares a building with Fort George. It apparently features a wide range of stunning breads and pastries, but it's developing a niche in gluten-free circles for weekly Gluten-Free Fridays with tasty pastries and lunches. Which gives us more than enough reason to go back, hopefully soon!

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