Friday, December 23, 2016

Travels with Chili: Overnight in Astoria (with Mushrooms)

Mention the word foraging. I dare you.

Chances are if I'm within earshot, I'll "lean in." And I don't mean that in a groovy,  women-in-corporate-boardrooms, outta-my-way-mister sort of way. I mean I'll literally walk over, shove my nose into the conversation and say, "Did I hear something about foraging? For what? Where? And can I come?"

Ranger Sam shows off an Amanita muscaria.

So by the time I got to the end of the sentence "I’m writing to see if you’d like to visit Astoria for a guided mushroom foraging trip…" I was already typing "yes" in reply to the e-mail from my friend Vicky Hastings, whose agency works with the Astoria-Warrenton tourism bureau.

You see, not only do I love hunting for mushrooms, I also adore Astoria. We've been there several times over the years and have watched it turn from a working port city on the Columbia into a great destination for day trips, overnight visits and vacations, all just a 90-minute scenic drive from Portland. Its dining scene has evolved from a few scattered cafés to one with several very good restaurants featuring local seafood, produce, breads, cheese and beer. And a new brewery seems to be popping up every few months to join ranks with the big kahuna that is Fort George Brewery.

The afternoon's haul.

Our first stop was at Fort Stevens State Park to meet Ranger Sam Gibson, a strapping young fellow with a big smile who was leading us on our foraging tour that day. Our group was small, just another couple and us, so we opted for the "off-road" tour that would give us more foraging time and less walking on trails to get to the more accessible—meaning more well-known and thus potentially picked-over—spots.

As we walked to a spot where Ranger Sam had found mushrooms in previous seasons, he gave us some historical background on the park, as well as pointing out some of the different varieties of mushrooms that we would be seeing during the afternoon. He said that the park staff had started offering foraging trips as a way to encourage people to discover its natural beauty during the winter months. (Contact the park office to arrange a tour, and check this guide for other foraging opportunities.)

Commodore Hotel lobby in Astoria.

Tramping up and down hillsides and gradually filling our bags with the large porcini mushrooms that were springing up out of the wet, moss and fern-covered forest floor, I was surprised when Ranger Sam mentioned that these densely forested hills were once barren sand dunes that had been planted with trees in the first half of the 1900s. Which is interesting, since Fort Stevens was originally constructed during the Civil War to protect the mouth of the Columbia River. Featuring eight gun batteries scattered across its more than 4,000 acres, those same trees have now grown to obscure the view of the Columbia from the batteries.

Lovell Taproom at Ft. George Brewery.

Saying goodbye to Ranger Sam back at the parking lot, we made the short drive into Astoria and our room for the night at the Commodore Hotel downtown. A restored 1925-era hotel that seeks to maintain its historic roots, it caters to modern guests with hipster amenities like beer on tap and an Ace Hotel-style lobby for communing. Rooms are updated with modern furniture and tiled bathrooms, but we were tipped off to a noise problem when we found packets of earplugs in the bedside table drawers—windows overlooking the street let in lots of light, but also lots of traffic noise, and the original wooden doors do nothing to keep out noise from the hallway.

IPA at Buoy Beer on the waterfront.

That said, Astoria's downtown district is bustling with activity and the hotel is within a few blocks of some terrific restaurants. We chose to go to Albatross & Co. across the street, chef Eric Bechard's intimate local watering hole-cum-oyster bar that has recently expanded its offerings to include a full dinner menu. Other dinner options nearby include the eclectically themed T. Paul's Urban Café, and Clemente's Cafe and Public House on the waterfront.

More casual dining can be had at any of the many brewpubs, including the aforementioned Fort George Brewery, as well as at Buoy Beer and Wet Dog Café, the taproom for Astoria Brewing Company. But a hidden gem we found this trip is the Lovell Taproom in the building next door to Fort George. An intimate pocket bar with a blazing fireplace, it often has special small-batch beers not found in the main brewpub next door.

Ordering at Street 14 Café.

The next morning we took the most direct route and checked out Street 14 Café, located on the first floor of the hotel. A comfortable cross between an espresso bar and an old-fashioned diner, the coffee is hot and strong and the food is affordable and delicious. If they could only get those well-seasoned waitresses with a coffee pot in one hand and a cigarette dangling from their lips, it would be the perfect throwback.

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