Saturday, June 25, 2011

Portland, Oregon (Hotel, Dining, & Nightlife)

My fiance Shyawn and I spent four days over Memorial Day weekend visiting Portland, Oregon to celebrate our one year anniversary.

I am going to divide my report on Portland into two separate posts; one on hotel, dining, and nightlife and the second will be on sightseeing.

Portland is located about three hours from us by car, although neither one of us could claim that we had ever truly visited the city. As with many people I know from Seattle, we had both experienced many drive-bys and a few half-hearted visits. For years I had wanted to get a true taste of the city so when we were thinking of places to go and visit for our anniversary weekend I figured Portland would fit the bill as the perfect place for an economical long-weekend trip.

HotelHotel Modera was selected after reading its glowing reviews on both Trip Advisor and Yelp. I wanted to stay somewhere centrally located in the downtown area that was recently updated but one that also wouldn't break the bank. By booking directly through the hotel's website and paying for the room in advance, I was able to secure two nights at $109 and the third night at $99. Had I not done that, the room would have been about $30-$40 more per night. Since we had our car with us, I also paid ahead of time for valet parking which was $20 per night instead of $27 per night that we would have paid upon arrival.

The hotel was very modern and clean with lots of simple details that made it feel as though we were staying at a very upscale and luxurious place even though we had paid so little! I loved the fun and colorful art as well as the heavenly smelling Tarocco products in the bathroom. The staff was extremely accommodating and went out of their way to help us. I would stay here again in a heartbeat and definitely recommend it to anyone!
Lobby of Hotel Modera.
Elevators at Hotel Modera.
Our room at Hotel Modera. 
I loved this fun mirror in our room. 
Pretty orange bathroom at Hotel Modera.

Dining: Portland has a restaurant scene unlike anything I had ever seen before. I had read prior to the trip that the city has one of the highest restaurants per capita in the country. This seemed fairly evident to us once we arrived in Portland, especially while driving through the different neighborhood sections of the city where we saw restaurants everywhere! Since Portland was so notorious for having great food, it was immensely important to me that we would have amazing meals while in the city. While planning which restaurants to eat at, I consulted Yelp and would occasionally check with Zagat as well. I had a very difficult time choosing which ones to eat at, but in the end I was happy with nearly every place, all of which are listed below.

Food Stands: Portland has a ridiculous number of food stands spread throughout several different city blocks. There is every imaginable type of cuisine to be found at these stands; Italian, Thai, Vegan, Mexican, Vietnamese, Greek, etc all for much less than one would pay for a sit-down meal in a restaurant. I was truly shocked and extremely impressed when I saw the number of stands throughout the city. It would be awesome to work somewhere downtown and have all of these food stands at your disposal to pick from!

Built to Grill was the highest rated restaurant on Yelp while I was planning our trip. Based on this alone, I figured that it had to be absolutely amazing and a must eat place for us. Prior to arriving, I had already decided on ordering one of the pasta dishes as multiple Yelp reviewers raved about them. Shyawn ordered one of the sandwiches called Italian Hero (mortadella, ham, salami, spinach, mozzarella, pepperoncini, and red wine vinaigrette). The appearance of the sandwich was gorgeous with lots of colorful layers. The taste however did not quite live up to its appearance. Shyawn said it was alright but only ate about half of it. I took a bite and thought it was good but nothing amazing.

I went against my gut instinct (which was to order the Penne Basil Pesto) and ordered the Gnocchi (roma and sun-dried tomatoes, basil, garlic, and white wine). I have a tendency to always order pesto pasta if I see it on the menu of an Italian place, so I thought I was making the right decision by ordering something different. Unfortunately, I likely made a bad choice. My Gnocchi can be best described as "meh." It wasn't anything spectacular as I had been hoping it would be. It was obviously edible but not anywhere near close to being deserving of its five star rating on Yelp.

Overall, we were quite disappointed with our experience at Built to Grill. I think that there was too much hype and it simply didn't live up to our expectations. I don't even know for sure if I would give it a second chance if I was down in Portland again. There are way too many other food stands to try!
Built to Grill food stand.
My gnocchi dish.
Shyawn's Italian Hero sandwich from Built to Grill.

Toro Bravo: From the very initial planning stages of the trip, there were two restaurants that I was certain we would eat at; Toro Bravo and Beast (described below). I had heard nothing but high praises for Toro Bravo from every Portland restaurant-related website, restaurant blog, or guidebook out there.
We had read and been told that the restaurant does not accept reservations and as a result it is recommend to arrive by 5 PM if you want to be seated immediately. If not, you should anticipate a long, long wait. Luckily, for those 21 and over there is a small but atmospheric bar located directly above Toro Bravo called the Secret Society (described further below) where we spent our 45 minute wait drinking lovely cocktails.

The exterior of Toro Bravo (red building).
The simple but beautiful interior of Toro Bravo was painted a gorgeous red that was highlighted by the large windows and tall ceilings.
Beautiful interior of Toro Bravo.
Interior of Toro Bravo.
We were seated directly in front of the kitchen which we later declared was probably the best spot in the entire restaurant as we were able to watch the cooks prepare all of the dishes.
The chefs at Toro Bravo doing their thing!

From the very extensive menu we ended up ordering the grilled asparagus, potatoes bravas, drunken pork with avocado salad, grilled tesa and chicken, grilled bacon wrapped dates, and churros with chocolate for dessert. Our favorite dish was definitely the potatoes bravos which was served with the most delicious aioli sauce I have ever tasted! I also immensely enjoyed the grilled tesa (similar to bacon) and chicken dish which was deliciously paired with warm onions and potatoes. The churros and the drunken pork were the only items we were slightly disappointed with. Don't get me wrong; they were both good but not dishes that we would order again. Overall, we were very pleased with our dining experience at Toro Bravo and will return on our next visit to Portland.
Grilled asparagus with fried jamon, chilies, preserved lemon, and olives.
The delicious Potatoes Bravas.
Grilled Tesa and Chicken with warm potato, onion, and arugula salad.
Grilled Bacon Wrapped Date with warm honey.
Churros and Chocolate for dessert.

Deschutes Brewery: One of the many things Portland is known for is its abundance of breweries and brew pubs. Per the advice of some friends and after consulting Yelp, we decided to visit Deschutes Brewery in the Pearl District of downtown Portland.
Deschutes Brewery
Deschutes Brewery 
Inside Deschutes Brewery.

We stopped in at Deschutes Brewery during lunch. In addition to ordering a sampler of six different beers, Shyawn ordered the Black Butte Porter Burger with sweet potato fries. The fries were great but the burger was just okay. I was not too hungry so I decided to order just a bowl of their daily soup, which was a delicious and silky smooth cream of celery. Deschutes isn't known for having gourmet food but it is known for having a great atmosphere; when we were there around 2 PM on a Saturday the huge restaurant was still packed and filled with both tourists and locals. It would definitely be a fun place to hang out at with a group of friends!

There were about two dozen beers to choose from for the sampler. Shyawn tried a mix of both light and dark beers. He wasn't actually thrilled with any of them but enjoyed the Inversion the most. At one point during lunch he even managed to convince me to try one of the beers, which is no easy task although I still didn't like it!
Shyawn's choices from his sampler at Deschutes Brewery.
Deschutes Sampler
Eyeing one of his samples.
Shyawn and one of his beer samples from Deschutes Brewery.
He even convinced me to try one!
Shyawn's Black Butte Porter Burger with sweet potato fries from Deschutes Brewery.
My Cream of Celery soup from Deschutes Brewery.

Stumptown Coffee: This independent coffee company is based out of Portland (although they have a few locations in Seattle and New York) and was very highly rated on Yelp. We decided to stop in after lunch at Deschutes Brewery as Shyawn was quite tired and needed a caffeine pick me up. I cannot vouch since I am not a coffee drinker, but he indicated that his latte was very delicious and smooth.
Stumptown Coffee
Shyawn's pretty latte from Stumptown Coffee.

Bamboo Sushi: I was only recently introduced to the wonderful world of sushi by Shyawn when we began dating in May of 2010. I was honestly scared to death of eating raw fish so when Shyawn wanted me to try it I felt like I had no choice but to impress him and down that raw sashimi! Much to my shocking amazement, I ended up falling in love with sashimi, and throughout the next few months, I began to also enjoy different forms of sushi. Fast forward about a year later, and sushi has gone from being thought of as a disgusting thing in my mind to one of my favorite foods that I regularly request to eat! Since it's one of our favorite meals together, I thought it was only fitting that we eat at a sushi restaurant during our one year anniversary weekend.

Portland had quite a bit of sushi restaurants to choose from, but ultimately we went with Bamboo Sushi as it was the highest rated sushi bar on Yelp in Portland. As with Toro Bravo the night prior, Bamboo Sushi also did not take reservations. We had had quite a busy Saturday morning and afternoon, so by the time we arrived at the restaurant it was after 7 PM and we knew we would be in for a long wait. Luckily, with the entertainment help provided by our iPhones, the 60 minute wait went by rather quickly.
Our view of Bamboo Sushi while we waited an hour for seats.
Bar area of Bamboo Sushi.

When the hostess informed us that the first seats available for us were at the sushi bar, we jumped at the opportunity! We always have a great time watching our sushi being freshly made by the chefs. Sitting at the sushi bar also gives you the opportunity to ask the chefs what their personal recommendations are, which we heard many people doing.

The sushi chefs at work at Bamboo Sushi. 
Ultimately, we ended up ordering some of our most favorite things; salmon sashimi (wild Alaskan salmon & house smoked wild ivory salmon), a shrimp tempera roll, a philly roll, and an avocado roll. We placed our first order for the sashimi and ended up ordering more at the very end of the meal because the salmon was absolutely incredible; it literally melted in our mouths! It was hands down the best sushi meal either one of us had ever eaten and is fully deserving of its high ratings on Yelp. If you are a sushi fan and find yourself in the city of Portland, make sure to plan a meal at Bamboo Sushi.
Wild Alaskan Salmon and House Smoked Wild Ivory Salmon Sashimi.
Shrimp tempera roll.
Philly roll.
Avocado Roll.

Beast: I love French cuisine more than any other in the world, so I knew we would be eating at at least one French restaurant during our trip. The only problem was that I had such a hard time deciding which one to pick from; Beast, Le Pigeon, Little Bird, and Paley's Place all sounded great to me! Ultimately, I ended up choosing Beast as I had read that its brunch meal was to die for and not to be missed. Beast is quite a popular place for both their brunch and dinner seatings so it is advisable to book several weeks or months in advance if you want to be guaranteed a seat. Brunch is only served on Sundays at 10:00 or 12:00, and we opted to go with the earlier seating.

When we arrived inside the restaurant, I was blown away with the incredible delicious smells that were wafting from the kitchen. There was a buzz swirling all around the tiny restaurant and nearly every person in there seemed excited in anticipation of the meal.

The interior space of the restaurant is quite small, so all guests have a great view of the kitchen, which is the center stage of the restaurant. It was a lot of fun to watch them prepare and cook our meal.
Our view of the kitchen from our table at Beast.
The staff at Beast preparing our breakfast meal.
The brunch is a four course pre-fixe meal that is usually determined the day before, so no substitutions are allowed. I was a bit concerned about this as the only food I absolutely cannot eat is goat cheese, which tends to be a common part of French cuisine. Luckily, after looking at the menu when we arrived, the only goat cheese included in the meal was during the cheese course which was definitely a relief for me.

Our menu for brunch was as follows:

  • Rhubarb Clafoutis with Soft Whipped Cream and Maple-Glazed Bacon
  • Beast Hash (Pork Belly, Ham, Potatoes, Maitake Mushrooms, Rapini, White Turnips, English Peas, Poached Duck Egg, & Hollandaise Sauce)
  • Selection of Cheese with Spring Greens and Aged Sauvignon Blanc Vinaigrette
  • Chocolate Truffle Cake with Macerated Strawberries
Additionally, we were both suckered into ordering a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, although we would later learn that would cost us an additional $6 each. It was probably the best (and easily the most expensive!) orange juice of my life though.

The best fresh squeezed orange juice ever!
Rhubarb Clafoutis with Soft Whipped Cream and Maple Glazed Bacon. 
Beast Hash (pork belly, ham. potatoes, maitake mushrooms, rapini, white turnips,  English peas, poached duck egg & Hollandaise sauce).
Selection of Cheeses with Spring Greens & Aged Sauvignon Blanc Vinaigrette. 
Preparing the strawberries for the cake.
Chocolate Truffle Cake with Macerated Strawberries.
All of the food at Beast was out of this world good! The clafoutis was one of the most delicious things that has ever entered my mouth; the texture was smooth and creamy but tasted almost exactly like a crepe. The vinaigrette on the salad was so tasty that I wished they sold it separately for purchase. And finally, the chocolate truffle cake with the strawberries was heavenly. The first bite reminded me immediately of the rich chocolate cakes I have eaten in France. It was so unbelievably rich and tasty. Although most people could barely finish their cake, I not only finished my own but also managed to assist Shyawn in eating some of his!

If you find yourself in Portland, please do yourself a huge favor and RUN as quickly as possible to Beast for brunch. It was definitely the best breakfast meal of my life and quite arguably one of the best meals of my life. I can still taste the creamy clafoutis....

View of Beast from the entrance.

A Cena Ristorante: On our actual anniversary, I wanted to have a romantic dinner at a beautiful restaurant. A Cena is an Italian restaurant that was rated one of the most romantic restaurants in town and also had a high food rating on Yelp, so I thought it was the perfect choice.

After entering into the small but quaint restaurant, we both immediately noticed that it was freezing cold. In fact, neither one of us ever took off our coats during our entire time at dinner which didn't make for the most comfortable experience. While the interior of the space was decorated nicely and felt cozy, I don't necessarily think I would have described the environment as romantic. We had absolutely no privacy at our table and the couple sitting at the table next to us probably heard every word of our conversation as we did theirs.

Anyway, aside from the cramped interior, we found the Italian fare to be quite tasty.

We ordered an appetizer called Arancini (Scilian Croquettes stuffed with Saffron Risotto, Peas, Mozzarella, and Meat Ragu). This dish reminded me of the many croquettes I had eaten several years ago in Spain but the flavor was unlike anything I had ever tasted. I loved the combination of the crunchy exterior against the soft and moist risotto inside. Being half Persian, Shyawn was all over ordering this dish because of the Saffron inside! We both enjoyed it immensely.
Arancini (Sicilian Croquettes stuffed with Saffron Risotto, Peas, Mozzarella, & Meat Ragu).
For the main dish, I opted to go with the less risky choice and ordered Chicken Saltimboca. I have cooked it myself in the past but had never ordered it at a restaurant. My safe choice was ultimately a winner as the chicken was incredibly moist and paired perfectly with the white wine sauce that accompanied it.
Saltimboca (Chicken Cutlets pan-seared with Prosciutto, Sage, Peas, Wild Mushrooms & White Wine). 
Lobster and corn are two of Shyawn's favorite foods so when he saw the Agnolotti pasta dish (corn & marscarpone raviolini with lobster) on the menu he knew that was his first choice. He liked the pasta quite a bit although it was a tad too rich for my taste.
Agnolotti (Corn & Mascarpone Raviolini with butter-poached Maine Lobster)

When I made reservations for the restaurant, I had indicated that we would be celebrating our anniversary. After arriving, our server happily informed us that dessert was on the house because of our anniversary celebration; what an awesome surprise! By the time we reached dessert, we were both quite full so we decided that we wanted something light. Luckily, the restaurant had a selection of gelato and sorbet to choose from so we opted for the blood orange and campari sorbet. The blood orange had an unbelievably intense orange flavor that was almost too strong but was perfect after the heavy meal we had just consumed.

We enjoyed all of the food we had at A Cena and if you want high quality Italian food then I would definitely recommend this place.

Waffle Window: Aside from eating at Beast, the other breakfast place that was high on my must-visit list was Tasty n Sons (which is owned by the same person of Toro Bravo). Unfortunately, our last morning in Portland fell on Memorial Day and Tasty N Sons was closed. The next breakfast choice on my list was the Waffle Window, yet another highly rated place on Yelp. The Waffle Window is located at the back end of The Bread and Ink Cafe. Ordering is done via a small window and the only seating options are either outside or a small row of tables located inside the Bread and Ink Cafe. They serve every type of imaginable waffle out there from ultra sweet Chocolate Dipped Waffle to a savory The Three B's Waffle (Pepper Bacon, Brie, and Fresh Basil). With nearly 20 waffles on the menu, there is definitely something to please everyone's taste buds!
Waffle Window.
Shyawn is not a huge fan of sweet things so he choose one of the savory waffles; Spicy Bacon Cheddar Jalapeno topped with a avocado-tomatillo salsa. It was very tasty but not quite as filling as mine. Two probably would have been more sufficient.
Spicy Bacon Cheddar Jalapeno Waffle.
I wanted something sweet, so I choose one of the specials called the Spring Fling (sliced strawberries, rhubarb sauce, coconut panna cotta, whipped cream, cinnamon sugar and shredded coconut). It tasted beyond amazing and was huge! The coconut panna cotta combined with the sweet strawberries and soft whipped cream on top of the crunchy waffle was a deliciously intense flavor combination.
Spring Fling Waffle.
Nightlife: We had quite a jam-packed weekend planned, so we didn't have a lot of time nor energy for the nightlife scene of Portland. However, we did manage to go out and meet some of Shyawn's family on both Friday and Saturday nights.

Secret Society Lounge: This tiny little bar is located directly above Toro Bravo. When we arrived at Toro Bravo for dinner, we were informed that we had a 45 minute wait until being seated. This was no issue for us as we already knew we would be heading straight upstairs to Secret Society per the advice of one of Shyawn's friends who lives in Portland. Secret Society is known for their selection of absinthe, some of which was displayed at the bar. The space feels very cozy but is also elegant, and I loved the tall ceilings and beautiful wood-paneled walls. It would be a great place to start out on a first date! We each ordered a drink and some bread to munch on while we waited for our table at Toro Bravo.
The bar at Secret Society.
Secret Society.
My delicious cosmopolitan at Secret Society.
Shyawn and I at Secret Society (not the best pic, but the lighting was terrible!).

Urban Farmer: After eating dinner at Toro Bravo, we met up with Shyawn's cousin Trevor. Although we both knew that Portland was full of dive bars, we wanted something a tad bit more classy. Trevor recommend the Urban Farmer, which is a restaurant located inside of the Nines Hotel in downtown Portland. The restaurant is absolutely gorgeous and has a very fun and modern decor in a unique setting of the hotel's atrium. We happened to arrive right before happy hour began so we sat in the bar area. We all ordered several cocktails and Shyawn and I split a beef slider (which was delicious) and several oysters (also good and I especially liked the champagne mignonette served with it). I personally wouldn't ever go to Urban Farmer just for a meal as their prices are quite high but it's a great place to stop in for a drink or during happy hour.
Urban Farmer.
Beef slider from Urban Farmer.

Teardrop Lounge: This lovely cocktail lounge is located in the Pearl District of Portland. Their mixologists specialize in making unique artisanal cocktails. We arrived sometime between 10-11 PM and the place was only moderately full which was surprising to both of us as we had assumed it was quite a popular place. After perusing the menu, I ordered the sweetest sounding drink off the menu, which was Joshua's Moon (cachaca, blood-orange liqueur, lime, agave nectar, & club soda). Shyawn ordered his signature drink, a gin and tonic although this one was extra special as Teardrop makes their own tonic water in-house! I enjoyed my delicious cocktail immensely until I accidentally knocked it over. I was so irritated with myself as I hadn't even drank 1/3 of the drink.
Shyawn and I goofing around at Teardrop Lounge.
Teardrop Lounge.

Up next: things to do and see in Portland.

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