Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eating My Way Through Portland: Living to The Nines

Disclaimer: The following post is going to read like a love letter. Like a fawning, punch-drunk, school girl getting her first taste of puppy love. The bloom is still on the rose; fairies, angels and unicorns are all real. I apologize in advance for a lot of food minutiae, but I just couldn't help it. Nuf said; you've been warned.

The view from the roof of The Nines Hotel

When traveling, it's not really Ran's and my style to stay in luxury hotels and eat out at the finest restaurants every night. We'd just as soon be in a campground enjoying a flame-cooked meal under the stars. We're certainly used to luxury on occasion - we live in Napa Valley, for crying out loud - but vacation for us usually means venturing out into nature and getting some dirt under our fingernails. But I tell you - sometimes it's nice to see how the other half lives.

For this trip, we stayed at The Nines Hotel, Portland's newest luxury hotel in the heart of downtown, right on Pioneer Courthouse Square. We found ourselves there because a good friend, Matt Christianson, had just accepted the position of The Nines' Executive Chef, overseeing all of the hotel's dining operations. His purview includes both of the property's HOT new restaurants, Urban Farmer and Departure, as well as all banquets, catering, room service, etc. To say that he is "The Man" is putting it lightly. We had always planned to go and eat at Matt's restaurants while we were there, but at his wife's urging (also a dear friend - thanks Katie!) and Matt's connections, we booked our stay at the hotel as well.

Chef Matt Christianson

To say that we lived and breathed The Nines lifestyle is an understatement. The entire hotel is beautifully appointed, including our room, which looked out over the soaring central atrium that is occupied by Urban Farmer.

Urban Farmer, birds-eye view

And the elevators - if you know how to use them - take you to the stars, literally. Departure is located on the top level, and features several rooftop bar/lounge areas. If I ever wondered where all the beautiful people in Portland were, it quickly became obvious that this was the place. There were more Manolo Blahniks than Tevas in the room - and that's saying something for that part of the world.

But the food... ah the food...


Our first dining experience was at Departure, where we came off the elevator to this futuristic, sleek interior fashioned after a spaceship, pulsing to the lively throngs of standing-room-only happy hour conversation. We found a spot at one of the rooftop lounges to sit back with a specialty cocktail and take it all in until we were seated for dinner.

Right off the bat, we had amazing drinks in our hands. Ran had a martini (extra olives), and I had a fruity sangria unlike anything I've ever had before, made with red wine, lychee, yuzu juice (Japanese lime juice) and blackberry - so refreshing and perfect to enjoy as we basked in the warm evening glow.

Once we were seated, the evening just kept getting better and better. Not only did the hostess accommodate our request to have a larger table, ready to seat four friends who were coming later in the evening for drinks and dessert, she put us at what we considered to be the best table in the place. Departure specializes in small tapas-style plates, with worldly flavors largely influenced by Asia; I wanted one of literally everything on the menu! To our delight, however, Chef de Cuisine Bryan Emperor was taking care of our menu selections for the evening, helping us to navigate through the myriad choices and making sure we didn't miss any of the highlights.

And the highlights were many! I can't possibly list all of the dishes we had, but a couple really made an impression.

For instance, our Mikado Oniwa Salads arrived beautifully arranged in tiny clay flower pots, with gorgeous edible petunias peeking from amongst the greens. Each one had the appearance of a perfect little potted plant. It's an idea I guarantee I will copy for a dinner party someday - it was stunning. And of course, delicious (you dipped the leaves by hand in the Sweet Ginger Karashi dressing served on the side).

Another couple dishes with a lot of wow factor:
  • Bluefin Maguro Katsu, a.k.a. Tuna Pops - perfect cubes of rice cracker-crusted bluefin tuna belly on a stick, seared and served with a curry dipping sauce and topped with a Thai herb salad.
  • Ishiyaki Steak - strips of wagyu strip steak cooked tableside on a sizzling river rock that had been heated to 500 degrees, and served with yuzu and cilantro pesto.
  • Kobe Meatballs - Kobe beef combined with foie gras, rolled in panko, cooked to a crispy exterior but with a melty interior, and served with tonkatsu sauce and shaved green onions.
  • Hamasashi - Hamachi sashimi with white truffle oil and fleur de sel, served on ice in which a cryovacced light bulb had been embedded to light the dish from below.
And the hits just kept on coming... mini pork shui mai (dumplings), whole shrimp har gau (in a light tempura), Tori No Tatsuta Age (Japanese style hot wings)... and that was just scratching the surface. Everything was perfectly proportioned - one or two bites, enough to give you a taste and keep you wanting more.

And the cocktails... boy, a person could drown in the amazing concoctions and overflowing sake. To wit - the Spring Awakening: vodka, fresh citrus, orange blossom, mandarin and mango. The China Sea: Shochu, sake, muddled cucumber, fresh citrus. We also had an excellent sake served out of the tiniest of little cans - yes, cans. I guess sake served in cans is declasse in Japan, but from what I read, it's all the rage up and down the big U.S. coastal cities. The sake is called Funaguchi Kikusui, and according to, it "has a bold flavor profile and a strong impact along with a slightly lingering finish. It’s a honjozo and an excellent example of what brewers can achieve when they add a bit of distilled alcohol at the end of the brewing process to enhance and expand flavor profiles." Yea - whatever he said! (All I know is that it was good!)

By the time our friends arrived for dessert, we were in the thick of it and enjoying every minute. Our server, Larissa, couldn't have been more professional and fun. She welcomed our friends, and rolled with our every request. We got three desserts to share, and again, were surprised at every turn. One of the desserts was a Fried Ginger Cream creation - certainly the most unique dish of the night. I'm not sure what moleculer gastronomy technique was used to attain the finished product, but imagine pastry cream in the shape of a cube, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Indescribable - but wonderful.

Deep breath... that was just night one!

Urban Farmer

The second day, I got to spend some time with Katie. Part of our itinerary included an impromptu lunch at Urban Farmer, where I got my first taste of what was to come that night when Ran and I went back for dinner to celebrate his birthday. Urban Farmer is billed as a modern steakhouse, and it was as different from Departure as could be, but no less special. The space itself is sumptuous and stylish, in an open loft sort of way. It's divided into sections - lots of individual lounge areas for guests to enjoy even if they are not dining at the restaurant; a long community table for drop-in patrons; a "pantry" area where diners are seated among the restaurants own house-canned fruits and vegetables (and yes, they use the inventory!); and a "porch" that gives you the feel of eating out on your deck.

One of the lounge areas

The Pantry

I knew we were going to have a big, special meal that night, so I opted for lighter fare at lunch. On Katie's recommendation, I got the beet salad. It was a huge portion of roasted beets with red quinoa, bulgar, parsley, and a walnut vinaigrette - my kind of meal. I went easy on it - not wanting to spoil my appetite for later, but it was a treat to sit there with the chef's wife (I got the kitchen tour!).

That evening, Ran and I sat in a sumptuous booth on the porch and again were treated to a parade of the chef's delights. We started off with one of the restaurant's signature cocktails, an "Oh, Harry," featuring house-made moonshine, sweet vermouth and grenadine. It packed a wallop, but was delicious.

Matt was at the stoves, so he had us simply order what we wanted, but then he filled in the holes with any "must-haves." We went with a surf and turf theme - I got a halibut dish that came with a vibrant pea puree; Ran got a 16-ounce corn-fed New York Prime steak. (We can now say that we know what a $50 steak tastes like. Verdict: pretty darn good.)

For starters and sides, we had a bison carpaccio with an oyster on the half shell; individual corn bread loaves baked in cans (adorable); a rich, beefy onion soup poured tableside and generously flecked with fresh mederira-soaked Oregon truffles; a twice-baked potato tart (imagine creamy mashed potatoes, roasted fingerling potatoes, bacon and sour cream nestled in a flakey, buttery tart crust... creamy starch wrapped in buttery, flaky starch.... only a little over the top, dontcha think?); creamed spinach gratin; foraged mushrooms; and cheesy Anson Mills grits with a poached egg on top. That might be everything - but I couldn't be certain.

The portions were huge. Huge. We didn't even make a dent in things. Not even close. We managed to try a bite or two of each dish, but the majority of it went back to our room where we enjoyed it for breakfast and late night snacks for days to come. We even waddled away without even looking at a dessert menu, despite it being a birthday dinner.

Aside from the food, another highlight of the night was meeting the restaurant's wine steward. She spent ample time with us, talking about her wine list, making recommendations, and generally shooting the breeze about her job and the wine industry. We were in good company, to say the least.

The meal was certainly a splurge, but it was every bit worth it - and more.

Back for Seconds
After our two experiences with The Nines' restaurants, I knew we would be back before we even left town. Sure enough, our third night in town following a rousing wine auction to support Guide Dogs for the Blind (where I work), we headed back to the hotel with people in tow. We found a cozy corner in the Urban Farmer lounge, and enjoyed their late-night happy hour until midnight. Ran, especially, had made so many friends by then, that the General Manager sent a round of champagne for us all.

After we closed down the Urban Farmer, the night was still young, our crew was in a celebratory mood, so we headed up to the 15th floor and enjoyed Departure's late, late-night happy hour until 2 a.m. We sat out on the deck, wrapped in house-supplied blankets against the slight chill of the night air, and reveled in the sparkling, clear skies and city skyline. We all probably had one round of drinks too many, but the night was so festive, it just had to be done.

And that, my friends, is us living our lives to The Nines, if only for a few days. If I sound over the moon about our experience, it's because I am. I may be biased due to my friend being the chef and all, but all the more reason to tout such a wonderful place. But I honestly think even if we didn't know Matt and had just come in off the street, we would have still been privvy to the same exceptional service and enjoyed the food every bit as much. It's just a special place, plain and simple.

If you're ever in Portland, make sure you visit. You'll be glad you did.

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