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Portland, Oregon's Cutting-Edge Cuisine

A vintage sign in Portland's Old Town.

Photo: Steve Kepple

“I’m just gonna come right out and say it,” Naomi Pomeroy says, stealing a glance over her shoulder before just coming right out and saying it: “Men brutalize their vegetables!”

Boy chefs suffer from a meat-first machismo, she says, giggling. Hers is a commanding giggle, if there is such a thing. She’s no dainty herbivore. At her restaurant Beast last night, I’d eaten boudin noir set in apple and duck-fat pastry and sliced hanger steak with brown-butter béarnaise. Then came the salad. It was a salad that was actually worth saving for the end of the meal. Why? Maybe it was the peppery freshness of the wild miner’s lettuce and greens from Gathering Together Farms. Maybe it was the unbrutalized way in which they’d been handled (emphasis on hands; tongs are to Pomeroy’s greens as wire hangers were to Joan Crawford’s closets) or the light, tart touch of the Sauvignon Blanc vinaigrette. Or maybe it really did come down to the “gentle chick-flick approach” Pomeroy says she and sous-chef Mika Paredes bring to their cooking: a two-woman, two-seating, six-course, set-menu nightly show in which 20 or so satisfied-looking participants eat communally and leave no trace of salad on their plates.

Veggie-handling trash talk aside, Pomeroy has nothing but love for Portland’s community of chefs, guys she’s worked with and grown up around over the years in the city’s flowering, cross-pollinating restaurant industry. There is Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, the small and celebrated Lower Burnside space that is half civilized bistro and half culinary crack den, where your darkest desires (foie gras torchon with buttermilk pancakes? Sweetbreads with blue cheese?) are indulged. And there’s Jason Barwikowski—with whom Rucker and Pomeroy once worked—who has now turned to the curing and butchering arts at Olympic Provisions, in Southeast Portland.

Beast is run like a nightly dinner party, with Pomeroy and Paredes as the busy hosts. During a brief break in the action, Pomeroy takes me to a nearby café, where she immediately spots and is spotted by a local food blogger. She lowers her voice and we take our coffees to go. Surely there are other food nerds lurking nearby. Artisanal picklers, back-to-the-land lettuce farmers, sandwich-shop schemers, coffee micro-roasters, sous-chefs sketching their plans for the next great wood-fired pizza cart. Is Portland the most food-obsessed city in the country? It sure feels like it.

Pomeroy traces the city’s enduring culinary obsessions to the 1960’s hippie influx, to people who came to Portland to grow their own food and do their own canning; it’s an awareness of the politics of consumption that never went away. “My generation is coming around to our own interpretation of what our parents did,” she says, looking up from a pile of torn bread that will become tonight’s wild-onion-and-Swiss-chard panada. “But we’re doing an edgier version. We like meat. We’ve got no interest in suffering. We like to have a good time.”

“This should be a cologne,” Jason French says, sniffing like a hound at the meat-fragrant air. “You need to bottle this. Call it ‘USDA-Approved.’”

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