Restaurant of the Year, 2007 – My Candidates

It wasn’t difficult to come up with candidates for Restaurant of the Year. Many terrific new ones have opened, and others have matured. I didn’t have any trouble sitting down and dashing off a list of ten.

I started revisiting all the restaurants, and quickly narrowed it down to three. In making my decision, I took into account ambiance, value, service, and food. My winning restaurant scored high on every factor.

My final candidates in alphabetical order are Lovely Hula Hands, PokPok-Whiskey Soda Lounge, and Toro Bravo. Interestingly enough, they are all fairly new, or in the case of LHH, have been completely overhauled.

Lovely Hula Hands has soared since moving north on Mississippi Avenue. From the cocktails to the appetizers, the entrées to desserts, they rarely miss a step. Of particular note are the salads; the combination of ingredients and execution have been stunning. There have been a few times when I’ve wanted to walk into the kitchen and hug the pantry chef. Though the entrées may not always stun you with unexpected new twists, they are reliably good – something that seems very difficult to achieve in this town. Furthermore, from the warm space and welcoming service to the comforting food, this is just the type of place that draws me during these uncertain times. Even better, the price point is low enough so you can go out to dinner without needing a special occasion for an excuse.

Don’t miss the Radicchio with Pear Butter Vinaigrette and Brie, the Yellowtail Carpaccio with Fennel and Citrus Salad, and if it’s on the menu, the Leek and Goat-Cheese Soufflé.

In a comment on this site, writer Kevin Allman said it best “So many PDX restaurants remind me of those “American Idol” style female singers who are all five-octaves and melisma; you want to tell them to settle down, stop trying to show off, and just sing the damn song. LHH is the opposite of that – self-assured, understated, non-trendy, and just top-notch in all respects.”  Note: Lovely Hula Hands closed in early 2010


For good reason, PokPok is a darling of the Portland food scene. Never one to overreach, owner Andy Ricker has carefully paced himself, adding dining areas and more complex menu choices with additional authentic ingredients as he goes. In this time of weakening economy, I’m sure many restaurateurs wish they had picked his more conservative path.Throw away any preconceptions you may have about Thai food. Eating here is an education in the cuisine – a wakeup slap to those who thought the cooking was limited to pad Thai and various curries. The menu frequently rotates, with daily specials asking diners to stretch their imaginations and try something new. Looking back over my visits, I have to dig deep to come up with any complaints, which are limited to occasional dishes not quite living up to expectations. Finally, PokPok is a victim of its own success, with long waits almost every night of the week. I try to sneak in during lunch when I can usually get a table, though the menu is a bit different from nighttime.

 

Even with the crowds, dining here is an experience that should not be missed. Some standouts include Fish Sauce-Marinated Chicken Wings, Hoi Thawt – a crispy broken crepe with mussels, eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts, Khao Soi Kai – a curry noodle soup with homemade curry paste that will cure anything that ails you, and Yam Samun Phrai, a Northern Thai herbal salad. PokPok is always a terrific dining option in Portland. Full Review


Toro Bravo is a wonder – from opening week they have been overrun with customers, yet have handled the rush with efficient smooth service that recognizes the value of a single happy customer. This is a casebook study on how to open a restaurant. Owners John and Courtney Gorham have created a restaurant with an attractive, convivial atmosphere that makes people want to laugh and talk to their neighbors. The food is fairly consistent, with only one major kitchen misstep in at least 15 visits. Though waits can be considerable, they do their best to make it as painless as possible, offering bar service to those in the queue.Once seated, you are bound to have a good time exploring the variety of tapas plates. Some don’t-miss options include Boquerones (or anchovies) on toasted bread, Salt Cod Fritters, Oxtail Croquettes, and Griddle Shrimp with Chilies. The prices are quite reasonable. I usually waddle out for about $30.00 a person – a rarity these days.

 

My only complaint is many of the items on the menu are of a similar deep-fried variety. It would be nice to see them drop some of the duplicate items, branch out a bit more, and explore more of the range that Spanish food has to offer. Unfortunately, the qualities which make Toro Bravo such a find have also brought crowds. Be there when they open, or be prepared to wait. Full Review


Looking back over my list, I notice a few things that set these three restaurants apart from much of the crowded Portland market: consistency, service and value for your hard-earned money. In all my visits to these restaurants, they have never missed the mark in these categories.I could easily give my Restaurant of the Year to all three, but based on overall dining experience, one stands slightly higher than the others. It’s the little details; the warm unrushed atmosphere, the easy smiles, and the little part of me that covets my neighbor’s salad while I’m eating my own. When I’m already planning what I’ll have next time, I know the experience is a winner. My Restaurant of the Year is Lovely Hula Hands.

 

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. tabletalkportland says

    Our top 3 are Toro Bravo, Pok Pok, and Beast, so we share 2 of your top 3 new restaurants ;) It is interesting that these are all relatively new restaurants… maybe we should do a top 3 of restaurants that are older than 2 years. There are some great ones and I think we just forget about these guys that have been providing great dining experiences and service consistently over the years. My top 3 restaurants older than 2 years are Castagna, Paley’s, and Andina.

  2. says

    Table Talk, my list of older establishments would be exactly the same as yours. I also like Beast, but my most recent meal there was way below the quality of other’s I’ve had.

  3. quietone says

    The last two visits to the wondrous Toro Bravo have been great but with one exception. Both times, the oxtail croquettes were terrible… wait for it. There were the typical three pieces, but only one had meat in it! The other two were (albeit delicious) breading, but with nothing inside. Both times I got the lucky piece, and my dining partner was left scooping up the sauce with small amount of meat chunks to go with his/her breading.

    I love the place, and I’ll be back again and again. But such a good dish shouldn’t be served exactly that way, twice. Has anyone else experienced this with the oxtail?

  4. nightdoktor says

    Though not the “best” meal I’ve had this year, I’ve really been impressed by Biwa. The ramen is amazing (and if you go after 9:30 it’s 1/2 price); it’s relatively inexpensive, and the small plates are really simple and delicious.
    I’ve been probably 7-8 times this year, and found the service and food to be both CONSISTENT (which is some kind of Portland freak/miracle), and whenever friends come from out of town, I point them there.
    The Korean tartare is a must, by the way.

    The best meal I had was at Beast. The duck was freakishly good (I’m still amazed that anyone can cook duck); The foie gras was so good it made me want to bring flowers to it’s tiny goose grave.
    The service was the best I’ve had here; you could tell that everyone who worked there was proud of what they were serving.
    The only flaw was this odd cheese they served at the end. It was as if the guy that makes Limburger woke up one morning and said “I’m tired of making this odorless, weak cheese. I’m wanna make a cheese for people with absolutely no olfactory sense whatsoever. And I will name it merde vache!”

    But whatever, other people at my table loved the merde vache, it just wasn’t my thing. And if I can afford it again, I’ll be going back soon. Truly excellent dining!

  5. says

    I’ve had the oxtails almost everytime I’ve been, and they have always been great.

    Isn’t that a good salad, onetart? I’d like to run pictures from the other restaurants too, but haven’t been able to get any from them.

  6. onetart says

    We’ve had the oxtail croquettes a few times – with no absence of oxtail. I’m not the most eager of fried food eaters, but anything fried at Toro Bravo rates as an exception for me. I order the fried anchovies just to eat the fried lemon and fennel that’s mixed in with the dish.

  7. onetart says

    Oh, and Food Dude? $%&#* you for putting that picture of the beet, leek, and egg salad from LHH up there. It’s the best dish I’ve had in Portland. Ever. Now every time I look at it I can barely stand it. Food Porn at its finest, my friend.

  8. SaltyCod says

    I like the idea of separate categories for new restaurants and ones that have been around for more than two years.
    Starting great is one thing. Staying great is something else. I noticed a long time ago that some restaurants just aren’t as good as they were when I first discovered them. Then I realized that new restaurants often don’t start off being accountable to their budget. It’s in their best interest to impress new customers, waitstaff are recently hired and want to keep the new job, chefs are still learning about the finer details of each dish and often try to err on the side of customer satisfaction. Many restaurants don’t stay open after 5 years, and I think this must be because whoever is running the books realizes that you can’t claim a loss on your taxes 6 years in a row… And once the strings tighten…

    Also, I just want to say that I only discovered this site today, and I am thrilled! Thank you for creating it. I have always wondered why there is so much boosterism in our local periodicals and so little genuine critique. Thanks so much.

  9. pdxyogi says

    Love the salty cod at Lolo…mmmmmmm…
    I don’t think we need two categories. The solution is simpler than that: don’t make them eligible for consideration until they’ve been around for at least 1.5 years.