I love last minute invitations, including the one that came yesterday via email, from Food Dude, saying he could not make the Taste of the Nation event and would I like to go? He even offered to pay. (Thanks, Dude!) And so I get myself to the Convention Center for the event, which supports the hunger-fighting group Share Our Strength and ran from six pm to nine pm, by 6:05 because I want to, um, be home at nine to watch “24,” and also to beat the crowds, the latter utterly in vain, as there are snakes of people waiting to gather their handy little plastic plate with the cut-out that holds your glass of wine. And speaking of wine, I desperately want a glass, and so immediately hit two of the winery booths, conveniently lined up upon entering, and sample shots of pinot noir, all good, none memorable, or at least, not memorable enough that I recall the name of the vineyards, but then again, my head is being turned by a sea of food booths and white-coated chefs coats and aromas of shellfish and cocoa and lamb and mint.
I plunge in. I do not care for the first thing I eat, and eat with trepidation, a cocoa ravioli topped with arugula pesto, as does one really want to begin an eating odyssey with pesto? One does not, especially this pesto, which tastes sharply of grass. Quick, across the aisle to Andina, for a causita, a quarter-size disk of mashed potato filled with a moussey dab of crab, and a little cup of mango verde cebiche, the shrimp tender, the green mango and passion fruit a perfect balance of tart and sweet.
Then, a little more wine… I mean really, they’re pouring it in tablespoons.
Onto Simpatica, a restaurant I have very much been wanting to try and only more so now, as the Buffalo Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich is grand, the soupy/creamy/meaty filling soaking into excellent crusty bread in a way that takes me back to the sandwiches I ate as a kid in Brooklyn, on bread still warm from the Italian bakery. I love it, perhaps a little too vocally, as the man standing next to me gives me a look that says, gee lady, it’s only a sandwich, a sentiment to which I completely disagree: in the right hands, a sandwich can be an opera.
The sixty or so booths are set up that one goes from prosciutto to cupcakes to fondue, meaning, the diner is on her own; there is no hand-holding. And while I do see some organized souls gathering meals per se, I just eat whatever comes next, in this case a slice of rhubarb galette from Baker and Spice, the mere site of rhubarb making me happy, because it means summer is coming. While I do know, because I read the description, that this is “flaky layers of puff pastry topped with vanilla bean rhubarb compote,” really, it’s just a fruit-and-butter delivery-system; pure goodness.
I see Jehnee Rains, pastry chef at Balvo, whom I recently interviewed for this site at my husband’s café, where she indulged me by eating one of my pecan bars. “These are my version,” she says, and nods at squares of Pinenut and Caramel Tart with Rosemary. As if the butter in the previous galette were not narcotic enough, this enters my mouth with an ineffable softness, a delicate swirling of butter and caramel and nuts and…“Salt,” she says, smiling. Yes, salt. And oh, so good, and so tender I wonder how it’s served. “It’s not, yet,” she says, and catches me eyeing the next offering, tiny purses of Nido di Pasta, fresh sheets with wild mushrooms and truffle cream. “This is Kenny,” says Jenhee, and introduces me to Balvo chef Kenny Giambalvo, who warmly shakes my hand just before I pop a Nido in my mouth, at which point I begin to think Balvo has cornered the market on tenderness, because the pasta, too, is incredibly delicate, so sheer it literally melts away, leaving room on the tongue for the truffle cream and mushrooms to play.
“Allo, ca va?” asks Pascal Sauton, from Carafe, who is serving gigantic portions of Tuna Tartare with Foie Gras en croute, each topped with a spouting pea tendril. We talk, for a moment, about the Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year, Nostrana, and how the honor is a mixed blessing; how it will bring so many people also from out of town, and then, how do you keep your regulars happy? And then he is kissing a pretty woman on both cheeks and I am asking the gentleman with the stunning platters of DePaula Confections if I may take not one but three truffles, and they say yes, so long as I promise to eat them. I pop the Butter Gianduja in my mouth. Oh, Christ… yes, I promise, I will eat as many as they will give me.
You’d think by now I’d be full. Surprisingly, not, as I enter the main room, which has four times as many booths. I hit Vindalho first, for a giant lamb kafta, served on what looks like a thin crackly pappadum. Yum. Then, Genoa, for what I think is tuna, also served on a thin cracker, but which does not taste like tuna; it’s luscious and interestingly spiced, and turns out to be tonna di coniglio, or “rabbit of tuna.” What exactly is rabbit of tuna? I can’t tell you, only that, it tastes divine.
Next, I spot Tommy Habetz and the Gotham Bldg Tavern table. I reach for Ants on a Log, a piece of celery topped with, well, I don’t know, could be chopped scallops, but the taste is so clear and fresh and sweet. But it is scallops, says Habetz, “dressed just with lemon and olive oil.” It’s great, though not as great as the Rosemary Pistachio Caramel Bars. Now, I know I have forty booths to go, and I should not be eating this entire bar, but I cannot stop. I can’t. I eat it. Wow.
“It’s Nancy,” says Amanda, a Portland Food Group diner I met last year. She’s with Leopold; they have, they say, made four loops already of the floor, and are going back for me. Me, too. I also run into food writer Anne Marie DiStefano, who is laughing at the idea that she said she’d meet friends here. “Sometimes I think it’s better to just sit in one place,” she says, some charcuterie from Higgins on her plate. “And sometimes I think it’s better to just keep walking around.” And off she goes.
Olea’s booth is festooned with bouffants of cotton candy. I pick up a stick holding what looks like… a corn dog? “It’s lobster in a savory snow-cone with savory cotton candy,” says the guy manning the booth, who may or may not be chef Scott Shampine, but in either case whom I tell, he didn’t need to get past “lobster” to convince me to eat what turns out to be a hunk of lobster in batter and deep-fried. It’s whimsical and I love it. Equally whimsical is what I think is the small cup of gazpacho dotted with thick crema, served at the Wildwood booth, but which turns out to be Dagoba Chocolate Cream soda, which I slurp down and then, lick the dregs out of the cup.
Jack Czarnicki, chef owner of Joel Palmer House, is serving Pasta with Morels, in a Chipotle Cream Sauce. Smoky, chewy, with the musk of morels and the slip of cream, it borders on sensual, a fact that must reflect on my face, as two attendees are staring at me rather intently; what, one asks, am I eating? I try to explain, until eventually the other one says, “You mean, it’s the bomb.” Yes, that’s it; the bomb.
The last item of the evening I enjoy are the Tacos de Cochinito, tiny soft tacos covered in slivered pork and red onion doctored in such as way that all their sweetness and just a little of their heat come through. I thank chef Ben Gonzalez, who nods cordially and thanks me.
I run into several well-known chefs and ask if I may interview them; they both say yes, including one who wonders whether I am ready to run something “controversial.” I tell him, we at Portland Food and Drink are made of pretty staunch stuff. I head back to the main corridor and try several things that I think are awful, including a dish from a former ROY winner that tastes like nothing so much as Beefaroni, and, from a different restaurant, what appears to be lemon flan but, once in my mouth, turns out to be a loose eggy pabulum of the sort I imagine is served to hospital patients.
I’m done, ready to go, but cannot get a certain item out of my mind…
I head back the Gotham table, and tell them my favorite dish of the night is the rosemary caramel squares. “Here, take lots!” says one of the guys manning the table, who immediately puts four squares (plus the two chocolates I have left) on a small paper and wraps it in plastic for me to take home, where I arrive by 8:25. After changing into a larger pair of pants, I unwrap the sweets for my husband and daughter, who eat a chocolate apiece but only a half of a rosemary-pecan bar each.
I eat the remaining ones watching “24.”
My five favorite items at the event, in no particular order:
• Nido di Pasta (Balvo)
• Tonna di Coniglio (Genoa)
• Penne with Morels in a Chipotle Cream Sauce (Joel Palmer House)
• Buffalo Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich (Simpatica)
• Rosemary Pistachio Caramel Bars (Gotham Bldg Tavern)