"Since Mesopotamian times, people have baked bread and made beer in the same location," said Greg Higgins, chef and manager of the B. Moloch Heathman Bakery and Pub in downtown Portland. "Maybe it was because you need yeast for both beer and bread, and yeast likes certain atmospheres."
Beer and bread are together again at B. Moloch's, named for the turn-of-the-century French political cartoonist whose caricatures decorate the walls.
A micro-brewery making Widmer beer occupies about a third of the warehouse-like space. The rest is devoted to the bakery/restaurant that offers an eclectic mix of breads, muffins, scones, pizzas, salads and pastas. And what bread it is--full of flavor and with a great crust that comes from the wood-fired oven.
"We use beer in many of our recipes," Higgins said, as he trimmed the excess pastry from several dozen calzone and slides them into the brick oven. "We make a slightly sour beer bread, and we use beer in our rarebits and some of our sauces."
But as with most of the good restaurants in this city, the thing that really distinguishes the food at B. Moloch's is the use of Oregon's abundant natural produce.
"The range of ingredients in Oregon eclipses even what is available in the Napa and Sonoma counties of California," Higgins said. "We have great lamb, seafood, vegetables, game meats, huckleberries and hazelnuts. The local produce is just superlative, including, of course, the salmon."
The twice-yearly salmon runs in the nearby Columbia River--usually in early October and late February--are famous. But at B. Moloch's, "salmon run" has a special meaning.
Every spring, Portland artist Roger Long paints a series of banners depicting several varieties of salmon.
On the morning of the vernal equinox, a group of local food-lovers gathers at the Salmon Fountain near the Willamette River and--each carrying a banner--run nine blocks up Salmon Street to the restaurant, where Long then hangs the banners from the ceiling, arranging them to simulate the course of the river.
As we breakfasted on warm bannocks, a kind of Scottish scone made with oats and cheese, we looked up to admire the banner over our heads.
At the side of a beautifully depicted chinook was what looked like Japanese writing. Higgins told us it was actually "salmon talk," and pointed to the English translation that read, "Protect our cool streams for the king of mountain migrators--Pacific chinook and salmon Atlantic."
Salmon, and food in general, is taken very seriously in Portland.
At B. Moloch, breakfast items include a smoked salmon Benedict for $7.50, a cheddar and hazelnut rarebit for $4.95 and freshly baked breads, muffins and scones.
Calzone--seafood, meat or vegetarian--and pizza for $6-$8 are popular at lunch, and dinner specialties include grilled breast of duck with artichoke hearts and polenta for $13.95 and braised Oregon rabbit for $11.50.
Touch of Humor
While B. Moloch shares the same ownership as the Heathman Hotel, the management is separate. However, the hotel does buy bread from the bakery and, like Higgins, George Tate--executive chef at the Heathman--operates his kitchen with a touch of humor and a refreshing lack of pretension.
"We just try to present what we have naturally, in the best way we can," he says of the cuisine in the hotel's dining room. "We're fortunate here to have access to great natural ingredients--chanterelles, salmon, oysters, crawfish. We generally don't use recipes; we cook by taste and use whatever fresh produce comes in the back door that day."
Tate, who grew up working in his parents' restaurant in central Oregon and put himself through the Culinary Institute of America, incorporates Oriental and Mexican influences in such dishes as black bean soup with lamb sausage and sun-dried tomatoes and salmon glazed with Sichuan peppercorns and garlic.
The Heathman's restaurant is among the best in the Pacific Northwest, and Tate is so easygoing it's easy to forget that what he creates in his kitchen is excellent cuisine--creative and complex. His food has helped to make the Heathman Hotel Dining Room a popular place for power breakfasts and business lunches. Reservations are usually necessary.
The stylishly contemporary dining room is hung with Andy Warhol animal prints and furnished in comfortable leather chairs. We began our lunch there with a seafood bisque redolent with the flavor of fresh tomato and topped with tender scallops.
A broiled breast of Oregon chicken, aromatic from the grill, was served with lemon pasta and smoked ham. Fresh chinook salmon was poached and served in a buerre blanc with cilantro, red onion and lime.
Accompaniments included fresh wild mushrooms that had been lightly steamed, baby carrots and spaghetti squash in maple syrup and butter. Lunch or dinner for two costs about $30-$50, about half what a similar meal would cost in New York or Los Angeles.
Another of Portland's creative chefs is Dennis Baker, whose small restaurant in a restored building not far from downtown is one of the most romantic dining places we've found.
Cafe des Amis is intimate, with only two small, candlelight dining rooms. The plain white walls and sparse decor allowed us to concentrate on each other and the food. As we found in most Portland restaurants, there was the luxury of space around the tables.
As the mushroom soup was served, the aroma of fresh, wild mushrooms filled the air. A salad of red leaf lettuce with a walnut dressing was crisp and had just the right balance of oil and vinegar.
Next came duck with orange and green peppercorns and salmon Trois Gros, salmon poached in fresh stock, creme fraiche and shallots. For dessert, we had huckleberry tart, a seasonal specialty. The crust was crisp and flaky and the huckleberries were like small blueberries with a more intense flavor. Dinner for two, without wine, was about $50.
For a more casual meal, we tried Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, near the river. In operation since 1907, the restaurant has an interior designed to look like the hull of an old sailing ship. Hundreds of plates, photographs and bric-a-brac decorate the pine covered walls.
Yaquina oysters--grown by the owners in beds in Yaquina Bay on the coast--were small and flavorful, with a hint of ocean spray. The next course of fresh shrimp and scallops, deep-fried in a light batter, were good, but we kept thinking of those exceptional oysters. They cost just $6 a dozen. Entrees are $6-$10.
Another Portland landmark restaurant, Jake's, is always crowded, and if you wait for a table be sure and ask for a booth, it will make dining a lot more pleasant. While waiting, you can walk a couple of blocks to Powell's book store, one of the largest anywhere, and browse.
If you tire of seafood, there's Hamburger Mary's, in a tiny corner building downtown. The interior is festooned with odd signs, hanging plants and giant plastic dinosaurs. Inside is a counter and some tables, but in good weather, there's outdoor dining on the sidewalk.
Hamburger Blue came with a strong topping of blue cheese and cheddar, and Hamburger Mary, with melted cheddar, tomatoes, lettuce, sprouts and a special sauce. The hamburgers are large, full of flavor and juice and served on freshly baked buns. They cost $3.80-$4.60. Alas, no French fries or milk shakes. Come early. It's always crowded.
Other Portland dining choices include the imaginative Bread 'n' Ink Cafe; Atwater's, on the 30th floor of the city's tallest building for the view, and Huber's Cafe for great sandwiches and atmosphere.
Skyline Restaurant is a true '50s diner with a real soda fountain, and then there's the original Original Pancake House, where the breakfasts are huge.
The London Grill at the Westin Benson has a harpist and still serves Steak Diane. The Alexis Hotel restaurant offers nice views of the Willamette River.
Portland is also a coffee-lover's paradise. The entire downtown area is full of coffee bars and cafes that offer a range of freshly ground coffees, espressos and cappuccinos. Starbucks, in a structure that would be at home in Paris, is right in Pioneer Courthouse Square. It opens early for coffee, fresh rolls and muffins.
Just a block away, Kobos serves coffee and cookies in a shop with brewing accessories and beans from around the world.
Our favorite coffee stop was at Le Panier, a French bakery near the riverfront. The shop has won honors as the top bakery in Portland. It carries a supply of freshly baked French breads in several shapes and sizes, as well as some excellent pastries.
We tried a lemon charlotte that was nicely puckery with lemon flavor. This is a good place to stock up for a picnic by the river. Get bread and a dessert here and pick up other ingredients at the Yamhill Market a few blocks away at Yamhill and Second streets.
You'll find that almost everything in downtown Portland is within easy walking distance, and there's free rapid transit in the central district.
Recommended: B. Moloch Heathman Bakery & Pub, 901 S.W. Salmon St., (503) 227-5700; Cafe des Amis, 1987 N.W. Kearney St., (503) 295-6487; Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, 208 S.W. Ankeny St., (503) 227-5906; Hamburger Mary's, 840 S.W. Park Ave., (503) 223-900; Heathman Hotel Dining Room, 1009 S.W. Broadway, (503) 241-4100; Le Panier, 71 S.W. Second Ave., (503) 241-3524.