Travel Eats: Portland’s Beast and Toro Bravo

This is part of a series of posts about my vacation to Portland, Oregon, in late February 2013.

A quote on the chalkboard wall at Beast
A quote on the chalkboard wall at Beast – words to live by!

Brunch at Beast

As I said on Twitter, I would consider this the best overall brunch experience of my life. I knew going into it that a four-course brunch (yes, that’s four courses) from one of my favorite chefs on Top Chef Masters would be nothing to scoff at, but there was so much else that came together to make the atmosphere extra-special. Both brunch and dinner at Beast are completely seasonal and change weekly based on that week’s market, so the prix fixe menu that’s posted outside the door is your first glimpse of what you’ll be eating, with no substitutions allowed. While I realize it isn’t for everyone, it probably goes without saying that I am always excited to eat this way. Although Chef Naomi was in Miami for the weekend, her staff treated us 24 or so diners with the utmost care, ushering us in right at 10 a.m. and meticulously plating each course in the open kitchen that comprised nearly half of the intimate space. In the other half, two large communal tables were filled by a collection of food-lovers from all over the country. Speaking of those fellow diners…in a fun coincidence, the party next to us was a couple from the LA-area and their two daughters, both of whom happened to be Northwestern alums, and the older of whom was even in my graduating class! Once we started to recognize each other and talk through our mutual friends and connections (with a little help from Facebook), it became even more startling that two people with so much in common just happened to be seated together at brunch all the way in Portland. Beyond that, it was just a delight to be around so many other foodies – including this one, with an extensive knowledge of food in most major cities and a great Twitter presence – and sharing the experience with people who wanted to soak it in the same way, iPhone-photo-snapping and all (no doubt this restaurant has inspired its own Portlandia sketches).

Of course, the food itself was equally excellent. To begin, the bacon-topped claufoutis was airy with lovely apple flavor – I tried to savor each spoonful, but I’ll admit that it went quickly. The hash combined so many of my favorite savory brunch ingredients that I felt as if they’d read my mind: duck, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, broccoli, mushrooms…a mixture that was rich, balanced, and all-out delicious. Next up was a plate of three outstanding (and very different) cheeses that were paired with greens so flavorful and nicely dressed that we could barely stop talking about them. And finally, I now dream of wrapping up every brunch with a smooth, ultra-dark chocolate stout cake cloaked in more chocolate and topped with gold-leaf-flecked chantilly cream. If this is what Beast’s morning meal is like, I’d love to go back someday for a six-course dinner, and make a few more new food-fanatic friends.

Northern Spy Apple clafoutis with soft whipped cream and maple-glazed bacon
Northern Spy Apple clafoutis with soft whipped cream and maple-glazed bacon
Beast hash with duck confit, heirloom broccoli, maitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, poached farm egg, and hollandaise
Beast hash with duck confit, heirloom broccoli, maitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, poached farm egg, and hollandaise
Selection of Steve's cheeses (cow, goat, sheep) with Groundworks organic greens and citrus vinaigrette
Selection of Steve’s cheeses (cow, goat, sheep) with Groundworks organic greens and citrus vinaigrette
Dark chocolate stout cake with crème chantilly
Dark chocolate stout cake with crème chantilly

The details: Beast, 5425 NE 30th Ave.

Dinner at Toro Bravo

Toro Bravo draws crowds for its imaginative tapas, so we had to see what the hype was about. We got there right as the restaurant opened for dinner and claimed a seat at the kitchen counter, which was a fun way to see how some of our food came together and listen to the expedite process and general flow of the kitchen. I was genuinely impressed by most of our dishes, and understood why this place had developed a strong following. The boquerones, for example, were treated as exactly the salty delicacy they should be, served atop piperade with such depth that it felt like it had to have been simmering on a grandmother’s stove all day. I was also a little obsessed with the baked polenta, which was basically the best qualities of a cheesesteak and creamy grits rolled together into one. Great cocktails and attentive service as well.

Octopus a la plancha
Octopus a la plancha
Radicchio salad with green olive toast and manchego vinaigrette
Radicchio salad with green olive toast and manchego vinaigrette
Boquerones with grilled bread and piperade
Boquerones with grilled bread and piperade
Baked polenta with roast beef, peppers, and onions
Baked polenta with roast beef, peppers, and onions

The details: Toro Bravo, 120 NE Russell St.

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