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Modernism comes to Portland’s food scene

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 12:01 am

PORTLAND, Ore. – Far from the expectant gaze of major restaurant critics and the accompanying pressure to produce the Next Big Thing, this little-big city offers chefs a unique opportunity — the chance to experiment with less fear of scathing reviews, empty tables and For Sale signs after an adventurous flop.

Innovation is rewarded here, and maybe that's called for in a region that's looking beyond the novelty of farm-to-table, toward something new. But what?

A dozen chefs from Los Angeles to British Columbia recently came to Portland to wrestle with that idea. For people who hate labels, here's one they particularly dislike: “modernist cuisine,” that murky term that's come to mean vacuum sealing, gel layering, foams, globules, centigrade measurements and one famous 2,400-page, $625 cookbook.

It is, however, the one that best describes the culinary wave that has crested over big-city restaurants. Now even humble Portland, nearly a decade on, is finding its own way to express it.

Chef Gregory Gourdet — who organized the Chefs Week PDX event — says the catchall of “modernism” in the Pacific Northwest can vary by the chef. “Portland is still not modern-technique heavy,” he says. “It keeps things very approachable, but it's applying some of the tools (of modernism).”

The romantic vision of Portland restaurant kitchens — loud and tattooed and full of open flames — is fusing with this new notion, combining the region's reliance for that which is fresh and nearby with the inevitable encroachment of high-powered kitchen toys. It's a marriage that was on display with yuzu mousse riding alongside a shard of bigeye tuna and Oregon black truffle at one of the chefs' dinners.

“We're kind of the Wild West,” said Justin Woodward of Portland's Castagna. “We don't have a Michelin Guide. We don't have The New York Times breathing down our neck. We can basically do whatever we want.”

That attitude led to shelves full of awards, a reputation for risk and dishes like smoked rabbit pie with mustard ice cream. But it also created a bit of an archetype for what Portland cuisine should be, dangerous to a city that's food scene is built on invention.

“A lot of menus look the same these days,” said Jason French of the Portland wood-fired kitchen Ned Ludd. “Everyone has charcuterie.

Everyone's dabbling in some aspect of molecular gastronomy.”

The Pacific Northwest still values its comfort food. Avant-garde drizzles and dabs haven't taken root here, and despite Portland's reputation for culinary innovation, most of its residents — the Tuesday-nighters, not the tourists — will take salmon on a plank over piquillo pepper spheres.

The food scene in Portland finds itself nearing a crossroad. The city was largely shut out of this year's national James Beard Awards, and in late February, pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Wildwood closed after 20 years.