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NY: Watch your back...Portland is on fire!

(post, Judith Klinger)

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I’m worried about my hometown. Are we New Yorkers resting on our foodie laurels instead of being at the forefront of the culinary movement? Are we becoming a faded rose'? Past our prime?

To be fair: the Great Recession hit New York really hard. The financial industry is housed here and when their bottom fell out , NYC was devastated. Restaurants and shops were empty, not quiet…empty. But things are turning around and you can feel the buzz start to build again.  But, that’s not the whole answer. Its hard to be fast and nimble in NYC: the stakes are high, the start up costs are high, so that’s why you get a lot of big name corporate type restaurants and fewer of the edgy start-ups, but something has to change or we are going to lose our creds’ as a food Mecca.   Granted there is a much longer growing season in the Pacific Northwest and that certainly has an effect on what shows up on the table, but their markets are affordable, while our require pre-approval. “Oh you would like to buy a dozen of our organic eggs? Have you been pre-approved by our bank or do you have independent financing?”  What’s going on here? I've asked this question before, the markets in Italy is where the common person shops, the markets in NYC is where rich people shop.
When I tell someone to go to Philly for pizza instead of NY, that’s ominous.

Portland was an eye opener.  The upstart, entrepreneurial, “hey guys lets open a …food cart, or a winery, or a restaurant, coffee bar, or bread bakery” attitude that was so prevalent in Portland, is simply missing from the NY scene.  Maybe I’m jaded, maybe Portland’s food scene seems so vibrant because the city is small and its easier to be a big fish in a little pond, maybe I just sampled the best of the best because Portland wanted to showcase their finest for IACP, but something is going on there that isn’t going on here. I know I’m talking heresy and trash at the same time. 

You want examples? Let’s start with coffee. Coffee is a freakin’ religion in Portland, the entire city smells of coffee, you realize that the scent is making you crave coffee ALL day long. It’s the home of Stumptown coffee, which has cult status in Portland and can be found in select places in NYC. They used to be at the Chelsea Market, and Jeff, who hates going grocery shopping, would come along with me just so he could get a coffee. They were given an award at IACP in part because they donated a bunch of specially tricked out cargo bikes to Rwandan coffee growers.  I can barely get the guy at Café’ Café’ to smile at me, let alone care about his coffee.
Then there is Joel Domreis of Courier Coffee. Joel sources his organic coffee from sustainable growers, he does the roasting and hand delivers his coffee beans on his bicycle. To say he’s obsessed doesn’t quite describe his level of coffee devotion. Joel will be opening a brand new coffee bar in early June at 923 SW Oak St.  No take out paper cups, because Joel thinks coffee is like wine, it tastes better in a cup, it deserves to be in porcelain. I agree. His coffee is already an underground secret; his coffee shop is set to become addictive. 
It’s hard for me to describe the food cart scene in Portland.  There are random stand alone carts (my sister tries not to go to one near City Hall because she says its like crack…you eat that and that’s all you want to eat, day after day after day, his name is Pete, and its Indian food, go sniff it out for yourself).  Then there are the parking lots that are filled with row upon row of food stalls. Almost like what I’ve seen in the Far East, like in Hong Kong when the sun goes down and Cat Street converts to a food stall haven.  I know, it’s an unfortunate name for Chinese food stalls, what can I say? They also have stands where they sing Chinese opera, which can sound a whole lot like a herd of cats.
New York NEEDS these food carts! Yeah, we have Shake Shack, but I’d much rather go to Khao Man Gai’s stand at SW10th & Alder for some of Nong’s cooking. She was the unofficial winner of best food served at the fancy IACP opening reception at the Nines Hotel. Check out her webpage, she Tweets when they are sold out.
I love bread and NY has good bread, don’t get me wrong. I love Balthazar and Sullivan St, but Little T American Baker has the most flavorful bread that I’ve tasted in a long time.  He uses one tasty all natural mother!  Of course we also have bagels, and no other place on earth has good bagels. Only NY. Period. End of statement.

New York has  local vineyards, but nothing on the scale of Oregon. It’s the weather, the soil, the location, and we can’t change that. Yes, we have Long Island, but its never going to be like the West Coast.  One elegant Oregonian wine to look for is Domaine Drouhin; their pinot drank exactly like an Old World wine. It wasn’t huge smack you upside the head fruit, it was soft and elegant and refined and perfect for pairing with food.

We may not have the wine industry, but there is no excuse for the micro-brewers and the distillers to not be more prominent in NY.  There are some excellent distillers and a lot of good brewers, but again nothing like the scope of what I saw in the Pacific North West.  Philly has a great micro-brewery culture, check out the Brewer’s Fest if you want to see passion.  Hot tip: If you happen to spy Pacific Distillery’s absinthe anywhere, give it a try, it’s mellow and herbaceous and just plain delicious.

Local Cheese It’s not that I’m down on NY; I just think we are getting a little bit lazy and its time to step up our game.   And if you are in NY and want to experience some of this passion I’m ranting about, then head over to Roberta’s in Flatbush, these guys would be right at home in Portland. Wonder how their garden is growing….

The other area where New York is on top of the game is cheese. I tasted some very nice cheese in Portland, but we win for diversity and overall quality.

Home Cooking It would be fun to do an Iron Chef type competition by location…Portland v. New York making steak, or Philly v. Portland brewer comp. Foodnetwork, are you listening? 

 The big picture moral of the story is that no matter what, there is a burgeoning local food culture in every part of this country, and it is a good and wonderful thing.  Now, if everyone would just cook a little more at home with all this wondrous stuff, life would be better for everyone! Good eats indeed.