Vancouver and Portland have much in common with one another: both are coastal towns with a lively craft beer and food scene and both have a proper annual food festival that celebrates local chefs and their culinary creations.
With over 120 participating restaurants, Portland Dining Month’s now in its seventh year, offering diners a three-course menu for $29. I headed down to enjoy a few days of downtown dining, selecting three spots based on their PDM menus: Mamma Mia Trattoria, Little Bird Bistro and Portland Prime.
Mamma Mia Trattoria
This popular family restaurant is housed in the 1886 Waldo Block (part of then-flourishing Chinatown), designed in the classic Italianate architectural style. The former Merchants’ National Bank has ornate capitals containing photo-worthy female heads.
Marble-topped tables, chandeliers and wall-to-wall complementary carpeting add to the ambiance. I started with a simple house salad, moving on to fettuccine bolognese, made using locally-produced pasta. Braised osso bucco was unfortunately sold out on the night I visited (cioppino and pasta primavera make up the other choices). I much enjoyed the fettuccine along with a glass of Willamette Valley’s Joleté 2014 Pinot Noir.
The dishes are flavourful and portions are just right to make room for dessert (mine was a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry sorbet).
Cannoli and Amaretto cheesecake are the other choices. They’re located at 439 SW 2nd Avenue in Portland.
Little Bird, a charming French bistro with a Pacific Northwest flair, has been busy during March: its made Portland Monthly’s top 10 lists of must-dine options during Portland Dining Month.
James Beard Award winner/founding chef and owner Gabriel Rucker has included several staple dishes in 2016’s three-course prix fixe menu.
The interior contains silver ceilings with ornate moulding, the walls are adorned with mirrors and plants and the front windows allow light to pour in with a view of 6th Avenue.
The first course options include radicchio salad with orange-poppy dressing or grilled pork belly and chickpea blini with lentil hummus. I much enjoyed the main course: cedar-planked true cod atop balsamic roasted fennel.
Lemon olive oil cake with lemon crumb and rhubarb was my choice for dessert. The ice cream/sorbet duo looked a lot more interesting (and was likely more flavourful) as it made its way to the next table over. The rhubarb wound up being too much of a contrast for the rather tasteless olive cake.
Local and French wines, Oregon craft and bottled beer plus a curated selection of craft cocktails round out the offerings here. Although sister restaurant Le Pigeon in East Burnside is known for its offal, Napa native Rucker has experimented a lot during his career with an ever-evolving menus. Case in point, wok-fried half crab served with Thai basil pesto, pickled chiles and preserved lemon has been paired with a curry and rooster risotto. That’s some serious off-the-beaten path creation!
Together with the Portland Dining Month menu, Little Bird regular dishes include marrow, charcuterie and cheese boards, daily oysters, foie gras, duck, pork, Hanger steak, a double-brie burger and fried chicken coq au vin, the latter recently chosen as one of Portland’s top 10 must-try dishes.
Little Bird is located at 219 SW 6th Avenue in Portland.
My third and final PDM choice is downtown’s Portland Prime, located at the Embassy Suites by Hilton. I’ve had previous success dining at hotel chain restaurants, however this one’s service was erratic from the start.
I came here to try their grilled wild salmon, as the restaurant showcases fresh Northwest seafood. It arrived so dry and overcooked that I could have sworn it had spent an extra 20 minutes under a heat lamp. In the meantime, my starter salad was brought out a second time (the waitress had apparently no idea that a salad had been brought my way, nor that I’d already finished it).
While waiting for a new plate of salmon, I ordered the Yellowfin ahi tuna tower, served with sashimi dressing, sushi rice, avocado and pico de gallo. This proved a tasty intermission.
Finally, the salmon arrived, fresh, flaky and accompanied by cherry Roma tomatoes, slender asparagus spears and mashed potatoes.
When I asked about the desserts, my waitress had no idea whether they’d been prepared onsite or were outsourced. I understood that she’d only been working there a month, but basic training would have had her answering yes or no.
Why the service was this subpar, especially on a mid-week night in a half-filled restaurant puzzled me, but perhaps that should have been my clue all along. With numerous PDX dining establishments much more deserving of my appetite, I’m curious to see whether this one stays in business another year. They’ve been open nearly six to date.
On a future Portland visit, I may opt to give them a second chance, especially with pan-seared Alaska halibut and black tiger prawns prepared with fresh ginger, curry, cilantro and basil over polenta with sautéed baby spinach. Their steaks, braised short rib, rack of lamb and slow-roasted prime rib also sound appealing.
Craft beer on tap, by the bottle, a good selection of wines and curated cocktails round out the menu.
On a positive note, Voodoo Donuts is located just kitty corner from here. Portland Prime is located at 121 SW 3rd Avenue.
2017 Portland Dining Month Planning Tips
– Every PDM reservation made using Open Table yields a donation to the Oregon Food Bank.
– Sign up for Uber using a unique code and your first trip is free (up to $15).
A big thank you to all three restaurants for hosting me during Portland Dining Month. I dined courtesy of Travel Portland. Opinions, as always, are my own.