Back in 2009, we raved like it was 1986 about Portobello restaurant in Portland. Back then, it was a sort-of popup affair, taking over the space of a small east-side coffee shop after hours, and opening its doors to hungry patrons who usually had to book way in advance. Although our experience was stellar, we’d heard that other visitors had suffered from long waits, and the restaurant had a propensity to run out of some food items early on in the evening.
Clearly, there was a supply and demand mismatch so something had to happen. In mid-2010 we were delighted to hear that Portobello had graduated from the intimate coffee shop and had moved into a proper space of its own, with a high-budget build-out, new chefs and a much larger staff.
It was, then, with some trepidation that we made reservations to visit the “new” Portobello on a recent trip to Portland. After all, would its newfound influx of cash and staff affect its food? Would its new location lack the atmosphere of the old one? Would the gnocchi be as chewy and the bread be as crispy as before?
Well, to cut a long story slightly less long we were even more delighted with the new Portobello than we were with the old one. Yes, in many ways it’s like eating at a different restaurant, but the owners have clearly maintained what’s good about the original concept and expanded it into a broader, more capable offering that moves it several notches higher in the all-vegan fine dining league table.
The new location is in a modern strip mall in a faintly industrial area much further south than before. Across the street is a machine tool shop, and in the same parking lot is a large beer store, as well as an acupuncture clinic. Even for typically diverse PDX, this is quite varietal.
Of course, it’s not what’s on the outside that matters, but the inside is what counts. It seems that no expense has been spared to create a wonderful dining experience. Dark woods, steel and concrete and floral designs come together perfectly to create an ambience somewhere between a casual cafe and upscale restaurant…Tags: burger, gnocchi, italian, oregon, pdx, pizza, portland
If somebody would have told me that some of the best Italian food I’d ever eat would be both vegan and served in a coffee shop, I’d have thought they were nuts. Fact is, Portobello in Portland has some of the most scrumptious Italian food anywhere, is entirely vegan and somehow transforms a space that is a coffee shop by day into an intimate and upscale Italian Trattoria of the highest order by night.
The only advice you need before a visit is to call ahead and ensure you have a reservation. The tiny restaurant seats very few people, fills up almost as soon as it opens and stays full until it closes. So what’s the big deal? Why so popular? Simple answer: THE FOOD.
Portobello’s compact menu (just twelve dishes on the evening we went there) is clearly focussed on doing a few things right rather than trying to be all things to all people. What the menu lacks in choice it certainly makes up for in diversity, freshness and portion sizes (many dishes are available in a half order so you can share and sample as much as you like). With the smiliest, friendliest service you’ll find, a great vegan wine selection and rich vegan deserts you are in for a throughly pleasurable evening.
The menu is split into two main sections: “To Share” – appetizers and finger food that you can distribute around your table and “To Hoard”, aptly named because the main dishes are so good you’ll want to keep them all for yourself.
To start with we ordered the “Little T Slab with Olive Oil”. As it had the word “Little” in its name and was only $3.50 we figured we’d need something else as well, so we decided to get the “Artichoke-Mushroom Crostata”. Only when a huge amount of food arrived at our table did we find out that “Little T” was the name of the bakery that baked the amazing Focaccia, and not an indicator of the size of the bread portion being anything BUT little! Also, the Crostata (soft pastry cup filled to the brim with spicy mushrooms, artichokes and creamy sauce) was more than big enough to share.
Along with the food we ordered a bottle of wine from a small independent winery called Hip Chicks Do Wine. I can’t vouch for their hipness, but I CAN vouch for the fact that they Do Wine really well. The ’06 Cabernet we ordered was incredibly tasty and the perfect compliment for the wonderful food we were about to eat.
For the main course we spent a good deal of time debating what order, as everything on the menu looked so amazing. In the end, after two hearty appetizers and an anticipation of desert looming, we opted to go for two half orders: the Portobello Steak with Polenta and the Potato Gnocchi with Spicy Ragu. We were throughly blown away with the taste and texture of both dishes. Portobello and Polenta are individually terribly difficult to prepare, and uniting them in one dish did, I’m sure, present a major challenge to the chef, who clearly knows what he or she is doing. The greens were just this side of crunchy and the red wine sauce was a perfect balance of tangy and smooth. What an amazing dish this was.
Another challenging Italian dish to prepare is gnocchi, especially large pieces as with this dish. I don’t know how this was cooked, but the gnocchi was slightly crispy on the outside, soft and steamy on the inside. The ragu was heavenly – again no idea what was in there, but a deep tomatoey spiciness delivered the perfect compliment to the starchy gnocchi.
Did somebody say desert? We’d heard that the deserts at Portobello were excellent, so we ordered the Tiramisu — always my favorite Italian desert as a vegetarian. In common with everything else we’d eaten the tiramisu was excellent. Soft and sweet with an impeccably creamy texture and smooth brandy-infused spongy cake makes this the best vegan tiramisu I’ve eaten, and I’m becoming quite a connoisseur, I think!
We ended the evening replete with some of the best Italian food we’d ever eaten and are counting the days to until our next visit to Portland so we can rush back to Portobello for a Liitle T, some Hip Chicks and Tiramisu. YUM!
Finally, I’ve heard that Portobello has a habit of running out of certain food items later in the evening. I guess there’s only so much Gnocci you can make in the kitchen of a coffee shop. If you have your heart set on a particular menu item, get an early reservation so you can be sure to get what you want.
PortobelloTags: gnocchi, italian, pdx, portland
2001 SE 11th Avenue