Even in a savage economy, Portland's 2012 restaurant scene was filled with blossoming venues and innovative chefs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - 2012 was the year of fancy cocktails, bitter liqueurs and hip bartenders. Cocktails at Ox range from a traditional pisco sour to the very unusual - a Dirty Grandma Agnes is served with a pickle spear.I remember it in sepia tones: oysters and pate, sparkling golden cocktails, quail with cumquats, dark wood and jovial men with handlebar mustaches. In fact it was just about a year ago that I first sat up at the bar at the Woodsman Tavern, eating one of the best meals of my life.

It was the beginning of a strange year — a year in which, over and over again, events forced a sense of perspective. Yes, there are things more important than whether or not the risotto was overcooked.

And one meal that I’ll always remember was at the St. Francis Dining Hall, run by the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Southeast Portland. The church provides hot dinners, six nights a week, to anywhere from 50 to 300 people. It’s what they call a soup kitchen, but instead of soup, we were served panko-breaded chicken, fresh coleslaw, Jell-O salad with local berries, and yellow potatoes. It made the idea of being homeless more real, but at the same time, less scary.

A down economy didn’t seem to slow the pace of restaurant openings this year. Ambitious spots including Ox, Imperial, Jamison and Riffle opened their doors, along with more Asian, Italian and Mexican spots than I can list, plus a smaller collection of bars and wine bars, like Sauvage and Bar Vivant, that make food a priority.

Not everything succeeded. There was the open-and-shut case of Market, and the brief career of Corazon, in the Indigo building, where Pinot American Brasserie had folded the year before. Maybe the space was just too big. It’s now home to three separate establishments: Lardo, Blue Star Donuts and a soon-to-open tapas spot called Racion.

Gluten-free beer and burgers

I think it’s safe to say that tapas are here to stay.

Some other, newer food trends are really revivals: cooking over a wood fire, cocktails made with bitter liqueurs and hard cider. Sophisticated ciders are now being made in Oregon and Washington, with some of their market being driven by the growing number of people who don’t eat (or drink) gluten. To keep them happy, we also have multiple gluten-free bakeries and a dedicated gluten-free brewery, Harvester Brewery. In May of this year, the mayor declared the city’s official Gluten-Free Beer Day.

High-priced, towering gourmet burgers have generated a small backlash in the form of “healthy” burger joints like Dick’s Kitchen (with two locations) and Jackson’s Lite-n-Tasty. And while custom ice cube machines got most of the press, the technology that’s really changing the restaurant industry is the iPad, which is gradually replacing the cash register.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of new places to try.

I’m excited to check out Trigger, which just opened in that weird space under the Wonder Ballroom. Here Tommy Habetz, of Bunk Sandwiches, is serving fried avocado tacos, nachos with brisket, and hazelnut mole.

Quartet is set to open in February in the long-vacant Lucier spot, and it sounds like they’ll be playing it safe. The press release promises live piano music and “contemporary, seasonal Pacific Northwest with a Southern twist.” I can already taste the Carlton Farms pork chop with kale and cheese grits — and they haven’t even announced a head chef yet.

February is also the projected opening for the Din Din Supper Club’s permanent home, turning the whimsical roving feast into a restaurant with regular hours, including breakfast and lunch. The new location is 920 N.E. Glisan St. — sufficiently remote to retain some mystique.

In the prominent, restored Ladd Carriage House downtown, Raven & Rose is almost ready to open. The staff is shaping up to be a local culinary supergroup. And everyone is still watching for smoke signals from the mystery project in the old Kappaya sushi spot on Southeast Division Street, which was taken over by Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker more than a year ago.

2012 was a year of second acts from established restaurateurs, and a banner year for Southeast Division Street. Predictably, the place I’m most looking forward to trying this year is Ava Gene’s. The owner is Duane Sorenson, who started last year by opening the Woodsman Tavern, and who didn’t move far, hanging a striped awning at Division Street and 34th Avenue, a few paces from his original Stumptown Coffee roasting facility.

Ava Gene’s is a different kind of upscale Italian, with rustic, grownup ingredients like chicken livers, anchovies, kale and cauliflower. Fried delicata squash with bee pollen? Lamb ragu with chicories? I can’t wait.

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