Distinction in Difference: A Wine and Food Odyssey Through the Pacific Northwest
What makes Pacific Northwest wine and food culture distinct from elsewhere in North America? While it is tempting to seek a cohesive answer to this question, over the years I’ve felt that the best way to get at the essence of the northwest is to give close scrutiny to the regional distinctions within the larger geographical area. What this shows is that, while there are certain similarities in lifestyle and seasonal ingredients, there are greater differences found in each major city’s culture, law and policy. A recent trip down to the Oregon coast gave me an opportunity to further observe and reflect on this notion.
Hometown for me. There is no doubt that Vancouver’s greatest culinary contribution to the Pacific Northwest is asian food. The top Chinese restaurants of Richmond, serious and diverse Japanese cuisine, and quality Vietnamese and Korean all offer authentic, unpretentious dining experiences. Arguably, the asian influence is currently stronger in Vancouver than any city along the Pacific coast down to San Francisco. It has permeated most restaurants and heavily influenced most of the city’s top chefs. As such, my belief is that immigration is the real basis for the most soulful and cultured aspects of Vancouver.
Of course, the real issue with Vancouver is its laws and policies, which sap the energy out of wine and beverage professionals who try to do something interesting in the city. As such, Vancouver has the most corporate wine culture on the coast, with most wine lists being uninspired and heavily overpriced (mostly due to the fact that restaurants get no discounts). Young guns with great ideas get crushed by government regulations and the artificially manipulated price of entry into the industry (consider liquor store licenses are hundreds of thousands of dollars and lease and property tax rates in Vancouver are prohibitive for small business).
Restrictions on seafood by-catch also provide real challenges for seafood chefs in this city, which in my experience cannot come close to the quality and diversity found in Seattle or Oregon.
The most sophisticated city in the B.C. to Oregon corridor, Seattle also boasts overall the highest quality restaurants that touch on most conceivable styles of cuisine. It’s biggest omission is a deep list of top asian restaurants – a torch easily taken by Vancouver.
Seafood is special here, especially when consumed at The Walrus and The Carpenter – a sort of nostalgic fisherman’s shack with rippingly fresh oysters, mussels, and the best sardines I’ve ever tasted. The small plates of seasonal vegetables also sing. My grilled spring onions served with a spanish-style romesco absolutely nailed it.
After dinner drinks at RN74 led to a few glasses of 2009 village Burgundy, all of which were too ripe for my tastes, though I was quite happy to have the opportunity to indulge by the glass. The real standouts were the Jamet 2010 entry level syrah (herbal, meaty, expressive) and a 2009 Larose du Gruaud (fruity, dense, but nicely balanced).
Having wined and dined in Seattle many times, I feel it is the most moneyed city in the Pacific Northwest and so the most supportive of high end dining. However, it manages to steer clear from an overly corporate feel and there are tremendous chefs all over, with solid access to good wines. However, pricing and taxes remain quite high here, making Washington one of the most expensive wine jurisdictions in the U.S. (with the exception of Garagiste, of course).
North Oregon Coast
A wine and food wasteland, really. Cannon beach is utterly beautiful, but don’t go there to eat, unless of course you ship wine to your hotel from Portland (as I did). Coupled with cured meats from Seattle’s Rainshadow Meats and a few artisinal cheeses from Calf and Kid (including ridiculously good Oregon Buratta), you could say we made our own wine and food heaven.
Jacques Selosse’s Substance is easily the greatest Champagne I’ve had, besting even a 1996 Krug, Selosse’s Substance is his famous Solera Champagne. In fact, I would call this perfect Champagne – it absolutely epitomizes everything you want out of Champagne, and then adds surprise and layers you didn’t think possible. Very slightly oxidative, this was beautiful with the cured meats and cheeses. Excellent+++.
Paired with local Dungeness crab, simply steamed = a near perfect harmony of texture and flavour; the 2009 Chave Blanc is perhaps the greatest Rhone white I’ve tasted. It is a textural masterpiece and embodies “wine as pleasure”, even at this young age. I wish I had more to age. Excellent+.
Clearly culturally focused on the surrounding beauty, Oregon coast natives are nevertheless a friendly sort, though clearly oblivious about food in the north. A future trip will give me the opportunity to spend time in the less traversed south.
When Vancouverites dream of the Pacific Northwest ideal, I think they dream of Portland. Portland, however, is the near polar opposite of Vancouver, which makes it even more interesting why Vancouverites are so drawn to it. Portland is a city of experimentation and creativity. Compared to Vancouver there are few barriers to putting your heart and soul into an extremely weird business idea or passion. Sure, you’ll see twenty-somethings pack coffee houses at 10am on a weekday and sure, Portland is not a beautiful city, but it has a creative drive that eludes much of Vancouver.
The libertarian streak, infused with left-wing “100 mile diet” values, makes Portland a mecca for wine and food lovers focused on value. No sales tax means restaurant meals a good 30% cheaper than Seattle and wine stores with incredible deals and rare wines. Not every part of the wine world is represented, however, with a clear bias towards the old world – particularly Burgundy and Italy (particularly Piedmont – apparently you can find Barolo in the grocery store here) – you will have a hard time finding more than a few token bottles from Australia or California (even the cool climate stuff). That’s perfectly ok with me, and I tend to end up with a list of 4-5x more wine than I can bring back.
I dined at three restaurants, all of which offered superb food. The wine lists varied, however, and you won’t find the sophistication of San Francisco’s top restaurants on most of the menus here (with a few exceptions – see Nostrana).
Gruner: A genius concept of food and wine from all the European regions bordering the alps, you will find superb examples of Alpine or near-Alpine French, German, Austrian and Italian food. Alsace also plays an important role (though further removed from the Alps), and I had the most profound 2003 Alsatian Riesling I’ve ever had (and perhaps one of the best 2003 European white wines) in Ostertag’s Clos Mathis. Paired with devilled eggs, tarte flambe, and quail with lamb sausage, it was beautiful, dry and developed wine. Excellent.
Castagna: Portland’s ‘Michelin’ restaurant (if that guide were here), Castagna is all about flavour. Presentation suffers somewhat, but this is not a temple to technique, but rather a celebration of local ingredients with essences borne out by advanced technique and texture. The desserts were amongst the best I’ve had at any restaurant. The biggest fail at this restaurant, however, is the wine list, especially the glass pairings for the chef’s tasting menu, several of which actually clashed with their dishes. A Matello Oregon Pinot Noir tasted artificial next to savory smoked pork and also a lightly seared duck breast with seasonal vegetables. A geekier, more savory list would do well here. The fact that there were no orange wines was a real surprise as they would suit much of the cuisine very well.
Woodsman Tavern: This may be my favourite restaurant in Portland. Taking a cue from the Southern U.S. with a focus on gulf-style seafood (using local Pacific Northwest ingredients) and hams imported from the south, woodsman is the perfect trio of value, flavour, and excitement. The seafood was astoundingly fresh, and the ham plate (which included a grilled muffin/bun, pickled cabbage and home made butter) proved that the U.S. can make world-class cured ham. The bottle of 2008 Domaine de Montbourgeau l’Etoile (from the Jura, and aged under flor), which was slightly oxidative, very very dry but filled with umami and fantastic palate density, was a wonderful pairing for all the food. Very Good+ to Excellent. The wine list in general was quite strong, including reasonably priced high quality Champagnes such as Egly-Ouriet.
After many years of travelling the coast, I have now realized that its greatness lies in the differences of its regions moreso than a similar belief system or philosophy. The entire Pacific Northwest shares climate, a time-zone, geographical similarities, and some general consistent love for the outdoors, but the similarities end there. The real excitement comes when discovering how each region has decided to interact with that similar geo-temporal landscape. This is a concept and phenomenon I plan on exploring more and reporting on in the future. I feel that from this perspective the discoveries have only begun.
I’d note that while some include San Francisco in the nexus of the Pacific Northwest, for me it is a distinctly Californian city that is perhaps not best included in a list with B.C., Washington and Oregon.