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New luster in Portland's Pearl

The once-shabby district has gone chic, offering more than a taste of the Oregon city's showcase cuisine.

December 31, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Portland, Ore. — ON a pre-dinner stroll through the Pearl District, we passed blocks of shiny new boutiques selling high-end design books, dog grooming services and $75 sweaters for babies. High-rise condos and bustling restaurants seemed to have sprung up on every elegant, cobblestoned corner.

I turned to my husband, Michael. "This is amazing," I said. "It's all new." He rolled his eyes. It was the fifth time in 10 minutes I'd expressed such sentiments.

I grew up in Portland when this area, known then as the Northwest Industrial Triangle, seemed gritty and dangerous. It was depicted in the 1989 movie "Drugstore Cowboy" as the stamping grounds of drug addicts and homeless people.

But then artists began congregating in huge numbers, gallery owners followed and today the neighborhood, renamed the Pearl District, looks like a real estate brochure for loft living. There's free wireless, and a local guide to the area lists 29 restaurants, 11 coffeehouses and 21 art galleries.

Transit geeks and urban planning nerds have long loved Portland for its light rail, slow-growth policies and dedication to public art that extends to former Mayor Bud Clark posing as a flasher in bare legs and raincoat in front of a statue under the heading "Expose Yourself to Art."

In the last few years, the city has also made strides in its restaurant scene.

Our plan was to eat our way across the city, punctuating our meals with strolls over the many bridges that cross the Willamette River and visits to Portland's famous Rose and Japanese gardens. We also envisioned a hike in Forest Park, the largest urban forest in the country. We pictured our baby, Evelyn, playing in burbling brooks while our eyes, accustomed to the brown of a late California summer -- we visited in August -- learned to distinguish among dozens of different shades of green.

Covering that much ground turned out to be too ambitious. Instead, we savored the city, and our days unfolded at Portland's languid, good-natured pace.

Almost without exception, the food was incredible. Even the waiters seemed stunned at the explosion of restaurants and influx of affluent, Portland-casual clientele that fills them night after night.

At Fenouil, a new high-end French brasserie with big windows overlooking a new public square and fountain, our waiter delivered a tomato tart combining melt-in-your-mouth pastry and salty blue cheese and shook his head in sympathy as we described the sensory overload of our walk. "Every day, there is something new," he said.

At Nostrana, a pizzeria on the city's east side recently billed as Portland's best restaurant, we ate pizza with tomatoes, a tuna and white bean salad and minestrone soup. All were light, fresh and subtly seasoned.

At Bluehour, at one end of a converted loading dock with hipster hairstyling chain Rudy's Barbershop, we sat in the sun next to some whippets and their owners just back from a dog show. (Portland is perhaps the most dog-friendly city in America; restaurants where dogs are not welcome feel obliged to put up signs to that effect.) The brunch menu leans toward comfort food with a twist. My husband had Bluehour's spin on the blue-plate special, which was a fried-egg sandwich; instead of side dishes of fast-fried onions and a slab of ham, he got caramelized fennel.

At Andina, a Peruvian restaurant, the food was good, but the cocktails were the real attraction.

I had the Atardecer Porteno, which the menu described as "pink guava nectar shaken with honey-infused vodka and lime juice topped with a float of ruby port and a spritz of lime zest, served up with an anise sugar rim." It left me speechless. A half-dozen other cocktails had ingredients just as extravagant -- including the Granada de Amor, which contains Damianaq, identified on the menu as "a Mexican love potion."

Our hotel was similarly over-the-top. We stayed at the nearby Hotel deLuxe, which is just up the hill in the city's old theater district. It bills itself as paying "homage to Hollywood's golden era." Movie stars glare out from every wall. But once you collapse into the exquisitely soft beds, it's easy to close your eyes and forget them.

On any trip, it's often the little unexpected moments that charm the most, and linger longest in the memory as reminders of relaxation and delight.

We had one of these walking back from lunch one afternoon when we stopped at Irving Park, a deep pocket of green on the city's east side.

Tucked behind the tennis courts were the usual swing set and play structure. But we also found a huge, colorful fountain. When my husband pushed a button, it burst into a symphony of water sprays.

The baby made one of her huge, happy grins and waded right in. Within moments, we were all soaked and smiling.

Not everything we did was new. On any visit to Portland, there are a few obligatory stops. One is Powell's City of Books, said to be the largest independent bookstore in the United States.

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