Counterculture Cuisine

By Kerry Newberry

I’ve always wondered about the accuracy of the Myers-Briggs personality test and the theory behind a Type-A versus Type-B personality because I feel I walk the line. I love dressing up in chic suits and might organize my books alphabetically and by genre, but I also love wearing beads and tunics—and sometimes go for weeks without doing a load of laundry.

The beaded-tunic me has always been seduced by stories from la Vie Bohème. Parisian Bohemia, the start of it all, is most famously chronicled by French novelist and poet Henri Murger in his collection of short stories “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème,” published in 1845.

These vignettes translate to song in Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” and later served as the inspiration for the musical “Rent.” As the unconventional lifestyle crossed countries, writer William Makepeace Thackeray popularized a British Bohème in his novel “Vanity Fair” with the character Becky Sharp: “She was of a wild, roving nature, inherited from father and mother, who were both Bohemians by taste and circumstances.”

A half century later, Bohemia crossed the Atlantic, finding a new voice in the iconic beatnik writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Think of the books “On the Road” and “Howl.” Inspired by new jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the Beats focused on improvisation and open emotion, creating their prose and poetry spontaneously and without reserve. Their mantra: Get high on ideas, not things.

Still today, Bohemianism lives, less a trend and more a timeless movement. Writer Laren Stover in “Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge,” neatly defines the elusive “boho” spirit as: “A way of life, a state of mind, an atmosphere. It’s about living richly and irreverently, beyond convention. It’s about being uninhibited, unbuttoned, creative and free.”

It is these words that inspired this Type A-B personality to don the tunic and beads and seek out Portland Bohemia: a discovery decadent, delicious and divine. La Vie Bohème in the Pacific Northwest thrives in counterculture cuisine. Chefs with sass and skill are slicing, steaming and sautéing to nirvana across the city in kitchen nooks the size of closets. The taste is transcendent and the places are simple. Everything is geared towards the food. It’s just their style.

Get high on Portland cuisine with this field guide to eating on the edge, and explore your inner-Bohème.

Indulge the “Nouveau Bohemian”—coined in Stover’s manifesto as traditional “boho” ideology fused with contemporary culture—at Beast (5425 N.E. 30th Ave., 503-841-6968) for hot haute cuisine. Chef Naomi Pomeroy—most recently a pin-up in provocative advertising, holding a very relaxed-looking pig—develops menus inspired from local farms with some French flirtation. Beast is prix fixe and candidly states on the website, “No choices and no substitutions.” Petite space and pale pink walls are the only demure attributes for the restaurant. Venture in ready to eat meat: the full meal is six courses, highlighted each night on a black chalkboard wall. It’s a communal dining experience that shimmers with incandescent ingredients, sure to be savored long after that last bite.

A block away at DOC (5519 N.E. 30th Ave., 503-946-8592), patrons step from the door directly into the kitchen mingling with the chef, dishwasher and sommelier on the way to the table. The dining room and kitchen are essentially one room, so you can watch chef Greg Perrault prep, prepare and plate seconds before you dig in.

DOC (which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata) follows traditional Italian-style dining with antipasti, primi, secondi and then cheese and desserts. Products are sourced locally, and any ingredient used out of season comes straight from the glass jars that line the shelves in the kitchen, canned by the chef.

At first glance, the wine list could incite Italian buffs to break out in song but before you order a bottle, get the low-down from wine guru Maxwell Leer—he has an uncanny resemblance to Harry Potter. The restaurant opens only seven bottles at a time—three red, three white, plus one sparkling. Glass pours flow from bottles other diners have already uncorked. Leer is an excellent guide with encyclopedic knowledge and a poetic presentation. Sip from his suggestions, and your palate will be pleased.

Taste to “Beat Bohemian”—defined by Stover as free spirits and Utopia-seeking souls—at Navarre (10 N.E. 28th Ave., 503-232-3555). Bar seating is best because the cozy kitchen takes stage. Pots and pans hang akimbo and bed-headed cooks craft standout dishes. Sample a cornucopia of flavors mostly based in Italian, French and Spanish origin, all tapas-style. Chef/owner John Taboada’s menu is local and whimsical, with products sourced seasonally and solely from 47th Avenue Farms, a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) run by farmer Laura Masterson. For vino, sip from a selection of 50-plus wines by the glass, quarter carafe, half carafe or pick from the pages of bottles.

Authentic Cuban beat is a few blocks away in the vibrantly purple- and pink-splashed Pambiche (2811 N.E. Glisan St., 503-233-0511), a shrine to chef/owner John Connell-Maribona’s Cuban heritage. The sights, smells and sounds transport you to the steamy streets of Havana, with taro-root fritters, fried yucca root and fried plantains. Sit outside any night of the year at the Caribbean colored tables warmed by heat lamps, or dine inside surrounded by island art, saturated colors and bustling conversation.

If you are more in the mood for 1940s tunes versus Buena Vista Social Club, Lovely Hula Hands (4057 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-445-9910) will romance with “Gypsy Bohemian.” This tiny restaurant—owned by sisters Sarah and Jane Minnick—exudes shabby chic with rose petal walls decorated with delicate etchings of Cypress trees and herons and a rustic white table set in a picture window. Cooking is imaginative and seasonal, yet comforting, too. The menu always features a natural chuck burger with bacon, cheddar, caramelized onions, aioli and lettuce on a seeded brioche bun.

Taste to transcendence at Le Pigeon, (738 S.E. Burnside St., 503-546-8796), and Pok Pok & Whiskey Soda Lounge (3226 S.E. Division St., 503-232-1387), two spots with “Zen Bohemian” vibes—Stover defines Zen Boho as transient and meditative, artistic and spiritually lustful.

At Le Pigeon, chef/co-owner Gabriel Rucker works quiet magic preparing nose-to-tail dishes that keep diners from across the nation lusting for more. The restaurant glows from a small corner on S.E. Burnside, and there is often a line winding out the door.

Pok Pok & Whiskey Soda Lounge, a temple to Thai street food, also has acolytes from across the country, including food historian and radio personality Lynne Rossetto Kasper. What started out as a take-out stand has expanded to include a 35-seat “bar” restaurant, where chef/owner Andy Ricker crafts dishes that lead patrons into a deep meditation and often addiction. 

Whatever Bohemian style you choose, celebrate Portland’s counterculture, where white tablecloths come off and it’s just the cuisine that captivates. 

Kerry Newberry is a Pinot-sipping, vineyard-hopping wine and food writer. She resides in Portland.

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