Portland and Dreaming of What Could Be

Wednesday's New York Times included a fascinating article by wine writer Eric Asimov on the exploding dining scene in Portland, Oregon.

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This is a golden age of dining and drinking in a city that 15 years ago was about as cutting edge as a tomato in January. Every little neighborhood in this city of funky neighborhoods now seems to be exploding with restaurants, food shops and markets, all benefiting from a critical mass of passion, skill and experience, and all constructed according to the gospel of locally grown ingredients.

In close proximity is a cadre of farmers committed to growing environmentally responsible produce with maximum flavor, delivered to restaurants and to the gorgeous farmers' markets that dot the city. There are local fisheries and small beef, lamb and pork producers. Not far away is the Hood River Valley, with its myriad fruit growers who supply glistening, fragile berries and stonefruits of every stripe and color.

There's a practical side to the renaissance, too.

Portland also has what anybody in the restaurant business will tell you is most important of all: affordable real estate. Just as young, passionate chefs flocked to the East Village and Brooklyn in the 1990s, chefs have gravitated to Portland because it lets them have a vision and take risks without lining up corporate backers and lawyers.

Now, a direct comparison between Portland and St. Louis would be fruitless. Different parts of the country, obviously. Different produce. (No matter what your opinion of Missouri wines, area vineyards have a long way to go before they could reach the critical mass of Oregon's.)

What excites me about this article is that Portland's scene is organic in the broadest sense of the term -- and could be applicable to any city near any sort of agricultural bounty. Chefs who exploit local resources rather than adhering to a top-down, this-is-what-people-expect-from-all-restaurants-everywhere ethos.

We certainly have chefs in St. Louis with similar beliefs. Can we build on that, though, and forge a scene that is distinctly St. Louis (or Missouri)?

Another way to put it: Why couldn't St. Louis become the pork mecca of foodies everywhere?

Once again, file this under random musings.

-Ian Froeb