Critic's Notebook

'The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland'

The book you’ve been looking to get for the Northwest food connoisseurs on your list? Comes out next week. Here’s why you’ll like it.

By Kathryn Robinson December 3, 2012

Karen Brooks, doyenne of Portland dining

Next week sees the pub date of Karen Brooks’ cookbook/ode to her city, The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland ($24.95, Chronicle Books, with Gideon Bosker and Teri Gelber.)

Brooks, my restaurant critic counterpart at our sister mag, Portland Monthly, is the restaurant doyenne of Portland, having been at it as many millennia as I have. She’s smart, connected, savvy about food, great fun to read, and immensely personable.

But my affection for her isn’t the reason I’m recommending her new book; my respect for the book is. In 192 lavishly photographed paperback pages Brooks nails Portland’s culinary mystique—that je ne sais quoi we see lampooned in Portlandia episodes, but which is substantively revolutionizing the way a city can do restaurants.

An obsession with sourcing, yes. (“In Portland, even good sandwich shops receive ‘house calls’ from quality growers often known only by nicknames like the Asparaguy.”) A plucky, DIY spirit that inspires restaurateurs like John Tobaoda to fill his restaurant, Navarre, with furniture he built from a tree in his parents’ backyard.  A why-the-hell-not experimental ethos, as when Castagna’s Matt Lightner tops wild ginger ice cream with a garden of botanicals and candied rhubarb—is it dessert or a salad? (Do we have to choose?) A profound communitarian commitment, where food carts circle like wagon trains and a city of frugal foodies can afford to dine nightly on their experiments—the new, anti-commercial food court.

Brooks’s book all but jumps out of your hands, from the sheer fizz of the scenes it depicts. A rich variety of essays, chef profiles, photos, and recipes/cooking tips from the folks actually making the chorizo doughnuts and chocolate caramel potato chip cupcakes add to the effervescence.

 But most satisfying for this restaurant nerd are Brooks’s ruminations on the casually experimental mentality a city can develop if it dwells long enough in the shadow of a bigger player. “From what I know of the Seattle scene, it’s a bit more refined, a bit more sophisticated,” Brooks mused by phone last week. “Portland developed a different mentality: brazen, outlandish, and not geared to sell.” (See pig’s blood ravioli, Le Pigeon, page 21.) “If Seattle’s food scene is Uma Thurman, Portland is…I don’t know. Sarah Silverman.”

 You have to buy this book.

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