More than any other single recent restaurant,
ClarkLewis (1001 SE Water Ave., 503/493-9500, www.clarklewispdx.com , 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 5:30–10 p.m. Sat., $17–30) is responsible for Portland ’s sudden and outsized reputation as one of the nation’s top dining destinations. It also helped define the “guerilla restaurant,” refuting the idea that a fancy dining room is the only appropriate venue for fine dining.
Straddling a loading dock and a warehouse in industrial Southeast Portland , ClarkLewis is not exactly the place for a romantic candlelit dinner. It is, however, the place to explore the leading edge of Northwest regional cooking, where the flavors of fresh local ingredients are treated like explosives. The wine list is adventuresome and eclectic, a perfect counterpoint to ClarkLewis’s creative cuisine.
No need to dust off your high school French when calling for reservations at Le Pigeon—rhymes with smidgen—(738 E. Burnside St., 503/546-8796, www.lepigeon.com , 5–10 p.m. daily), a highly-touted hot spot of meaty gastronomy. This lack of pretension is characteristic of chef-owner Gabriel Rucker’s full-flavored cooking style and his slightly manic, pocket-sized dining room. His cooking embraces a breadth of rarely encountered ingredients: lambs’ tongues, beef cheeks, and pork belly along with less unusual meats, fish, and vegetables, all from local sources and prepared with a passion for robust flavors and inventive contrasts. Rucker has garnered praise from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and he was named one of the top 10 chefs in the country by Food and Wine magazine.
Simpatica Dining Hall (828 SE Ash St., 503/235-1600, www.simpaticacatering.com , seatings 7:30 p.m. Fri. and 7 p.m. Sat., brunch 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun.) is Portland ’s premier dining club, a by-reservation-only operation open for dinner just two nights a week. On Friday and Saturday evenings a local chef prepares a multicourse dinner served family-style at communal tables in Simpatica’s catering kitchen. The menus are wide-ranging; one evening is a showcase of Roman home cooking, another evening a meal focused on local oysters, the next a valentine to American barbecue. Prices vary, usually $30–45 for four or five courses; wine and cocktails are available for an extra charge. Check the website to find out what’s cooking, then call for a reservation. With only 40 seats, spots go quickly. No reservations are required for Sunday brunch. Simpatica is a fun experience, a casual and friendly spot to tap into the energy of the local dining scene.
The sophisticated cuisine at Castagna (1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/231-7373, www.castagnarestaurant.com , 5:30–10 p.m. Wed.–Sat., $23–35) draws its inspiration from the cooking of France and Spain, translated into the local Northwest vernacular through the use of local ingredients and a focus on subtle, pure flavors. The cooking here is very refined: Each dish is an epiphany of taste and texture to the point that different entrées at the same table are served with different varieties of potatoes. The dining room presents a minimalist decor that some find austere and others soothing. Immediately next door is Café Castagna, offering a less formal (and more affordable) version of the same cuisine.
Sel Gris (1852 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/517-7770, www.selgrisrestaurant.com , 5:30–10 p.m. Tues.–Sat., $20–32), a tiny gem of a restaurant on lower Hawthorne Boulevard , is a showcase for French-inspired Northwest cuisine. Chef Daniel Mondok has worked his way through Portland  restaurants, but with Sel Gris he has hit his stride, with high-design dishes that are at once visionary and whimsical. The names of many menu items are enclosed in quotation marks, so it helps to have a postmodern sense of irony when dining here. “Pork and beans” are in fact pork cheeks, cannellini beans, and scallion salad; the acclaimed “bacon and eggs” are veal sweetbreads with apple butter, bacon bits, and maple syrup served with a poached egg inside a crepe. Everything is delicious and slightly precious, but if you’re in the mood for gastronomic magical realism, this is your spot.