PORTLAND - Pioneer Courthouse Square, a downtown brick courtyard that doubles as Portland's backyard, is alive with activity most Saturdays, whether it's post-punk rock 'n' roll or political posturing.
It was a couple weekends ago when storm clouds enveloped the Pacific Northwest and rain fell all day. Street musicians had taken cover, and the inevitable placard-wielding demonstrators were probably burned out from the last election.
Still, Pioneer Courthouse Square is a good starting point for a Portland adventure, and besides, my companion for the day, Mary Jo, had never spent time downtown. Plus the square is but a few blocks from the 24-Hour Church of Elvis, a must-see on her list of Rose City attractions.
Alas, the Elvis memorial was closed, but numerous other sights and stops awaited within easy walking distance.
Manic marketMary Jo and I beelined for Portland's Saturday Market, a melange of craft vendors sequestered underneath the Burnside Bridge. Food booths hawking Hawaiian noodles, spring rolls, Thai satay and a potpourri of Tex-Mex sit out in the open. Gawkers like us wandered between the two areas, but eventually everyone seemed to end up under cover. Rubbing shoulders with the throngs, we fondled inlaid wooden boxes and exquisitely painted stoneware, sniffed candles with exotic scents, then inspected ornate jewelry, imaginative wire sculptures and a rack of tye-dyed nightgowns. Featuring outlandish head ware fashioned from everyday utensils (think knives, serving forks, meat cleavers, even toilet plungers), the Spoon Man booth was our favorite.
Browsing The PearlThe old warehouse district now known as The Pearl District was our next destination. Even though free transit is available, we hoofed it the 10 or so blocks to this northwest Portland hipster hangout. An obvious stop was Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside; (503) 228-4651), said to be the country's largest bookstore. Mary Jo located a half dozen must-have tomes, then pared her bundle of books to a couple while I thumbed through the magazine racks.
Cute comfy chairs fronting a wall of windows afforded a streetside vista at the Pearl Bakery (102 N.W. Ninth Ave.; (503) 827-0910), where I purchased a couple of Sicilian fig cookies for nourishment and a ciabatta loaf for later. Mary Jo and I each picked the one piece of art we would purchase if money wasn't a consideration at the Lawrence Gallery (903 N.W. Davis St.; (503) 228-1776). I chose a soft-hued watercolor landscape; Mary Jo a life-sized cut-out metal horse.
Exuding layers of chic, 750 ML (232 N.W. 12th Ave.; (503) 224-1432) is arguably The Pearl's current coolest port of call. What began as a wine bar and shop now includes a bistro that purveys beet risotto, braised lamb pasta, seared loin of rabbit and small plates arranged with truffle-scented pommes frittes and "grilled flatbread of the moment." We cozied up in two of the white plastic stools and sipped California late-harvest cabernet sauvignon and tawny port (wine can be ordered by the bottle, glass or sip). In lieu of business cards, the barkeep hands patrons corks stenciled with the establishment's name, phone and Web site.
Whole lotta foodsWhole Foods Market (1210 N.W. Couch St.; (503) 525-4343) is attractive and immaculate, the baked goods and produce departments are immense and the overall selection, from New Zealand apples to vegan muffins, is without parallel in Portland. But what's most irresistible about this upscale California grocery chain is the marketing. A dazzling array of products and foodstuffs are displayed so invitingly that virtually no one leaves empty handed, even though prices are high, and in some cases exorbitant. So much so that Portlanders jokingly have tagged the store, "whole paycheck."
We roamed the aisles perusing a truckload of beauty aids, an array of organic canola oils and a shelf full of mini baguettes flown in daily from Los Angeles' La Brea Bakery. Next, we checked out a deli section stocked with pecan-coated catfish, roasted acorn salad, a dozen varieties of olives and 25 different cakes. Store staffers were handing out complimentary platefuls of roasted-on-premises turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce; nearby was a brick oven pizza operation.
Upstairs at Whole Foods is an ample collection of home wares, even a kitchen classroom where "Chocolate Truffles 101" was the day's subject matter. "Notice everybody in the class is a woman," Mary Jo remarked after peeking inside.
More kitchen paraphernaliaNot to be outdone in the "I don't really need this but I'll buy it anyway" department, the newly opened Sur La Table (1102 N.W. Couch St.; (503) 295-9679) offers budding yuppie cooks a plethora of kitchen accouterments a block west of Whole Foods. "This place has the biggest selection of blenders I've ever seen," commented Mary Jo. Stainless shelves resembling oven racks also showcased cookware, table linens, books, Riedel stemware (some on sale for $40 apiece) and gadgets galore. Instructors and celebrity guest chefs offer demonstrations and culinary classes in an on-site kitchen.
Hawthorne hiatusHailing from Milwaukee, Mary Jo knows beer. Naturally we had to imbibe while in Portland, the self-proclaimed craft beer capital of the country. Along trendy Hawthorne Boulevard on Portland's southeast side, Bridgeport's Hawthorne Street Ale House (3632 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; (503) 233-6540) offers a convivial atmosphere and an extensive menu.
The Hawthorne strip is a see-and-be-seen scene, and the Ale House was jammed with patrons, most 20- and 30-somethings chillin' with India Pale Ale or other Bridgeport brewskis. We opted for an exhilarating, experimental lager called Kosmos. An appetizer of roasted, Marsala-marinated figs, melted blue cheese and garlic-infused flatbread was overpowering, however. Mary Jo's choice of a Thai Romance pizza spread with a mild peanut sauce and garnished with grilled mushrooms, spinach, red onions and herbs rescued the meal and satiated our appetites, until the ride home, when we savored delicately crafted truffles and other confections we purchased from Moonstruck Chocolate Company (6600 N. Baltimore Ave.; (503) 247-3448).
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