8 February 2016

Portland Day 2: *Lots* More Coffee, Food and Shopping

The sun was shining again in Portland on Saturday morning — a rare phenomenon at this time of year, locals assure me — so I went on another run along the waterfront. My hotel has its own cafe on the ground floor, so I decided to take my breakfast there. The coffee was great: they use Ristretto Roasters coffee and my cortado ($3.50) really hit the spot. I also managed as slice of pumpkin bread, which was delicious.

I spent most of the morning on a coffee tour of Portland with Third Wave Coffee Tours. We visited five of Portland's top coffee bars in three hours and the tour was informative, entertaining and definitely very caffeinating. I'm going to write up the tour properly once I'm back home and on my own computer, but suffice to say that if you're in Portland and like your coffee, Lora will show you a selection of the best cafes and roasters in town.

By the time we had finished the tour, even I was slightly jittery and realised that it was brunch o'clock. Lora from Third Wave Coffee Tours had recommended a restaurant called Veritable Quandary near the Hawthorne Bridge, so I headed over there and took a seat at the bar. The main dining room area is beautiful, so if you get the chance to eat there, you really should. I started with a bloody mary ($9), which came with beet-infused vodka and a skewer of pickled veggies. Needless to say, it was delicious and perhaps even slightly healthy. My main course was less healthy: chicken hash with an ancho coffee rub, poached eggs and pink peppercorn aioli ($18), which was delicious. When my bill came, once again I was pleasantly surprised by the absence of sales tax in Oregon.

After brunch, I strolled past Portlandia — Portland's famous statue and the second largest copper repoussé statue in the United States no less (after Lady Liberty, of course) — and then dropped in and out of some of the downtown shops. There are some really nice independent shops on SW 10th Avenue near Washington Street: Wildfang has minimalist women's clothing inspired by menswear; Radish Underground sells girlier women's clothes; Woonwinkel is great for homewares and gifts; and there's another branch of Tender Loving Empire. A few blocks further north (NW 10th near Couch) is Made Here PDX, which has lots of unique local goods, many of which make great gifts, and North of West (NW 9th near Burnside) sells a well-curated selection of minimalist design and lifestyle goods. Don't forget to check out Powell's City of Books!

I had a couple of shopping errands to run, which took me to a generic mall south-east of the city centre. The MAX got me out there in about 45 minutes and I was pleased to discover that a public transport day pass costs just $5. Bargain! While I was at the mall, I decided to take advantage of another (relative) bargain: a $10 cinema ticket for Hail, Caesar!, which was as entertaining and wacky as you would expect for a Coen brothers film.

For dinner, I decided to scope out a restaurant recommended by another coffee tour participant: Irving Street Kitchen in the Pearl District, just northwest of downtown. The restaurant is large and attractively decorated with a mix of industrial chic and Scandi cosiness. Late on Super Bowl Sunday evening, it was pretty quiet and I took a seat at the large, semi-circular bar.

I ordered a Crown Jewel cocktail ($12), which involved Aviation Gin (a favourite of mine), absinthe and bitters, among other things, and which was rather good. Although I had had chicken for brunch, I couldn't resist the buttermilk fried chicken with mash, greens and bacon gravy ($23), and I did not regret my decision. The chicken was juicy on the inside, crisp on the outside and the mash was also very tasty. Meanwhile, I wondered if my iPhone had been hooked up to the sound system, which played tracks from the Stone Roses, Joy Division, Radiohead and David Bowie. Irving Street is a lovely restaurant and would also make an excellent brunch spot.

7 February 2016

Portland Day 1: Coffee, Doughnuts, Tunnels and Light

When I arrived at Portland Airport on Friday night, it was raining heavily, of course. There was a live musician playing in the arrivals hall and he was actually very good. The airport carpet has its own Twitter handle and a sign politely reminds travellers that they are not permitted to take recreational marijuana on flights out of Portland. On MAX (Portland's light rail system) into the city centre, I was asked two sign two petitions.

And so this is Portland. I woke up relatively early on Saturday morning and went for a run along the Willamette River. There are several bridges in the downtown area so you can make your circuit as long or short as you like. Conveniently, a branch of the iconic Portland coffee chain, Stumptown, was located just a couple of blocks from my hotel, so I picked up a Rwandan Chemex coffee on my way back. I also stopped by another Portland institution — Voodoo Doughnut — for a doughnut not my smaller than my head, which involved chocolate, caramel and peanuts and was called Chuckles.

After I had showered and changed, I headed for the Oregon Historical Society, a museum with several galleries offering insights into different aspects of the state's history. There were also special exhibitions on propaganda and on Chinese immigrants to the United States. It cost $11 to get in and I spent just under an hour there.

A few blocks further south, the Portland Farmers Market was bustling with people. In the summer, there are several locations for the market, but in the winter, they just set up at the Portland State University campus on Saturdays. As well as the usual produce stalls, there were a few food trucks and although it was almost noon, I decided I could just about get away with some breakfast tacos ($5.50) from Enchanted Sun: chilli, scrambled eggs, potato and cheese, Just what the doctor ordered. I also picked up a Guatemalan pourover ($3) from Portland coffee roastery, Night Owl.

Then I wandered north again, back towards the heart of the downtown area. Portland's city centre is very small and very walkable, although MAX and the streetcars provide excellent public transport options too. As part of my efforts to visit as many of Portland's coffee bars as I can while I am here, I stopped at a couple more. First, a branch of Heart on SW 12th Avenue. The cafe was very light and airy with minimalist, monochrome décor. I ordered a macchiato ($3.50), which was excellent. It was also a good spot for people-watching.

My next coffee stop was Sterling Coffee Roasters on NW 21st Avenue in Nob Hill, a few blocks northwest of the downtown area. Sterling is tiny: its walls painted a vibrant violet and its tables covered with white tablecloths and decorated with pine cones. They don't do hand-brewed filter coffee so I had another macchiato (lactose sensitivity be damned!) and tried to pretend I wasn't listening to the screenplay critique that was taking place at the next table.

Nob Hill is a great area for eating out and for shopping, NW 23rd Avenue beings its main drag: Tender Loving Empire has great cards and design-oriented local-themed gifts; Marine Layer has nice, super-soft clothing basics; The Meadow sells chocolate, salt, bitters and flowers (because why not?); and if you are searching for artisan popcorn, look no further than Poplandia. Nearer the centre of town, around Burnside and Crouch between 9th and 13th Avenues, you can find stores like Madwell and Lululemon, as well as Portland's famous and huge Powell's City of Books, which should satisfy all of your reading needs.

I had noticed on my map that near my hotel in the Chinatown part of downtown, something called the Shanghai Tunnels, also known as Portland Underground. They turned out to be a series of tunnels and interconnected basements underneath various buildings in downtown. The Cascade Geographic Society arranges historical tours of the tunnels ($13), which you can book online. The society was responsible for the restoration of the tunnels, which took decades, and our guide was extremely knowledgeable. The tunnels have a dark past: they were used as a place to imprison victims of Shanghaiing — the kidnapping of transient people to serve as sailors — between 1850 and 1941, and white slaving. It was an interesting and eye-opening 90 minutes, although probably not one for the severely claustrophobic.

For dinner, I headed to Ken's Artisan Pizza in a district east of downtown called Kerns. There are plenty of public transport options but it only took me about 35 minutes to walk. Small as Portland's city centre is, hardly anyone does seem to walk. I also learnt from the Oregon Historical Society that only 7% of the population travel to work by bike — a much higher figure than the national average of 0.6%, but a lot lower than I expected for such a bike-centric community. After a short wait at Ken's, I took my seat at the bar and ordered a wood-fired prosciutto pizza ($15). It was huge and I couldn't quite finish it but it was really tasty with its puffy crust; the prosciutto covered the entire base in a super-thin layer. Nice one, Ken!

Because I hadn't had enough illuminations at Lumiere London, I decided to check out the Portland Winter Light Festival, a series of light installations along the eastern waterfront, around the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. There were plenty of different works to see and although it was busy, it was a lot less chaotic than the hoards of Regent Street in London. There were a lot of families there and there was a relaxed, fun atmosphere. It was nice to finish the day with a little bit of (light) culture!

6 February 2016

DC Part I: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Washington

After a hectic January, I had more than earned a few days off ahead of a work trip toWashington DC. I've wanted to go to Portland for some time (the coffee mother ship has been calling me home) and although this wasn't the most convenient way to do it — or the best time of year — I decided to seize the opportunity. First, though, I had 24 hours in DC before my internal flight to Portland.

I got to my hotel just after 4.30 pm on Thursday. I stayed at the Topaz, which is conveniently located (five minutes from Dupont Circle), has big rooms with funky décor and very helpful staff. Better still, I got a good deal on my room, which was only $90, and they gave me a welcome gift of a bottle of wine and some fruit. I stuck around just long enough to drop off my bags and freshen up before heading back out to chase the sunset.

I visited Georgetown on my DC trip last year — an exceptionally warm February day — and it is by far my favourite neighbourhood in the city. It has great shops, nice restaurants and beautiful red-brick buildings. I walked along the canal for a few minutes and then dipped in and out of the shops, most of which are on M Street — the main drag. I may have made a few small purchases from Madewell and J. Crew, and eyed up a few more things in Lululemon and Athleta, which I might pick up on my return.

For dinner, I went to Old Glory, a southern BBQ restaurant on M Street. I took a seat at the bar and had a delicious pulled pork sandwich with mac ‘n’ cheese ($13), which was just what I needed to ward off the jet lag. The cocktail I ordered (a vodka, lemon and ginger combo) was less effective in terms of drowsiness but was very good; there is also an excellent bourbon selection behind the bar.

Yesterday morning I woke relatively early; too exhausted to be jet-lagged, I slept through until my alarm woke me. Outside, it was trying to snow but not very hard, and, not discouraged, I ran down to the Mall and did a loop around the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. This was a nice way to combine sight-seeing and exercise.

After checking out of my hotel, I headed for my first coffee destination of the day: The Coffee Bar, which was only a couple of blocks from the Topaz. The Coffee Bar is beautifully decorated with mint-green tiling on the coffee bar and a gorgeous white La Marzocco. The menu itself has some lovely typography. It was also incredibly busy, which is probably why they don’t usually serve pourovers until after 11 am, but the kind barista made an exception for me and the Guatemalan Verve coffee was perfectly brewed. I will do a more detailed round-up of my DC coffee experiences at the end of my trip, so stay tuned!

I had a long day ahead of me, so I headed straight for my second coffee stop: M.E. Swings on G Street. Swings is a DC institution: a stone’s throw from the White House (well, maybe a Barry Bonds throw), they have been serving coffee since 1916. I ordered a macchiato, which was very good (dark and rich), but only later noticed the impressive brew bar, which serves pourovers. They also roast their own coffee and you can buy bags of beans, if you wish.

I've done a few of DC’s museums over the years but I have never been to the National Archives, so I walked over there next. The ground-floor has an interactive gallery with all of the information you could ever want on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all of the amendments therein; they also have an original of the Magna Carta! Upstairs, in the beautiful, shrine-like rotunda room, you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  If you’re a history buff, then, the National Archives will keep you more than entertained.

By the time I left, the sun had come out, as I strolled along Constitution Avenue, past the Capitol Building and up onto Capitol Hill. The Hill is another attractive DC neighbourhood: many of the houses are painted in attractive colours and there’s a relaxed, residential vibe.

I stopped for lunch at Maketto, a new restaurant-café-lifestyle store on H Street. Maketto is beautifully designed: the ground floor houses the store and the restaurant-bar, which is lovely and light, and the café is upstairs. The food menu consists mainly of south-east Asian street food: I had some very tasty scallion pancakes with spicy braised beef and a fried egg ($9), followed by a chocolate chip cookie ($2.25), before wandering upstairs. A couple of pourover options were available from Vigilante roasters; I went for the Indonesian coffee ($4), which was fruity and flavoursome, served in a pretty Japanese-style mug.

I walked west along H Street back to the downtown area. H Street Northeast is an up-and-coming neighbourhood in DC and I spotted a few other interesting restaurants and bars. The nearest metro stop (Union Station) is 20 minutes’ walk but you can get the streetcar if you are feeling lazy. I was planning to catch the metro back to my hotel but as it was such a beautiful day, I ended up walking.

Once I had picked up my suitcase, I arrived at National Airport in no time: a ten-minute walk to the metro and then a 15-minute metro ride that gets you right to the terminal. Plus, you get a great view of the Washington Monument, Capitol Hill and the White House as you take off. If only international flights used this airport instead of Dulles…