Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Impressions: Portobello

1125 SE Division St
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 754-5993


UPDATE: Will Fain is no longer the pizzaiolo here at Portobello. Instead, he can now be found slinging pies at Pizza Depokos at the N. Killingsworth & Greeley cart pod. 

Let's get this out of the way right now: I like meat. Strike that, I love meat. Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, platypus, whatever. They are all my tasty, tasty friends, and I try to make new acquaintances as often as possible. Conversely, I tend to treat vegan food as an infectious disease that will inflict upon my esophagus a flesh-eating virus so gnarly it will spread throughout my entire nervous system and leave me a twitching mess on the floor. It's unfair, but then, so is life.

(all other photos by Adam Lindsley)

Part of the problem with vegan food (or rather, food that is explicitly denoted "vegan") is that it is so often prepared by people whose philosophical ideals are perhaps stronger than any prowess they might exhibit in the kitchen. They believe in the cause first and foremost, and so many vegans end up eating vegan food simply because it doesn't contain animal products, not because it tastes good. This is exactly the opposite of how I approach food, and it is for this reason that I almost never frequent "vegan" restaurants. Yet it was no accident that, last Thursday, I found myself sitting at the bar in Portobello, Portland's premier vegan trattoria (though I did wear my leather jacket to preserve my sense of self).

Portobello's pizzaiolo, Will Fain, is a pizza obsessive (even Slice thinks so). At a pizza party at his home in April earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of sampling a number of his pies, all of which were vegetarian and some of which were full-on vegan. I enjoyed those pizzas, and figured I would experience something similar from him now that he was manning the oven at Portobello. What I didn't expect was just how much better his pizza has gotten in the past five months.

Let's start with the Portobello take on the Margherita ($9). Now, Portobello's typical version of this pie includes Daiya cheese, a dairy-free cheese alternative, in addition to the tomato sauce and basil. But at Will's suggestion, I substituted the Daiya for a house-made cashew cream. I'm very happy I did. The cashew cream doesn't so much replicate the texture of mozzarella as it does provide a nice contrast to the bright, garlicky tomato sauce. Whereas the crushed tomatoes deliver a tangy acidity, the cashew cream evens things out on the palate, keeping the whole slice in balance. As far as I know, the cashew cream is not on the menu, so you'll have to request it (and you should).

Will's crust has taken several enormous steps forward from his home experiments. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the Baker's Pride gas oven now at his disposal, which bakes his pizzas at a much hotter temperature than anything he could achieve in his home oven. The oven chars the crust perfectly, particularly on the underside, without risk of burning it. Biting into it produces a satisfying crunch that gives way to a springy, chewy interior. Will mixes the dough entirely by hand nightly; no mixer here.

The other pie I tried was the Chili-Fennel ($12), which tops the same garlic-tinged tomato sauce with shaved fennel, hot red and green chili peppers, chili oil, Daiya cheese, and thin slices of field roast "sausage," which is actually comprised of wheat gluten but seasoned like the real stuff. The field roast sausage is far from an exact replica of its true pork namesake, but it does adequately give you the sensation of eating a meaty substance, which is as good as it's going to get for vegan establishments like Portobello. I actually rather liked it, but the field roast Italian fennel sausage I tried back in their kitchen was even better, and closer to the real thing.

What I liked best about the Chili-Fennel pie was the crunch. You get crunch from the crust, crunch from the peppers (spicy, but not too hot), and crunch from the fennel (pleasantly sweet). The one aspect I could do without (and next time will substitute for the cashew cream again) was the Daiya cheese. It isn't the flavor (it really doesn't taste like anything) so much as it is the texture. It's gummy and sticky and clings to your teeth long after you've finished the slice on which it was placed. Be smart and swap it out for the cashew cream.

As a starter my dining companion and I ordered the Pepadew Peppers ($7), which are stuffed with cashew cheese. You actually get more than three of them in an order, but we had devoured a few of them before realizing I hadn't yet photographed them. Again, the peppers have some kick to them, but they're not so spicy that more timid eaters should be afraid to try them. The cashew cheese, which has the texture and flavor of creamy crushed nuts, is nothing like any real cheese I have eaten, but it's still tasty, and compliments the piquant peppers admirably. They went well with a glass of Malbec, which had been recommended to me by Portobello's outgoing and knowledgeable bartender, Lauren.

As I was leaving the restaurant, Will told me he looked forward to reading my reaction to the food on TIP and asked for some constructive criticism. Problem is, Will, I think you've taken vegan pizza about as far as it will go. The food at Portobello bucks the trend of vegan food having to suck; it's actually quite delicious. If you pointed a gun to my head and demanded one suggestion, maybe...a pinch more salt to the crust? But that's pushing it. Honestly--and owners Aaron Adams and Dinae Horne are going to kill me for saying this--I think the only thing that would improve Will's pies would be to put real cheese and real meat on them, instead of their animal-free versions. But then he wouldn't be at Portobello, and that would be a serious blow to the owners, the kitchen, and the customers, vegan or not.


RECOMMENDED: Margherita w/cashew cheese (instead of Daiya)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Impressions: La Pizza Pela

La Pizza Pela
Hillsboro & Lake Oswego Farmers Markets
(503) 913-6892

(photos by Adam Lindsley)

As pizza madness continues its unprecedented sweep across the country, the number of mobile kitchens offering product as good as what's being served in brick-and-mortar establishments has increased exponentially, most notably so in northern Oregon. Joining the ranks of colleagues such as Pyro Pizza and Wy'east, La Pizza Pela is a welcome addition to Portland's ever-expanding list of micro-pizzerias.

(click on any photo to enlarge)

Owner/pizzaiolo Bill Jensen is based out of Wilsonville, but those of us who don't always feel like making the half-hour drive down I-5 can count ourselves lucky, because he's slinging his pies at two farmers markets in the metropolitan area: Saturdays at the Lake Oswego market and Wednesdays at the Hillsboro/Tanasbourne one. His freestanding wood-burning oven is a Mario Batali-designed model from Chicago Brick Oven, and reaches temperatures in the high 700s.

That heat does a fine job of blistering the blistering the pizza's cornicione, as seen in the photo above of the Margherita ($10 whole pie/$6 half). While it doesn't offer much in the way of char on the bottom of the pizza, it by no means leaves it undercooked. Rather, it has a nice crispness to it, as does the outer rim, which gives way to a soft, springy crumb. 

Jensen's dough uses a cold-rise fermentation that gives it more complexity of flavor than one made on the spot, though he adjusts the rise time based on the current weather and temperature (weather forecasts be damned). His crust is the first I've tasted in quite a while that was properly salted. The rest of the pie is also generously salted, which shows real care on the part of the pizzaiolo. The fresh mozzarella in particular is very good, creamy and gooey and far from bland.

If there was a weak aspect to the Margherita, it was the simple tomato sauce, made from California-grown tomatoes. It just wasn't all that bright. My half-pizza could have used more of it, too, though that's really a personal preference. That said, it's not a bad sauce, and I've tasted much worse, and much blander (see my impressions of Marcello, for instance). Flavor is made up in the liberal application of torn basil leaves to the pie after it has been removed from the oven. This was the most prominent basil flavor I think I have ever tasted on a Margherita. Somehow, the oils on the basil leaves managed to spread throughout the entire half of my pizza, so much so that I even tasted it on the bites on which no basil was present. So few pizzaioli put much effort into even basil distribution, but on this particular Margherita, it was perfect. Or maybe it's just magic basil.

The second half-pie I tried was the Spinach & Ricotta pizza ($12 whole/$7 half). On the Margherita's same base of tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, crunchy spinach (fresh, thank God, not the nasty canned stuff) and large chunks of ricotta are piled on in abundance, along with thin slivers of garlic that bring a pleasurable sweetness to the pizza. The ricotta deserves special mention. It boasts a marvelous milky flavor with a smooth mouthfeel, lacking the grittiness of the ricotta that usually ends up on pizzas.

Bill Jensen & Co. are putting out very fine pies here at their La Pizza Pela stands, so I suggest tasting their wares if you happen to be at one of the aforementioned farmers markets or find yourself in Wilsonville. This is a guy who really, really loves pizza, and his pies are exemplary. Cart pizza done right.

...Though I suppose La Pizza Pela isn't technically a cart. Mobile pizza done right. There we go.

OVEN: Wood


Magic basil???