CHAMPCAR/CART: Where to eat in Portland race weekend

Paley's Place ( 1999 Restaurant of the Year ) 1204 N.W. 21st Ave. (503) 243-2403 . The Paleys fell in love again ... with Portland. They bailed out of New York and set up their dream shop on Northwest 21st Avenue. But the tiny austere space...

Paley's Place ( 1999 Restaurant of the Year ) 1204 N.W. 21st Ave. (503) 243-2403 . The Paleys fell in love again ... with Portland. They bailed out of New York and set up their dream shop on Northwest 21st Avenue. But the tiny austere space stifled Kimberly's warm presence. With a recent remodel, the restaurant doubled in size to 16 tables, creating an ambience of relaxed chic to match the kitchen's down-home sophistication while redefining the intimate dining experience. People remember meals here. They can recount details months later, much in the way that sports enthusiasts replay the key moments of a big game. It's not any one particular thing but rather the way this Northwest bistro strikes all the right notes: accomplished food, elegantly yet casually presented in a place so personal, unpretentious and attentive to detail that it's easy to forget you're in a restaurant, not someone's dining room. From the handcrafted morsel sent out to greet you to the homemade chocolates that arrive with the hill? it's easy to feel the table has been set just for you. Regulars thrive on fantastic house-smoked steaks and plump steamed mussels eaten between bites of hand-cut fries. Chicken is a menu staple, sometimes arriving with smashing little spaetzle dumplings. Paparadelle noodles can show up with braised rabbit sauce with a sweet hint of balsamic vinegar: pure, earthy pleasures. Part of that experience is the conclusion of a meal: Pastry chef Jennifer Flanagan is proving to be Portland's - best dessert chef. You may wish to go no further than the outrageous signatures: dreamy crème brulée or a wicked soufflé cake running rivulets of thick, hot chocolate. But then you'd miss Flanagan's own changing specialties, from a towering banana cream pie on a thick chocolate platform to a startling molasses ice cream. Through it all, Kimberly is the gracious hostess, dropping smiles and trusty wine recommendations. She sets they style here, from the dinner-party gestalt to the look of the dinning room, with its big French cafe posters and charming, hand- painted plates. "My mission is to have every person walk out the door happy," she says, explaining her need to constantly redefine service. At a recent staff meeting, she read the dictionary's definition of elegance":"refined, tasteful beautiful of manner, form or style." There's another way to describe elegance. It's called Paley's Place.

Genoa (Rated # 1 for Portland food and service - American Express Top Restaurants). 2832 S.E. Belmont St. Phone: (503) 238-1464 . CUISINE: Authentic and regional Italian, rigorously explored. For 28 amazing years, Genoa has maintained an elevated spot among Portland restaurants through various owner and chef changes -- and for good reason. The kitchen takes food seriously without being self-important or fussy. You'll find new flavors in a meal that spins out over several hours -- and marvel at many of them. It's a lot of food and a dining room with not much else to focus on. Skip lunch and get ready for a memorable evening. ATMOSPHERE: In a small, dark dining room, an intelligent wait staff recites the night's menu. Tones are hushed; perhaps diners are quietly worshipping the food before them. A back sitting room offers living-room comfort for desserts or smokes. MUST-HAVE DISHES: The menu changes too often to make many recommendations, but some courses are legendary. The returning bagna cauda is still classic: a warm fondue of cream, anchovies and garlic for dunking vegetables and breadsticks. The pasta course is a high point, including a recent ravioli filled with goat cheese, Gruyere and sage. Entrees usually include a delicious fish, fowl or meat option, perhaps thin veal medallions glazed with a compote of paper-thin artichoke slices. From the core dessert list, look for the signature boccone dolce, a heaping construction of meringue layers, whipped cream and fresh fruit.

Castagna ( Restaurant of the Year 2000 - By Bob Hicks, of The Oregonian.) 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Bet. 17th & 18th Aves. Phone 503-231-7373. It's not exactly " Where's Waldo," but for the past year one of the hottest new dinner spots in town has been playing a game of hide-and-seek. Around the 1700 block on lower South east Hawthorne Boulevard, a car will slow down, crawl to the next intersection, continue at its poky pace for two or three blocks, turn around and start again. Finally the passengers will spot what they've been seeking crisp and inconspicuous above the indented doorway of 1752, a small sign that says "Castagna." (it means "chestnut" in Italian) is the natural outgrowth of their private and Professional lives -- a place where their tastes mingle and merge. Welcome to Diner 2000's Restaurant of the Year -- if you can find it. "We're not trying to be hidden away," chef and co-owner Kevin Gibson says wryly. But the message has come through."I think we're giving in," says Monique Siu, Castagna's CO-owner and Gibson's wife. "We might be putting up a bigger sign." Siu pauses, slightly pained at the thought of losing her dignified but too-shy sign. "I like the subtlety of it," she adds wistfully .Exactly. Subtlety, a warmth rising from beautiful coolness, is what Castagna is all about. The cooking is just as clean and elegantly uncontrived. No tricks. Just fine seasonal ingredients (mostly organic and locally grown) and rigorous preparation: a rabbit hindquarter braised with wine, mustard and tarragon, for instance. Or a pair of small, exquisitely grilled quail. Or a beautifully sautéed pork chop served with buttered leeks, potatoes and Calvados sauce'. Or a perfect sweet-sour Meyer lemon tart with creme chantilly. ."I'm really happy that everything we serve is made here," Gibson says. "The only cans we open are olive oil."Siu and Gibson both have classical sensibilities. "We both like French and Italian food, and we're both purists in a way," Siu says. "I like the individual flavors on the plate to be clean and harmonious. Some things are very complex, like the wine sauce on the lamb. But you don't want things to lose their individual focus."

COUVRON (Portland's most exclusive -- and in some ways its best -- restaurant) .1126 S.W. 18th Ave., Nob Hill and Vicinity, Portland, OR, USA. Phone: 503/225-1844. ( Over $35) French "Sensationally creative. Haute cuisine." Husband and wife team Anthony Demes and Maura Jarach preside nightly over their 32 seat jewel-like restaurant which offers a setting that is reminiscent of the intimate European elegance found in a small French inn. Diners bask in candlelight and enjoy classical music while savoring "revelations for the eye and mouth." "Intensely French, with a globe-trotting range of ingredients," Chef Demes acquires only the best products available. Chef Anthony Demes's signature dishes include a honey-glazed Oregon duck breast with curry and anise, a pan-roasted foie gras with summer truffles and diced organic root vegetables in a red wine sauce, a thyme-roasted Alaskan halibut, and sautéed salmon mignon on a chiffonade potato cake with stewed leeks. The Grand Marnier soufflé is otherworldly. About eight months ago Couvron switched entirely to prix fixe dinners: $65 for the seven-course vegetarian dinner, $75 for the seven-course regular dinner, which includes an option of either seafood or meat on two courses, and $95 for a nine-course chef's grand menu, which must be ordered by everyone at the table. You simply trust Demes and go for it. The payoff is an outstanding meal graced with the perfect pacing that synchronization of courses provides. Reservations essential.

Higgins: 1239 SW Broadway. (503) 222-9070 . CUISINE: Northwest improvisational: local ingredients, flavors that play off one another like good jazz. How important is space to a restaurant's success? Ask Greg Higgins, who runs one of the best places in town. Higgins' two interconnected dining rooms step down from a small street-level lobby that also leads to the partly open kitchen and back to a dark, clubby and very popular bar. Crowded and noisy, the dining rooms have such an efficient flow that they offer a seemingly impossible combination: buzz and intimacy. You get the invigorating feel of a busy public space, but also a sense of comforting privacy: Each table, miraculously, feels far from the madding crowd. It's an ideal atmosphere for a downtown hot spot (Higgins is big on power lunching) and it sets the table for a creative and very good menu that truly shines in the way it treats vegetables -- both as vegetarian plates and as sides or settings for meat dishes. Higgins is an obsessive experimenter with an apparently natural sense for the ways flavors will combine. Even when you don't like one of his experiments --and most of the time you will -- you'll like the urge that got him there. Where else, for instance, are you likely to encounter a plate of rigatoni with grilled dandelions and endives, alder-smoked bacon and feta cheese? MUST-HAVE DISHES: Menu changes frequently, but shellfish and combination salads are almost always winners. Wild or unusual greens, heirloom potatoes, root vegetables, chutneys, polentas, chiles and the like are frequent visitors to the menu. REASON TO GO: Higgins is a leader in the organic and fresh foods revolution, and the level of cooking is consistently high. A good share of the menu is always vegetarian-friendly. The place has perhaps the best beer list in town, with a beer steward and a knockout selection of Belgians. Wine list is good and reasonably priced, too.

Wildwood ( 1998 Northwest chef of the year ) 1221 N.W. 21st Ave. (503) 248-9663 . Cory Schreiber, co-winner of the James Beard title as 1998 Northwest chef of the year, has created an impressive local landmark, a top-level restaurant that's consistently exciting every night at dinner, six days a week at lunch and maybe particularly at brunch. Schreiber carefully assembles his dishes, producing visual and seasoning balances that rarely seem overdone. He chooses from a wide range of influences and ingredients -- but doesn't choose too many. As a result, Wildwood can draw people from across town for Muscovy duck in the dining room, a dazzling burger in the bar or brioche French toast at brunch. CUISINE: Scheiber sets off on his own version of New Northwest, with a masterful management of his wood-burning oven. The menu is creative and skillfully managed, even though changing on a daily basis, and a Northwesterner will recognize lots of local friends. MUST-HAVE DISHES: The wood-oven roasted mussels and clams are mandatory, and the thin-crust pizzas can fill a meal, an appetizer or a slow afternoon. The menu changes constantly, but watch closely for Schreiber's treatment of local fish, notably salmon, sturgeon or Alaskan halibut. And if you run into the roast quail, fly to it.

Cafe des Amis :1987 N.W. Kearney St.; 503-295-6487. Cuisine: French and fresh Northwest. High-quality cooking, service, wines. Caf des Amis has quiet class. Like Old Faithful, Dennis Baker's tucked-away bistro regularly delivers the goods: fine, artistically prepared food in an understated, melodious atmosphere. Casually elevated and resolutely untrendy, this longtime Portland favorite is a place where grown-ups go to eat and drink, and where their children should aspire. Atmosphere: Spare and quietly elegant. Servers are friendly and efficient, know the food and know the wines. Ask them. Must-have dishes: Exquisite smoked mushroom ravioli, buttery grilled scallops, some of the best soups in town. Beef fillet is legendary for its rich port garlic sauce.

Zefiro 500 N.W. 21st Ave., Nob Hill and Vicinity, Portland, OR, USA Phone: (503) 226-3394. ( Over $35 ). CUISINE: Primarily Mediterranean, with a few detours to India, Asia and Latin America. There's something about being at Zefiro. It's an instant good time: sophistication without the nose, elegant minimalism without the flash and usually jammed with an independent crowd that's willing to define itself beyond the Northwest. The kitchen's global adventures reflect the scene -- fun with finesse. Every accessory here is sharp, and that goes from the informed servers wearing ties as cool as the plates to lighting carefully chosen for intimate flattery. Blond floors, pale green walls, lots of windows, and architectural lighting fixtures set the mood at Zefiro, where clarity and attractive detail are the thematic touchstones of the dining room and kitchen. The ever-changing menu combines Southeast Asian and Mediterranean elements with gratifying results. Try the oysters with Thai sauce or any of the grilled fish dishes; the Caesar salad is justly popular. This is a place to see and be seen. MUST-HAVE DISHES: The perfect three-course meal for two would be several starters to share, the vaunted Caesar salad for two, or one of the inventive composed salads with ingredients themed to a cuisine, and two desserts, including a homemade ice cream. This is one of the few places that makes first-rate gnocchi dumplings. Seared rare ahi tuna, a menu mainstay, is exemplary. There are no core entrees, so recommendations are difficult, but at their best you'll find the likes of grilled leg of venison, the blood of the meat and the winy marinade forming a sauce of heady strength: It's a dish that takes well to the rich potato gratin on the side. Reservations essential.

Assaggio: 7742 S.E. 13th Ave., East of the Willamette, Portland, OR, USA Phone: 503/232-6151. ($15 to $25 ) Italian cuisine. In an age of canned music it's pleasant to enter a restaurant and hear Maria Callas singing opera arias. But, then, everything about this Sellwood trattoria (food, decor, price) is extraordinarily pleasant. It's hard to find a place cozier or more romantic than this casual pasta palace. The Italian cooking is perhaps the most authentic in Portland, and many dishes are available as family-style samplers. Farfalle, fusilli, penne, and spaghetti dishes are properly cooked al dente and not oversauced. For starters try the salad sampler or any of the bruschette (grilled garlic bread with various toppings). Must-have dishes: Among recent options have been a terrific fagioli, a starter of chilled runner beans, mushrooms and arugula with shaved grana cheese; a spicy spaghetti alla putanesca that blends olives, capers, garlic, olive oil, tomato, and, if you want them, a wallop of anchovies; and penne d'inverno, pasta tubes with a sauce of chard, wild mushrooms, garlic, pepper and cream. An excellent wine cellar favors Italian vintages. The wine list has some tremendous, hard-to-find Italian bottles, but every evening also features a sturdy wine-of-the-day priced in the teens. The interior, painted in a burnt-sienna shade and accented with classical architectural motifs, lovingly evokes Italy. Takes no reservations, and the waits can be looooong.

The Heathman 1001 SW Broadway , Downtown and the Pearl District, Portland, OR, USA Phone: 503/241-4100 ( $25 to $35 ). CUISINE: Fundamentally French, with influences from the Northwest to Asia to Italy. The Heathman In Portland's big-deal, big-celebrity hotel, Chef Philippe Boulot, the French-trained former head chef at New York's Mark Hotel, revels in the fresh fish, game, wild mushrooms, and other ingredients of the Northwest. His menu changes with the season and may include seared ahi tuna wrapped in locally cured prosciutto and served with Oregon-truffle risotto; Normandy-style braised rabbit in apple cider and mustard sauce, served with sage white-wine gnocchi; or roasted pesto salmon with red onion-capgon spring salmon, Maine lobster, Australian lobster tail, Alaskan halibut, sturgeon, or New Zealand roughy, as well as swordfish, marlin, and shark.

PIZZICATO 705 S.W. Alder St., Downtown and the Pearl District, Portland, OR, USA. Phone: 503/226-1007 ( Under $15 ) American cuisine. This local chain serves up gourmet pizzas topped by inventive combinations such as red potato and prosciutto. The restaurant interiors are clean, bright, and modern. Beer and wine are available. There is a second location at 505 N.W. 23rd Avenue (tel. 503/242-0023).


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