Editor’s note: Chef Cathy Whims, owner of Portland, Oregon’s Nostrana, was nominated for a James Beard Award this year. Front Burner columnist Kelly Myers, who works with Whims at her restaurant, accompanied the chef to New York for the awards ceremony — and a few days of eating very well. Here’s Kelly’s report:
Every few years I get lucky enough to swoop into New York City for four or five days, always in good weather and always with a jam-packed to-do list. When I finally leave, I am in a state of woozy enchantment, with a feeling of having happily binged on urban life.
This happened again in May. Unlike my other visits, this time someone else was paying. And, reader, I dined. We were there for the James Beard Awards, called the Oscars of the food world, and eating out was part of the deal.
So was exploring other food destinations, like the Union Square Greenmarket, where I bought fava shoots, snipped from the tender new growth at the top of the plant. I lingered over a display of small fishes for sale. I did not recognize their names but knew their silvery gleam meant they were fresh from the sea.
Most were the perfect size for slipping whole into a hot skillet. In the Pacific Northwest, there is a lot of baking and grilling of individual portions of salmon and halibut, but it was refreshing to think about cooking fish whole, which protects its moisture and flavor.
Still, I did not buy any. I was full from dinner the night before at Felidia, celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich’s clubby townhouse restaurant. We started with a carne crudo over shaved Parmigiano and artichokes.
Seafood starred throughout the remaining parade of courses. We all liked a cured-fish antipasto, especially the sweet, salty bottarga (salted and pressed mullet roe) and salmon pastrami. A spaghetti striped with squid ink was something I’d never seen, and it captured my imagination. The black-and-white pasta evoked baby eels, and it nearly slithered in its unusual ceramic crock.
After the farmers’ market, artist Malia Jensen hosted a dinner party in her soaring loft under the Manhattan Bridge. Jensen’s space is filled with objects that make you look twice, like a resin purse, a big leather bug nest, and a tall bear (see her website to view the bear on the subway to Coney Island).
Bluefish was the main course, found that morning at another farmers’ market. An oily, strong-flavored fish like this should be eaten only when it is as fresh as the sea air. This one was, and we accompanied the seared fillets with salsa verde and the fava shoots wilted in lemon vinaigrette.
Then it was on to a fun feast at Momofuku Noodle Bar, the first restaurant of 32-year-old David Chang’s trendsetting empire. Despite the distractions — and there were many, from the blasting Radiohead to the fried chicken two ways — I found quiet elegance in chilled somen noodles sauced with uni, or sea urchin.
The next day was the awards ceremony. My boss generously invited us to a luxurious lunch beforehand at Le Bernardin, French megachef Eric Ripert’s shrine to seafood. We gave ourselves over to an exquisite three-course menu, pausing only to exchange bites. There was hamachi, or yellowtail tuna, rolled around a filling done Vietnamese spring roll-style, peekytoe crab, langoustines, and charred octopus.
I returned to Portland reflective. It’s true that there are many things Portland does well, perhaps even better than New York. Think farm-fresh produce and coffee (ours is much better). But I envied New York its culture of seafood. New York leads in freshness, the number of species coming to market, and a restaurant culture that truly celebrates fish. And we Portlanders should follow.
Let’s expect a commitment to seafood from Portland’s restaurants. After all, it’s only about 80 miles from here to the coast. I can’t wait until our menus are as close to New York’s in terms of marine diversity as we are to the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.
Chef Kelly Myers shares her expertise in the professional kitchen with the home cook, focusing on ingredients, equipment, and techniques.
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