Eating out in Portland

Janken interior

Where to dine in Oregon's culinary capital.

Vienna apart, Portland is probably the major city in the world closest to its vineyards. It is no more than a 45-minute drive to the Willamette Valley, a wine region Jancis and I first visited in 1989. (See Sam's useful 2022 travel guide to the Willamette Valley.)

It has changed considerably in the interim as wineries have multiplied and a few of them have come to the attention of the world’s larger drinks companies. There were fewer than 100 wineries in the late 1980s and today there are over 1,000. And while, like Seattle and San Francisco, Portland continues to suffer from the consequences of COVID-19 (there are numerous locations looking for tenants; of the nine city taxi companies in 2019 only four have survived), the city’s food trucks appear to flourish and its restaurants are, on the whole, exciting and distinctive.

Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures is no more than a 15-minute drive from the city’s airport and proved to be the perfect place to eat and drink after our plane from London arrived just before 6 pm. Tired and a little discombobulated, we were sitting down at the marble-topped table by 7 pm.

Part of this restaurant’s charm lies in the fact that certain elements of its set-up are international. There is a large open kitchen on the left as you walk in with a counter directly opposite and seating for about a dozen. The lighting is in the American tradition, in that it is far too dim – whether this is a throwback to Prohibition (a JR suggestion) or that low lighting is equated with sophistication (my suggestion), I leave it up to more knowledgeable readers to decide. The restaurant occupies a third of Heavenly Creatures’ space, with the rest a large events space and service kitchen curtained off to the rear.

Old fridge at Heavenly Creatures, Portland

Other factors include open shelving packed with wine bottles, all with their retail prices on them, and an old wooden fridge in the corner stuffed with champagne, Oregon sparkling wines and white wines. There is a daily printed menu and list of wines available by the glass, including a Champagne, a Savoie sparkling wine, six whites and six reds, and three choices under the heading rosé, orange and chilled red. (This is winemaking country so these are quite unusual, including a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Pinot Grigio, and a Vitovska from Skerk in Friuli's Carso). The wine list has been compiled by local wine guru Joel Gunderson.

The menu from chef Aaron Barnett is listed down the right-hand side, barely legible in the dim lighting, but enticing nonetheless. We were a table of five and I volunteered to order for us all, particularly as our waiter informed us that the kitchen was running low on sweetbreads! From an extremely appetising menu, I ordered plates of raw albacore tuna with apple and grapes; young yellowtail with toast and mustard seed; sweetbreads and red cabbage; lamb ribs escabeche with anchovy; English peas with a poached egg and lardo; and a spring garlic pizzetta with bottarga.

All were excellent. Stand out dishes included the two tuna dishes, the sweetbreads and the pizzetta – which arrived not as the thin piece its name suggests but as a thick, almost bun-like form that was anything but stodgy. My only disappointment of the evening came with the single dessert on offer, a rice pudding that was goodish but served cold rather than warm/hot. The bill for five came to US$252 before service.

Heavenly Creatures 2218 NE Broadway Street, Portland, OR 97232; no phone; DM on IG @heavenlycreaturespdx


The extremely modern face of Portland was on display the following evening at Janken – Japanese for the game of rock, paper, scissors – which was opened in November 2022 in the city’s Pearl District. This is definitely the hip district, with numerous restaurants, bars and galleries; where many light industrial buildings have been converted into apartments and lofts; and where, on NW13th Street, Barista serves excellent coffee and caramelised ‘wonder buns’ to which we became addicted for our breakfasts.

wonder bun from Barista

Further up NW13th Street is Janken, which is playing, even on Tuesday evenings, to very full houses. The menu is a combination of Japanese and Korean dishes under the overall control of chef Rodrigo Ochoa, who was born in Colombia, learned his trade in Miami, worked at Zuma, of which Janken has echoes, before heading to the Pacific Northwest on honeymoon and deciding to settle here.

What, however, is most obvious is that Ochoa fully appreciates that any successful restaurant is a team effort – symbolised on the back of the white tee-shirts every commis waiter wears which proclaim EVERYTHING IS BETTER TOGETHER. Alongside Ochoa in the kitchen that has to feed up to 150 in the dining room is sous chef Juah Oh, who followed Ochoa from Florida.

The restaurant’s interior design (pictured at the top of this article in a photo by Thomas Teal) is extremely elegant, the work of Portland’s Based Experiments, who have retrofitted what was a bistro space with Dutch-inspired wishbone chairs, chic bouclé banquettes and pendant lights in the style of Japanese lanterns. And what is most obvious from the moment anyone walks in is a 15-ft (5 m) faux cherry tree that looms over the dining room.

Janken’s menu is still on a QR code, which seemed strange to us, but bristles with exciting dishes. We began with delicious softshell crab sushi rolls. We should then have progressed to lobster rolls but they never arrived (although they appeared on the bill) before the best dish of the lot: four elegant slices of freshwater-eel sashimi together with four extremely well judged and well stuffed salmon tacos.

As I was once again in charge of ordering, I had no hesitation in ordering the crisped Brussels sprouts with kimchi vinaigrette which delighted Jancis; a dish of Lan-Roc pork belly, as much for its accompaniment of rum-infused slices of pineapple; and because of Oregon’s reputation for salmon, a dish of miso salmon that was moist and luscious, topped with ikura, salmon caviar. Perhaps best of all was a dish of kimchi fried rice. This was served in a large bowl, which somehow managed to retain its heat and was studded with slices of negi (Japanese green onions) and fresh coriander leaves.

Service was efficient and very American in that our waiter and the GM had no qualms about interrupting our conversations whenever they liked. But the person who shone out was their sommelier Nicolas Ferreira, who is tall, bearded and wears a ponytail. Already on the Master Sommelier programme, Ferreira is as comfortable talking about wine as sake. His recommendation of the Tedorigawa ‘Lady Luck’ Iki Na Onna Daiginjo was first-rate. As we parted, he commented ‘I love working the floor’. He is a very important factor in a highly successful team.

Janken 250 NW 13th Avenue, Portland OR 97209; tel: +1 (503) 841-6406

Jake’s Crawfish

This is a landmark restaurant in Portland which was opened in 1892. Sadly, today it is owned by the huge Landry’s group based in Texas.

Jake's Crawfish interior

The inside is magnificent, with wooden booths, wooden floors and ceilings, great comfort and all the trappings that give the illusion of being back in the late 19th century. But too little attention seems to be given to the food or the wine. The former is tired and lacking in any inspiration. How this restaurant would benefit from a young, enterprising chef, an intelligent, sensitive general manager and a sommelier who is aware of what is happening in the vineyards of the world today.

Every bill/check bears a quote from Tilman J Fertitta, the billionaire CEO of Landry’s. Alas he has nothing to be proud of here.



Instead, take the bus no 20 (or a taxi if you can find one) on a 15-minute journey east of the centre to this restaurant that has been the home of restaurateur and chef Kevin Gibson for the past decade.

The interior is simple. An open kitchen at the far end, at the corner of which Gibson stands, allowing him to talk to his customers when they leave; smiling, extremely enthusiastic waiters; and everybody seems to be having a very good time.

This is thanks, predominantly, to a fascinating menu and wine list. The former cannot be pigeonholed. There are many recognisable ingredients, artfully paired and then cooked. There are no side dishes. And there is only one dessert plus a cheese plate. But Gibson creates a menu from which it is incredibly difficult to choose.

nettle dumplings at Davenport

I thought of beginning with either half a dozen local oysters or a dish of scallop, fennel and pomelo before finally choosing a lovely dish of delicate Swiss witch nettle dumplings with ricotta and speck (above – and much more delicious than it looks). We then chose a pork schnitzel with egg and anchovy as well as agnolotti in stock, stuffed with braised beef and topped with diced carrot. We finished with a creamy panna cotta, and a bill of US$210.

The wine list is just as compelling. The list of whites ranges over the Loire Valley, Germany, Austria, Alsace, Italy and Spain; there is also a pink and orange section from which we chose a suitably versatile Bandol rosé from Domaine Tempier for US $88. Reds, on the other side of the list, are equally cosmopolitan.

As I had noticed a number of customers going up to Gibson as they left, I followed suit and after congratulating and thanking him, I asked him what gave him the greater pleasure: cooking or being able to see and talk to his customers. His reply was as honest as his cooking, ‘It is neither actually. What excites me most is being here in the morning when everything is quiet ...’

Do go!

Davenport 2215 E Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97214; tel: +1 (503) 236-8747