By Scott Packard
on 11.1.13

Feast Portland is more than just the story of food or chefs in the Rose City. While the bulk of the festival’s events take place in Downtown Portland, Feast is about all of Oregon and its bounties: locally sourced meat and produce; fish from the Columbia River and surrounding waterways; wines of the Willamette Valley; and a craft beer industry that has made Oregon the number one state for brew artists and Portland the state’s epicenter.

MORE GP FOOD COVERAGE: Month of Beef | Drinking Merlot | Meatopia, the Carnival of Carnivores

The event, benefiting No Kid Hungry and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and sponsored by Travel Oregon, Whole Foods, and Alaska Airlines, took place over four days this September under mostly blue skies, with only a brief shower Saturday to send participants scurrying under canvas. Good weather is a dice roll in the Pacific Northwest, even in September, though as Feast co-founder Carrie Welch pointed out, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing choices.” Noted, attire choices were distinctly Portlandia-esque, with the wares of local companies Danner and Tanner Goods adorning many lumberjack plaid and denim-on-denim clad guys. One gal was proudly sporting wellies. The city’s funky vibe was well-represented in and around Feast, without.

There’s certainly a strong artisanal food movement amongst the abundant quality restaurants of the city, and Feast followed their lead by displaying the bleeding edge of the culinary now, challenging foodies with sweetbreads, organ meat, and unconventional ingredient pairings. But the festival is more than a gawker-fest of food porn. The autumn Feast also comprises a series of expert panels, chef-hosted dinners, and classes interwoven around two days of general exhibits: the Oregon Bounty Grand Tasting in Pioneer Square, the Sandwich Invitational, the Night Market, and the High Comfort at the Nines, all within walking distance of each other. It’s these latter events that truly give a taste of the festival.

Unlike other food festivals where wine shares the lead role, Feast is a menage a trois, with beer sharing the spotlight

Chefs took the opportunity to pitch their most outrageous culinary creations to a group of discerning foodies from Seattle, San Francisco and, of course, Portland. The best tasting opportunities occurred at the special events like the Night Market and High Comfort, with the general Grand Tasting providing a venue for food purveyors to display some of their products. The crowds reflected that: the general event enjoyed a steady attendance both Friday and Saturday, but the high-mark events were thronged with those looking for an “experience”. Booths manned by top-name chefs like Stephanie Izard (The Girl and the Goat, Chicago), Chris Cosentino (Incanto, San Francisco), Michael Voltaggio (ink, Los Angeles), April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, NYC), Renee Erickson (The Whale Wins, The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle) and Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place, Portland) at both the Friday’s Night Market and Saturday’s High Comfort at the Nines featured a confounding array of dishes with sweetbreads, offal and ingredients not traditionally found on the same plate. At the High Comfort, where comfort food was re-imagined as high cuisine, April Bloomfield provided an answer to the question, “What do you do when lobster falls below $3 per pound?” with her fantastic seafood sausage. During an entertaining cooking demonstration, Chris Cosentino gamely challenged a small audience to offer beef heart tartare at their next dinner party, something we don’t see going down easily. The theme was a continuation of his intriguing Night Market offering, Wagyu tongue tartare.

Unlike other food festivals where wine shares the lead role, Feast is a menage a trois, with beer sharing the spotlight. Deschutes, Full Sail, Gigantic and several other breweries offered well-made, balanced beers that were a refreshing shift from some (particularly west coast) brewers’ fixation with over-hopped bitter monsters. That’s not say that wine was some forgotten paramour. The panel “Clash of the Pinots” tasted Oregon, Burgundy and California pinot noirs, with particular attention to Oregon wines made in a Burgundian style versus those made with distinct attention to their Willamette Valley terroir. Though it will be many years before Oregon wines seriously challenge the rein of Burgundy — young vines vary too much year to year — the 2010 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve’s silky smooth texture and red fruit gave insight into just what a uniquely Oregonian pinot can be.

So, in this bacchanalia of indulgence, what stood out? Certainly, the aforementioned seafood sausage and Wagyu brisket featured the longest queues, as did Michael Voltaggio’s interpretation of the Vietnamese dish pho with Wagyu short rib and daikon radish “noodles”. The best tasting dish at the festival was Aaron Franklin’s ( Franklin Barbeque; Austin, TX) slow-cooked Snake River Farms Wagyu brisket, served at his Night Market booth; folks lined up for 40 minutes to get a hunk of Franklin’s protein gold, which defined simple fare with superior ingredients, masterfully prepared. A local favorite, Kristen Murray (Maurice, Portland), made our surprise favorite dessert, Oregon berry and sweet corn Pavlova, finished with sea salt honey popcorn candy.

If you’re able to attend Feast Portland, make sure to experience the Night Market and High Comfort at the Nines. These two events give the breadth and depth of Oregon’s bounty, and a taste of the best chefs of Portland and across the U.S. At each, there was an opportunity to sample the widest tasting menu, Oregon wines, craft beers, and rub elbows with an easy-going crowd of devoted food aficionados.

The irony of Feast Portland was that the most popular dishes were provided by the non-local chefs — perhaps not surprising, given the rare opportunity to taste the best from LA, NYC, San Francisco, NYC, and Seattle. Visiting chefs certainly didn’t disappoint, but then, neither did the locals. They had to live up to high expectations. The burgeoning restaurant scene in Portland has produced a constituency that knows good food and expects quality ingredients. As Dick Ponzi, of Ponzi Vineyards, noted, “I was raised on fresh home grown and homemade foods. It’s refreshing to see that these practices are coming back providing a healthy diet with a healthy environment.”

Set aside the quaint and quirky image you have from “Portlandia”: sure, it’s accurate, but don’t presume Portland diners are naifs. “You can eat really well in Portland for 25 dollars,” according to Ms. Welch, unlike NYC or LA where the threshold for a really good meal is a much higher price point. Feast gives you a taste of that value, and an opportunity to dip into both the city and state. For foodies and Portlandia fans, a trip to Portland is always worthwhile, and Feast Portland makes it doubly so.