Sunday, August 4, 2013


This morning I treated myself to a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon for breakfast. The bagel came as a gift from my good friend, Marcella Berger, who with Maryann Palumbo (my absolute best friend in the world), and Sandy Friedman, came out for a visit from New York just two days after my brother and his fiancee departed. That bagel was the real deal--chewy, doughy, and unmistakably New York. You can't get a bagel like this in Portland, which is odd for a city with such a sizable Jewish population. It wasn't until I left New York that I realized the rest of the world puts up with a lot bad bagels. They simply have to be made in New York. All the rest are some designer baker's idea of what a bagel should taste like or some supermarket creation that tastes more like sandwich bread than bagel. 

I had been pretty good about not putting pressure on Maryann to come for a visit. But it was now four years since I moved here and I had not had the pleasure of her company on my home turf.  The problem is that Maryann couldn't stay with me. She is highly allergic to pet hair which meant a hotel. She decided with my wholehearted agreement to invite Marcella and then Sandy to join her. They got rooms at the hotel Modera, a boutique hotel in downtown Portland, which was part of a package deal for their trip. Turns out they loved the hotel, the Nel Centro restaurant inside of the hotel, the service, the rooms and the ambiance.

Lobby of Hotel Modera, Downtown Portland

It always funny to watch a New Yorker's reaction to Portland. The first thing they comment on is how green it is here. Arriving in Portland in July is ideal--the weather is hot but not steamy, and evenings, it's pleasant to sit outside as the city cools off (unlike the long and dreary rainy season). As they got through the check-in process they were amazed at how polite the hotel staff are. We quickly assembled for a late-night bite to eat and they found the same treatment at Nel Centro. We watched the sun slowly set and go dark as we plotted out the stuff I had planned for the week.  It was a good start with everyone relaxed and happy to be in each other's company. 

A kiosk near the main entrance to the Rose Garden

Rose bushes at the famed International Rose Testing Garden 

Some beautiful rose specimens

Me, Marcella and Sandy

I decided to drive them around a bit to give them a feel for the downtown area. I took them way up to the top of Washington Park, which is almost always the first stop for my friends when they visit. The International Rose Test Garden, is home to 7,000 rose plants representing some 550 varieties. The visitor's first site of the garden is one of astonishment that so many roses have been assembled in one place.  It will reach its 100th birthday in 2017.  It is considered one of the finest gardens of its type in the world. The city of Portland is also known as Rose City, as apparently our climate is ideal for the cultivation of roses.  That's news to me, as mine are always plagued by black spot, aphids, and other garden-related problems. They bloom, but by the end of the blooming season and no matter how often I spray them, more than one of my rose bushes have been completed deprived of their leaves. I haven't got a clue how this garden manages to look so unblemished, but it does. The girls oohed and aahed over the colors and the sheer variety on display.  The garden itself is located high above the city at the very top of Washington Park. The vistas are really something to see, and on great days, you can view the Willamette River and Mt. Hood and all of downtown and beyond. The garden itself is tiered on the side of this small mountain.  Everyone had their camera out on this brilliantly sunshiny day. Afterwards I decided we needed to enjoy our first lunch at Papa Haydn's in South East Portland. This restaurant is known for it's outstanding layer cakes (some are four layers high), and their beautiful garden under a grape arbor is a great way to escape the sun. We ate salads, and sipped ice tea--gracious way to get through the midday.  I dropped them off at the hotel where they scoured the neighborhood's stores in search of shopping therapy. They later couldn't stop talking about how polite everyone here is. They are to used to New York where the denizens of bad behavior often yell at you, spit at you, whistle at you, try to run you over when you cross the street, and if you are a bike messenger, whizz pass you at scary speeds (causing coronaries). In a city of more than 22-million, it is all too often, everyone for themselves. 

This being Portland, I had to make sure we ate at some of the city's great restaurants. Tuesday night we ate at Nostrana, a huge Italian trattoria in South East with soaring ceilings, and a welcome vibe. It's become one of my favorite places to eat in the city. Cathy Whims, the chef/owner, has been nominated as a finalist for a James Beard Award as best chef Pacific Northwest, five times. She's long overdue to win (Seattle cops most of the Beard awards). The pastas, pizzas and main dishes that are turned out to hordes of hungry diners, are of top quality.

Wednesday, I decided we should see the great Columbia Gorge, which is about an hour out of the city. We had great weather, and managed the trip easily enough. But I made the mistake of not asking the right directions for Vista Point which gives a spectacular view of the Gorge from high above. Instead, we drove along an impressively scenic stretch of road on the Washington state side of the Columbia river. After driving what seemed to be another 45 minutes, we found a stop with tourist information and they had us reverse course. We had a nice lunch at Skamania Lodge, a beautiful arts and crafts-style resort and meeting hotel with spectacular floor-to-ceiling views in the high-ceilinged dining room and on the way back, stopped off to see Horsetail Falls, one of the most beautiful of the many waterfalls in the area.

Horsetail Falls, Columbia Gorge

Here's the spectacular view from Vista Point of the Columbia River Gorge, 
taken during my first visit there in 2008

One of the famous waterfalls (maybe Bridal Veil Falls) also from that 2008 visit.

The trip took up most of the day, and when I was ready to drop the girls off at the hotel, they invited to join them for dinner at Nel Centro. I've dined her often and always well. I had just celebrated my birthday at a lunch with a friend a few weeks before. David Machado, the chef/owner, has a recipe in THE OREGONIAN COOKBOOK. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. 

Thursday I took them down to the Pearl district for some sightseeing and more retail therapy. The Pearl district is a major tourist destination--a reclaimed area of the city, which was home to warehouses, light industry and railroad yards. It most reminds me of New York City's Soho area, full of art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and other attractions. We spent the morning in and out of boutiques where at one shop, Maryann found another handbag to add to her collection of hundreds. How could she resist--the store was have a 50% off sale? I found a pair of red and blue Keen sandals, a Portland company, famous for this particular type of shoe. But the most fun shop was Cargo, a vast warehouse emporium specializing in Asian furniture, tabletop, objects, garden ornaments, and all sorts of toys, umbrellas, jewelry, clothing, housewares, etc. It was huge with lots of things to grab the eye. I found a flexi-wooden hand which makes an interesting addition to my dining bookcase which is covered with objects found on travels. The girls bought jewelry, and gifts to bring home. I was looking for a French bistro that I had lunch in a few years ago. Only it had closed, and in its place was an Iraqi restaurant, which served very good food and made for a pleasant stop for lunch. 

Powell's Portland's famous independent bookstore was next. Maryann said there were more people in Powell's than in all of downtown Portland, which may have been true. At any given moment, this huge store, which reminds me of a more updated version of Manhattan's The Strand bookstore, only bigger. We all separated to do our own browsing, each of us emerging forty five minutes later with books and magazines. They planned to dine that evening at the Raven and Rose restaurant, in the newly restored, Ladd Carriage House. I was going home to take care of my pets, who had been rather abandoned all week.  

It seems appropriate to stop and say a few words about my driving. I re-learned to drive at 63, and had not been behind the wheel of a car for more than four decades. It's two years now, and I feel relatively confident. But when someone is in the car with me, I tend to lose focus on the driving. Sometimes stop signs (especially when they are more than partially hidden behind trees are a problem for me. It didn't always help that Maryann was riding shotgun in the seat next to me. I should have made her drive. The last thing you need when you're uptight is someone telling you what to do while you're driving. I made a huge blunder driving them back to the hotel one night. It was dark, and I took a wrong turn onto a bride--which was an exit for incoming cars to my side of the river. Thank god traffic was virtually non-existent. We got over to the right side before we entered the bridge. It shook me up a bit, and now I know I'll never make that mistake again. Maryann is also afraid of heights, so it was both amusing and a little disconcerting that she spent part of the ride up in the gorge with her face practically buried in my shoulder. I'm sure her version would be a tad harsher, but the important thing is NOBODY GOT KILLED!

On Friday, the plan was to come to my house, which they hadn't seen yet. So in the afternoon, I picked them up and brought them  over to the SE side of the city. After giving them the house tour, we had wine on the patio with John Baker, one of my good friends in Portland. The plan was to take them to Gladstone pizza, my preferred place to indulge my favorite guilty pleasure. Just after John arrived, my real estate friend, Brad Wulf called. He was in the neighborhood and wanted to drop by. We have had lots of discussions lately, because he is assisting my brother and fiancee in their search for a home in Portland. Brad is fun, attractive, and a great addition to any group. By the time Brad got to the house, the wine was flowing. Then off to Gladstone Pizza and a table in owner, John Mitchell's magical patio garden. John was one of the first "food" guys I met in Portland. The first time I tried John's pizza, I instantly recognized a master pizza maker. John's crust is amazing--that combination of crunch and softness coupled with the char and blister that his hot ovens give to his pizzas, is something very special. Others rave about Apizza Scholls and Ken's Artisan Pizza, which are outstanding, but you always have to wait to get a table in those two fine pizzerias. I've never waited at John's and his pizza is as good as any of the best I've eaten on either coast, or in Italy. We got two large pizzas and two large Cesar salads. It was a wonderful night--the ladies last in Portland. Everyone was in a terrific mood and we ate and drank and laughed and before you knew it, four hours had passed. 

Portland Japanese Gardens

Sandy, Maryann, Marcella--friends for more than three decades

Even though she's a nervous backseat (front seat?) driver, Maryann 
is absolutely my best friend 

Saturday was packing day and at 11:00 am, I picked up the ladies and we headed back over to Washington Park, this time to visit the Portland Japanese Gardens.  This garden is considered the most authentic outside of Japan, and once we got our tickets, we decided to take a guided tour of this five-garden oasis of tranquility. Our walk took in all five of the gardens, which cover 5.5 acres. The free tour was informative and fascinating. The garden's many plants and trees are worth knowing about, and the minimalist gardens have an austere and calming beauty that is hard to resist. Though the weather was spectacular and the garden filled with visitors, I never felt crowded the way I do going to see an exhibit at the Met, or other major tourist sites in New York. 

Back to Nob Hill for lunch at Jo Bar, a popular place on the main drag of the neighborhood. A favorite area for young professionals, it reminds me of a kind of Greenwich Village of Portland. The area is loaded with shops and restaurants. I don't go there very often. I'm not that fond of high end shopping these days, but it's a lively spot to bring out-of-town friends to for a bite to eat, and explore the neighborhood. Back in the car, it was time to get everyone back to the hotel, collect luggage and head to the airport. Six days had flown by. 

I love having my New York friends come to stay in Portland, and Tricia, Carl, Bruce, and others have made the trip. Everyone who visits is amazed at how livable and affordable the city is. And everyone goes home feeling relaxed and recharged. I hope Maryann, Marcella and Sandy come again. We can go to the beach (casinos are out there), or have time to explore the wine country or take the drive through Mt. Hood and into Bend. Marcella--I have four bagels left. I'm rationing them. 

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