30 November 2021
Nostrana has long been considered one of the finest restaurants in the city, and has been for me the epitome of the benefit of a woman-led kitchen: warm, inviting, encouraging and ultimately comforting. Cathy Whims is something of a legend here, coming to Portland in the time almost before the early days of the city’s foodie reputation, 1979, and establishing herself as a rising star first at Produce Row Cafe (you’ll know that as the original outpost of what would become the city’s mainstay, craft brewery-supporting pubs with great locally-sourced food) and then at the restaurant that would become the birthplace of Portland’s fine dining scene, Genoa.
Nostrana more than any of her other restaurants seems to maintain that otherworldly quality of constant care and perfection, and it wasn’t any different on a recent visit on a rainy November night. We were able to walk in with an early enough dinner time and order a meal that was both elegant and homey, radiatori all’amatriciana, spaghetti squash with sage and pecorino, beef tagliata, risotto croquettes. There doesn’t seem to be much to say about this restaurant experience other than, every bite was filled with flavor, we couldn’t leave even the smallest bit of sauce behind.
The wine list is extensive and of course the sommelier will patiently and carefully help you select the bottle that’s right for you and your style. My taste in local restaurants is to have more Oregon and Washington wines than are on the list, which is understandably very heavy in Italian choices; I feel that there are enough good things locally to include more than a dozen or so given the breadth of this list. Sticking with Italian and French wines is (in my opinion) one of the biases of the restaurants more rooted in foodie Portland of the 1970s and 1980s when there was precious little good wine being made in the region. This is not to say the choices here aren’t excellent, and do include a few wines made right in the city.
Most importantly the restaurant includes a huge number of local farm products, and takes a completely seasonal approach. Knowing people who have worked in the kitchen and shopping for decades at the farmer’s markets, I’ve heard stories of farmers showing up at the kitchen door with produce — wild plums they’d found, very ugly carrots — and convincing the restaurant to take it, later to become plum preserves or carrot soup. This is the Portland food scene I most love, and it’s worth visiting the restaurant at least once a season just for the ideas about what creative new things you could be doing with the less-used veggies and fruits, cardoon and red cabbage and the like.
Nostrana like only a few other restaurants still open in Portland is both old and new at once, part of Portland’s fine dining scene of the last century as well as the fine dining scene of the future (among other innovations, Nostrana adds an automatic gratuity to its checks so it can pay its staff better than other establishments; you’re welcome to add still more if you choose).
And — please save room for dessert. Have the seasonal fruit crisp, have something else too if you can manage it. It’s absolutely worth it.
Nostrana was, at the time of this writing, open for dinner only Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. weekend nights. The location in the Buckman neighborhood at 1401 SE Morrison, Suite 101, is the site of a former grocery store, Kienows. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor dining and requires proof of vaccination for indoor dining.