While Portland’s mighty rivers lay claim to plenty of space for joggers, bikers and industry, precious little of it was ever reserved for waterfront restaurants. Now, with development in Portland’s south waterfront booming, that statistic is changing. Businesses on the waterfront aren’t as rare as they used to be.
Set aside the marina on downtown Portland’s south waterfront, Three Degrees is one such lucky establishment. It’s a classy eatery that treats its food with as much respect as its location.
Located within the RiverPlace Hotel, Three Degrees provides a riverfront dining experience with both indoor and outdoor seating. High ceilings, airy spaces and large chandeliers greet you upon entry. Booths are spacious and tables set reasonably apart.
Ceiling-to-floor windows provide you with an excellent view out onto the marina, no matter where you’re sitting. On a warm summer day, dine on the veranda and watch as the Willamette shimmers.
It’s a view chef de cuisine Lauro Romero doesn’t forget as he goes about creating New American masterpieces in the large open kitchen. “I’ve worked in a lot of kitchens where you’re basically in a box for long hours, but here, even when you’re on the line, you can still look out onto the river,” he says.
Though they may come few and far between, on clear days majestic Mount Hood stands in the distance, its snow-capped peak stretching into the sky. No doubt, this inspiring location owes a lot to the creative genius Romero displays in his work at Three Degrees, but that isn’t the full story.
A New American Dream
Having moved to Salt Lake City from Mexico when he was fifteen years old, Romero wasted no time setting himself up for success. While he immediately returned to school, he also got a job as a dishwasher. And though few would proclaim such about a dishwashing job, Romero “loved it” and it wasn’t long before a career in the kitchen looked like a real possibility.
“When I was about nineteen or twenty, I was working at a restaurant where the chef was very hard core and passionate about food. The way he was doing it was like energy,” Romero explains.
Working amongst such talent was all the inspiration Romero needed. Before long he was working as the executive sous chef at Bambara in Salt Lake City. There he honed the skills that brought him to Portland.
Ask any number of transplanted Portland chefs why they are here and you’ll likely hear the same word over and over: Bounty. The food is just too good in the Pacific Northwest. “Portland was a dream for me,” says Romero.
During his last few years in Mexico, Romero lived in a small community that ate what it grew. They had about an acre of farmland and his mom had chickens. The skills he learned from working the land back home gave him insight into how to work with fresh, farm-to-table ingredients. “Whenever I create dishes, I always try to go back to that,” he says.
So upon his Portland arrival, Romero set about using Three Degree’s expansive kitchen to create cultural masterpieces. Have no doubt, this is New American cuisine, but Romero’s Mexican heritage gives him a special flare for unique flavors based on traditional Mexican ingredients. Combined with his experience working in French and Japanese kitchens, the results are nothing short of extraordinary.
Romero’s cultural touch shines through at the start of the meal with his eye-catching bone marrow dip. The marrow is combined with parmesan, chestnuts, caramelized onions and pureed. It’s then put back into the bone, roasted for a couple of minutes, then topped with bacon serrano marmalade. House-made rye crostini makes the perfect foundation for a healthy smearing of the creamy puree.
Take the lamb shank as another example. As tradition would merit, it is first braised in a bit of red wine and olives, but then Romero throws in some chilies. After it’s braised, the braising sauce is reduced and finished with more olives. The chilies give it a heat that sets it apart from a truly traditional presentation.
Atop and alongside the shank sits Romero’s signature cauliflower rice, which is essentially Cauliflower chopped up to a grainy texture and mixed with lamb stock, parsley and mint. It provides a refreshing balance to the rich, heavy sauce pooling under the lamb shank.
It’s also not the only place where cauliflower shines. In the simply named cauliflower soup, cauliflower is puréed with cream until it reaches a smooth, velvety texture, then is topped with chives, chili caramel popcorn crumble and shaved black truffle. While everything about the soup is fantastic, it’s Romero’s brilliant use of the chili caramel popcorn crumble that makes the dish really stand out. Its crunchy sweet heat set against the salty creaminess of the soup is pure culinary genius.
An evening of New American goodness is finished with an apple and cranberry crostata. The pastry is warm, light, flaky, filled with apples and Starvation Alley cranberries, and soaked in a bourbon cinnamon sauce. A dollop of cinnamon and local honey ice cream beckons to your spoon as it melts atop the crostata.
Throughout all of it Romero’s touch is evident. At Three Degrees, tradition and cultural ingenuity combine to create an evening to remember. It’s a meal that tastes even better knowing it was cooked by someone who’s passion has helped him achieve his own “new American dream.”
“I miss Salt Lake City, and of course Mexico, where I grew up, but Portland is where it’s at for me,” Romero says with a smile. Definitely good news for Portlanders looking to come for the view, but stay for the food.
Three Degree is located at 1510 SW Harbor Way on Portland’s south waterfront. For hours and menu information visit their website by clicking here, or give them a call at 503.295.6166.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.