THESE BEST-OF-THE-YEAR LISTS seem to be going the way of primaries, or Black "Friday." Everyone wants to move theirs up a little earlier—attract politicians, or buyers of cheap waffle irons, or page views. By now, plenty of people have already weighed in, but at the risk of being redundant, I can't help myself. 2011 had plenty to celebrate in terms of food and drink, and I feel spectacularly lucky to have dined out as often as I did this year (and on the Mercury's dime, at that). We got some great new higher-end options (think Little Bird, Natural Selection, Otto, the Woodsman Tavern), some excellent casual spots (new iterations of Pok Pok and Podnah's Pit, and newcomers Mi Mero Mole and Luce), and a glut of great places to have a drink (Rum Club, the Old Gold, Beech Street Parlor). But looking back, these are my favorites:
Best New Restaurant: St. Jack (Runners-Up: Aviary, Wafu)
You probably don't need me to tell you that Aaron Barnett's little Lyonnais bouchon is worth your dime, but one of my New Year's resolutions is to stop being such a contrarian dickhead all the time (I'm also going to work on my posture). Everyone wants to put their own stamp on a classic concept, and very few people can actually pull it off. Barnett isn't afraid to be playful with French bistro staples, and he's finding new ways to satisfy Portland's pork fetish, primarily with his tremendous offal preparations (Do. Not. Miss. the fried tripe with caper and red onion mayonnaise). If you can handle blood sausage, you must order the boudin noir, which St. Jack does up with roasted apples, pommes purée, and thick grainy mustard. If pig blood isn't your thing, the coq à la bier (made with Upright's Farmhouse Ale) is stupendous. The café side of the restaurant has only gotten better in the months since it opened, and if you went in for nothing but pastry chef Alissa Rozos' madeleines and bartender Kyle Webster's cocktails, you'd walk away satisfied.
Barnett and partner Kurt Huffman (yes, St. Jack is yet another arrow in the ChefStable quiver) have laid down the gauntlet for new restaurants, and if someone eclipses St. Jack in the near future, then goddamn... we're in for a treat. 2039 SE Clinton, 360-1281
Best Dessert: Alder Pastry & Dessert (Runner-Up: Salt & Straw)
I don't have a particularly sweet tooth. I align myself pretty closely with the savory side of the divide. Still, when Alder opened up a few blocks from my house, I found myself wandering down the street more often than I care to admit. They serve the best gelato in town, the best pastries, and the most beautiful, decadent little sponge cakes. I can't tell you how many times I woke up thinking about kougin aman, Alder's croissant-like pastry that's glazed and caramelized with sugar and an ocean's worth of sea salt.
In my initial review, my one real complaint was that that there were no adult beverage options. Believe it or not, I was motivated less by raging alcoholism than I was a fear that, without a glass of wine or a Belgian ale to go along with that chocolate caramel mousse cake, Alder wouldn't become the date spot that would keep chef Matthew Zack in business (and I swear to god, if you guys let this place fail, we're through). They've since remedied this problem. It may not be the coziest of spaces, but Alder is friendly, very affordable, and frankly, nobody in Portland is making better desserts. 2448 E Burnside, 548-0359
Best New Bar: Dig a Pony (Runner-Up: KASK)
Cool is fickle. Beauty is fleeting. And Dig a Pony has no shortage of either. The clientele gathered around the horseshoe-shaped bar could have stepped out of some local designers lookbook, and maybe they did.
So, clearly, your first instinct is to hate it. And haters, they say, are gonna hate. But Dig a Pony's beauty isn't skin deep. The care and craftsmanship that went into one of the most gorgeously designed interiors in recent memory extends to the cocktail list and the menu. The Sam Isaacs (bourbon, mint, blackberry, lime) made me rethink the combination of fruit and alcohol; the Digroni (gin, Gran Classico, and Fernet-Branca) has all the makings of a night of wonderfully bad decisions. Consulting chef Greg Gourdet (of Departure and Extreme Chef fame) put together a great and affordable menu of far-from-typical bar food—think seared spinach with raisins and pine nuts, and chicken thighs with stewed tomatoes and almonds. Add on-point DJs and good booking, and even if you don't get to take one of those pretty people home, your night is far from wasted (even if you are). 736 SE Grand, 971-279-4409