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Gray skies, bright city Imaginative tastes light up corner of Portland, Ore.

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2005

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Start with two of the finest dining establishments in all of Portland, Wildwood and Paley's Place. Add a bakery where the pain au chocolat and baguettes come straight from the oven and a gourmet grocery featuring salmon, Dungeness crab, oysters, pinot noir, and everything else caught, grown, or bottled in Oregon. Top it off with the artisans who call this affordable city home -- dressmakers, painters, jewelry designers -- and you have a destination that would satiate any epicurean or shopping devotee.

The neighborhood, called Northwest, even has its own streetcar, introduced in the summer of 2001, to connect commuters to the nearby Pearl District and downtown. The only thing missing in the area was a decent overnight accommodation. That changed the following year, when Jeff Passadore converted studio apartments into a suites-only hotel called the Inn at Northrup Station. Walk into the lobby and you feel as if you've entered ''Pee-wee's Playhouse" with its whimsical chairs and tables, rainbow-colored carpets, and large jugs of lollipops and other candies to dip your hand into.

''I didn't want to create an ordinary vanilla box hotel, but something fun and adventurous," says Passadore.

A Portland restaurant with an exquisite sense of place. Page E7

All of the suites are equipped with kitchens and decks, yet, with all that Portland offers, it's doubtful you'll be spending much time in your room. Ditch your car for the weekend at the inn's parking lot (no valet or exorbitant parking fees) and stroll across 21st Avenue to Wildwood, a worthy introduction to Northwest cuisine. Chef and owner Cory Schreiber is a fifth-generation Portlander who grew up shucking at his great-grandparents' restaurant, Dan & Louis Oyster Bar. After a stint in Boston in the mid-'80s, working with Lydia Shire at the Seasons Restaurant in the Bostonian Hotel, Schreiber returned to Portland and opened his own restaurant in 1994. The wavy Douglas fir wood ceiling and oversize banquettes, with leaves etched into the green cloth, set the scene for a night of indigenous fare.

Schreiber's menu changes daily, depending on what his collection of farmers and fishermen harvested that day. In spring, expect wild mushrooms such as beefy black trumpets and yellow foot chanterelles, mixed with ricotta cheese atop a pizzetta. For entrees, the tender sturgeon is caught a little more than an hour away on the coast, in the waters off Astoria. Bits of bacon, cured at Carlton Farms in Eugene, blend perfectly with the sweetness of the fish. Wash it down with an Oregon pinot noir, say a Cristom 2001 Jessie Vineyard, redolent of black cherries and cinnamon, and you'll be in a happy state of Oregon bliss.

To get a firsthand look at Schreiber's ingredients, visit City Market NW (735 Northwest 21st Ave.), an upscale grocer. Rows of organic produce, with almost every type of mushroom imaginable, stand opposite a seafood counter brimming with spring Chinook salmon, Hawaiian tuna, and an icebox of oysters. In the back, a man is sharpening his knife, ready to slice a large halibut that has just arrived off the boat.

''There's no place better in the country for culinary delights," says Ken Forkish. The former high-tech executive, who has lived in London, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., was so enamored of Oregon's goodies that he left the corporate world three years ago to open Ken's Artisan Bakery (338 Northwest 21st Ave.). Now he creates breads and pastries used by many restaurants in town, like Paley's Place. He's also cherished by residents who, on this overcast and rainy morning, wait for a table at which to dip their buttery croissants into a cup of coffee.

The rain in Portland seems to linger until summer, more a spritz than a Floridian downpour. Few Portlanders carry umbrellas, and they don't seem the least bit concerned as they walk into Ken's dripping wet. ''Through evolution, we've developed a way to wick away water from our bodies," jokes local accountant Joseph Anthony. Or people simply seek shelter at coffee shops that dot every block of this city.

''We're attracted to color as well," notes Robyn Craig, one of the owners of Stella's on 21st (1108 Northwest 21st Ave.), ''to cheer you up on those gray days." That's quickly apparent once you enter this shop and view the eclectic mix of hats, lampshades, earrings, and ceramic clocks in various shades of vibrant luster, made by Oregonians. Look up to spot the red dress created from a fireplace screen.

Just as imaginative are the works of art on display at the Laura Russo Gallery (805 Northwest 21st Ave.). Closing in on its 20th anniversary, the gallery features paintings and sculpture by prominent Northwestern artists. They include landscapes by Michael Brophy in which people are dwarfed next to immense Sitka spruces or dead wood is piled high, the result of clear-cutting. Michihiro Kosuge employs the not-so-easy merging of graphite with stainless steel to produce shimmering abstract sculpture.

Two blocks to the west, 23d Avenue is far more congested with shops and restaurants, with several boutiques that garner fanfare. Michelle DeCourcy (820 Northwest 23d Ave.) earned her 15 minutes of fame by designing the dress Norah Jones wore to the 2003 Grammy Awards. Other musicians such as Sheryl Crow are regular customers, but you don't have to be a rock star to pick up one of DeCourcy's sequined or casual numbers. Indeed, the gregarious DeCourcy, a mother of three, is often found at the store. The self-taught designer first purchased a sewing machine to work on drapes in her house and soon moved on to scarves and other women's clothing.

''Many of my dresses are inspired by that classic 1940s Hollywood look of sexy satin," DeCourcy says.

Home to the largest bookstore in America, Powell's City of Books, in the Pearl District, Portland does love its literature. Twenty-Third Avenue Books is not nearly the size of the block-long Powell's, but it, too, features the latest in fiction and nonfiction, with special sections on gardening and organic farming. Grab that book on mushroom foraging and lounge in the nearest coffee shop as the rain lulls you into complacency, and you might very well be tempted to follow in Forkish's footsteps and stay in Portland. Who knows? A year from now, you could be the one delivering truffles to the doors of Wildwood.

Newton-based Stephen Jermanok is a frequent contributor to the Globe.

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