Double helping in Dec GQ

In the current issue of GQ, you’ll find both the story of my adventures in Tokyo with David Chang, James Murphy and Aziz Ansari and my manifesto on the virtues of shopping while intoxicated. All in all, an excellent showing for Dipsomaniac Brett Martin, if that’s the kind of thing you like.

And here is some bonus footage.

King of Pop-Up

My GQ profile of Ludo Lefebvre, chef, impresario and avatar of the dining world to come, is now online.

The Viking and I

My whale-watching adventure with Alexander Skarsgård is on the cover of June’s GQ, and online now.

RIP Frank Buckles

Sad to learn that Frank Buckles, America’s last WWI veteran, died—and, of course, an epoch with him. I’m honored that Mr. Buckles was gracious enough to welcome me to his West Virginia farm, a little over a year ago.

On the radio

This American Life is rerunning the episode containing “Crying on Airplanes” this weekend. Check your local listings, as they say.

Welcome

The spanking new brettmartin.org was designed by the good folk at pableaux.com.

Please poke about.

Kuala Lumpur: Street Food Heaven

The official national motto of Malaysia is Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu, which means “unity is strength.” The nation’s unofficial motto, the one you actually hear on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, is a bit different, and far more likely to stir the heartstrings of the growing legions of food lovers who have made the malaysian capital the current food destination of choice. It is Jalan-Jalan Cari Makan, or “walk around. Take a look. Eat.”

As proud as Malaysians are of their multiculturalism (the country is roughly 60 percent Malay, 30 percent Chinese, and 8 percent Indian, with countless ethnic subdivisions within each group), they are at least as proud of the way that diversity plays out on the plate. It’s a cuisine that features a bright, spicy, wildly varied mix of flavors and influences but still manages to cohere into something uniquely Malaysian.

And though laid-back “K.L.” (as the capital is universally called) has emerged as an affluent, cosmopolitan city on par with Bangkok or Singapore, most citizens insist that its most serious dining still takes place at street level. There’s even a kind of reverse snobbery in effect. Meena Periasamy, a 39-year-old CPA who blogs about the K.L. food scene under the name Lyrical Lemongrass, complains that she can hardly persuade her young professional friends to eat in upscale restaurants. “They’ll always find something wrong, because they’re looking for it,” she says. “They believe everything is better on the street.”

The only quarrel one could find with Jalan-Jalan Cari Makan is that the “walk around” part is difficult to achieve in K.L., which is spread across the Klang Valley in a sprawl more reminiscent of Los Angeles than New York. Luckily, cabs are cheap, and any of the neighborhoods that follow will provide an excellent introduction to the glories of Malaysia’s street-food scene.

GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Calling the tourist heart of K.L. the Golden Triangle is less a geometric description than an evocation of the soaring, moneyed, brightly lit metropolis the city has become. Here, in the shadow of the eerily beautiful double-spired Petronas Twin Towers, is where most travelers first stay in K.L., and where they can get their first taste of eating street-side at the riot of stalls that line Jalan Alor. If the flavors here are slightly geared to Western palates, the street nevertheless provides an excellent survey of dishes you’ll find elsewhere.

The air is filled with billowing smoke from satay sizzling on charcoal grills. Piles of fresh fish sit in display cases, ready to be grilled for ikan bakar and served with spicy sambal. There are stalls selling char kway teow (pad-thai-like flat rice noodles stir-fried with egg, bean sprouts, shrimp, chiles, and plump cockles), rojak (chunks of tropical fruit, cucumber, and deep-fried dough under a sauce made with shrimp paste), refreshing cendol (shaved ice topped with rich palm sugar, sweet beans, and weird mung bean jellies), and nasi (rice) and mee (noodles) served in so many preparations it makes the head spin.

As they are in, say, New York, many of the best food stories in K.L. are really stories about immigration and family. So it is on a quiet corner at the edge of the Golden Triangle, where two nearly identical open-air restaurants, Soo Kee Restaurant and Soo Kee’s Son, face off. The founder, Soh Hon, moved to K.L. from Guangzhou, China, prior to World War II and became famous for exceptional prawn noodles and beef noodles—the former consisting of enormous king prawns in a thick ginger-prawn sauce, the latter featuring beef so tender it seems to want to cuddle all night while watching Must Love Dogs. Both are served over chewy kway teow or rice noodles.

Hon’s death, in 1984, sparked contention among his 11 children. Daughters No. 4 and No. 5, Jasmin and Jessica, took over the flagship location; Stanley (No. 10) set up shop across the way; and their siblings opened branches elsewhere in K.L. (There are nine in all.) Relations between the two downtown Soo Kees are chilly, but not hostile.

“To be angry all the time would be frustrating. So you forget,” Jasmin Hon says. Luckily, the glasnost means you can move back and forth, enjoying each place’s worthy tributes to a father’s skill.

KAMPUNG BARU
“Not that long ago, the Maybank Tower was the tallest in Kuala Lumpur,” Meena Periasamy said one night as we drove past the bank’s squat edifice, now dwarfed by gleaming skyscrapers. “It’s like Malaysia’s been on a fast-forward adventure.”

Nowhere is that pace of change so striking as in the Malay neighborhood of Kampung Baru, essentially a small village that has been swallowed whole by the sprawling city. The streets of “K.G.” Baru (Malaysians would abbreviate the word “I,” if given the chance) are lined with low zinc-roofed houses and stalls serving Malay specialties from all over the Malay Peninsula. It’s a good place to sample one of the most universal Malaysian dishes: nasi lemak. Traditionally served for breakfast, its most basic form is a mound of coconut rice topped with a fried or hard-boiled egg, peanuts, cucumber, dried anchovies, and spicy sambal. In the morning, triangular paper or banana-leaf packets of these staples are sold all over K.L., a nutritionally complete breakfast for the equivalent of 30 cents.

At Nasi Lemak Mak Wanjor, counterwomen in colorful head scarves ladle on your choice of further toppings: fried chicken, beef rendang, stewed cuttlefish, and cockles. Westerners who think that sounds a bit heavy for breakfast will be pleased to learn that Mak Wanjor recently began reopening from 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., in part to accommodate young people who stop by on the way home from clubbing in the Golden Triangle.

PUDU
Things take a decidedly porky turn in the area known as Pudu, anchored by a bustling wet market. It is here, in a collection of stalls on the corner of Jalan Pudu and Wai Sik Kai—a side street known, poetically, as “Glutton’s Street”—that you find a cart serving Hakka mee. This specialty of immigrants from southern China consists of ramen-like egg noodles topped with sliced roast pork, fried minced pork, and a heap of crunchy pork cracklings, for good measure. Those who enjoy their lunch with a healthy side of euphemism will order theirs “dry,” as opposed to “wet” (in soup), and with “white sauce”—that is, lard oil.

I was brought to Pudu by Robyn Eckhardt, an American expat and enthusiastic eater who, with her photographer husband, David Hagerman, has entertainingly and encyclopedically chronicled K.L. street eats on the blog EatingAsia. “Malaysians take their noodles very seriously,” she said. “Easily as seriously as Italians do.” Indeed, between the perfectly al dente noodles, each strand slicked with oil but somehow ungreasy, and the deep, rich flavor of the meat, this is a pasta any Bolognese chef would be proud to serve.

The Hakka mee stall on Glutton’s Street often sells out by noon, but by that time you should be several blocks away, at Wong Kee, where you’ll wait patiently alongside a silent group of knowing eaters for the stroke of 12:30 p.m. At that hour, and not a moment before, cooks begin ferrying glistening pork bellies to the kitchen from an alley around the corner, where they’ve been cooking all morning in a blackened steel drum. The meat is expertly hacked into succulent, bite-size napoleons of flesh, fat, flesh, and fat again, each topped with a perfect cap of crispy skin. I saw a man cut his with a spoon.

BAZAAR BARU CHOW KIT
It is a minor culinary tragedy that K.L. sits just north of the equator, a latitude that ensures that the city’s array of steaming soups will never be enjoyed as they should be: on a cold winter day. That goes for a special Chinese congee (you pick a fresh fish from a cooler, then watch as the cook creates a quick clay pot stock with the head and a splash of rice wine); murky, deeply spiced mutton soup, a mamak (Indian-Muslim) specialty; and assam laksa, the glorious sour and spicy noodle soup imported from Penang.

It goes especially for bihun sup, made at a food stall at the center of the raucous Bazaar Baru Chow Kit market. You smell this soup long before you see it: It teases the nose as you navigate between Indian spice shops; tables laid with plates of bright red chiles; and stall upon stall of fresh fish, roasted pork, live frogs, and luminous green bushels of herbs and greens. Reaching the source, you find a giant burbling stockpot filled with beef bones, tripe, cinnamon, anise, cardamom, and other spices.

Sadly, instead of sipping the broth while staring out at falling snow, you’ll more likely be reminded of one important rule of K.L. street dining: Carry tissues. A pack of Kleenex is vital not only for wiping your hands but also for mopping your face of inevitable streams of sweat. Stalls here rarely offer napkins, and if they do, they’re of what I came to think of as the “amazing disappearing” variety, dissolving instantly upon contact with human skin.

BANGSAR
Located to the southwest of downtown K.L., Bangsar is most often described as an expat enclave or a glitzy nightspot. But while the neighborhood does offer its share of international restaurants and overpriced bars, it also boasts another identity: eater’s haven. It’s hard, for instance, to find anything bourgeois about the Bangsar Fish Head Corner. There, predictably, is where you’ll find a fine example of fish head curry, a straightforward name for a straightforward dish.

The head in question—usually that of a red snapper—arrives toothy and undisguised, except by a thick curry gravy filled with tomato and tamarind. You pick at the head with chopsticks or fingers (always of the right hand); the fatty flesh of the cheek and eye sockets are particularly prized. Squeamish diners may find the restaurant’s other signature offering downright ordinary in comparison: whole baby squid tossed in chili and tapioca flour and flash-fried. It gives off a thrilling explosion of scalding, briny juice when first bitten.

GET A TASTE OF KUALA LUMPUR—IN YOUR OWN KITCHEN

CHAR KWAY TEOW

2 SERVINGS

A popular Malaysian street food dish, char kway teow literally translates as “fried flat noodles.” The recipe also includes shrimp, sausage, and mung bean sprouts.

  • 8 ounces 1/3- to 1/2-inch-wide fresh flat rice noodles*
  • 6 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
  • 1 large garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons (or more) black sweet soy sauce*
  • 10 uncooked medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left intact
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced Chinese sweet sausage (lop chong)*
  • 2 large eggs, whisked to blend
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chili-garlic sauce**
  • 2 cups fresh mung bean sprouts (about 5 ounces)
  • 6 green onions (dark green parts only), cut into thin 2-inch-long strips

Soak noodles in large bowl of warm (not hot) water 5 minutes. Using fingers, separate noodles and drain well. Heat lard in large wok or skillet over high heat until lard is very hot and smoking. Add garlic; stir 5 seconds. Add noodles and 11/2 tablespoons soy sauce and stir-fry vigorously 20 seconds. Using slotted spoon, quickly transfer noodle mixture from wok to medium bowl. Add shrimp and sausage to wok; stir-fry 30 seconds. Add eggs and chili-garlic sauce and stir-fry vigorously 20 seconds. Return noodle mixture to wok, then add bean sprouts and green onions and stir-fry 20 seconds. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide mixture between 2 plates; drizzle lightly with more soy sauce, if desired, and serve.

* Fresh flat rice noodles and Chinese sweet sausage (slender, firm, preserved sausage) are available in the refrigerated section of Southeast Asian and Asian markets. Black sweet soy sauce is available at Southeast Asian and Asian markets where other soy sauces are sold.

** Available in the Asian foods section of many supermarkets and at Asian markets.

PETALING JAYA
Truly devoted seekers of street food will roam even farther afield, outside of K.L.’s official borders, to the suburb of Petaling Jaya (“P.J.,” inevitably).

With shady courtyard seating and a constant flow of family customers, Raju’s is considered the place to go for roti canai, another of Malaysia’s most popular morning dishes. The fast-food-style uniforms may be disconcerting, but the cooks are grill geniuses, spinning flour, water, eggs, and ghee into perfectly flaky, charred roti. The steaming flatbreads are then served on an open banana leaf alongside a selection of toppings in silver containers: daal, vegetable curry, coconut chutney, and onion sambal. When finished scooping up toppings with the bread, you fold your banana leaf toward yourself to express satisfaction.

Elsewhere in P.J., you’ll find what is perhaps the most bewitching soup in K.L. It goes by the deceptively simple name of curry mee. Steven Kong, trained as an engineer, opened his noodle stall after he retired, mostly as a labor of love. In one big pot, he nurses a clear, fragrant broth of anchovies and ginger. A smaller pot contains a thick sludge of bright, rich curry. Kong combines the two over thick “rat tail” noodles, then adds some (or, if you follow my advice, all) of the following: tightly wrapped shrimp wontons; pork cracklings; deep-fried tofu; cuttlefish; shrimp; Chinese long beans; cockles; and whatever else was fresh at the market when Kong arrived at three o’clock that morning.

What is this dish? (Other than the obvious: delicious.) Is it Indian? Not quite, despite the curry. Chinese? No, although the wontons qualify. Malay? The pork says no, but the coconut and lemongrass say yes. The answer, of course, is “Malaysian.” Unity is indeed strength.

IN THIS STORY

BANGSAR FISH HEAD CORNER
Lorong Ara Kiri 3, Lucky Garden (no phone)

CHUN KEE HAKKA MEE
Jalan Sayur, off of Jalan Pudu (no phone; no address)

CURRY MEE STALL
Restoran Hong Seng, Jalan 17/29, Section 17 Petaling Jaya, Selangor (no phone)

NASI LEMAK MAK WANJOR
8, Jalan Raja Muda Musa Kampung Baru (no phone)

PAK NGAH BIHUN SUP
Bazaar Baru Chow Kit, Jalan Chow Kit, off of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (no phone; no address)

RAJU RESTAURANT
No. 27, Jalan Chantek Petaling Jaya, Selangor 011-603-7956-1361

RESTAURANT WONG KEE
No. 30, Jalan Nyonya 011-603-2145-2512

SOO KEE RESTAURANT
14, Medan Imbi 011-603-2148-1324

Come to L.A. for…the Food?

photo by Cedric Angeles.

Until recently, when you thought of Los Angeles restaurants, one sound came to mind: buzz. Never mind that L.A. boasts the same agricultural bounty as foodie San Francisco. Or that two of the most influential chefs of the past thirty years—Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa—had Hollywood starts. In the public mind, L.A.’s eateries were about preening and flirting, seeing and being seen. But there is another sound restaurants can have, and it’s the one I heard recently at Osteria Mozza, one of two restaurants opened in the past year and a half on the corner of Melrose and North Highland by New York’s Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich and local legend Nancy Silverton. It’s the deeper thrum of diners talking with their mouths full, passing dishes back and forth, sighing contentedly. Increasingly, this is the sound of what it means to eat in L.A. In ways large and small, formal and casual, serious eating has finally come to the City of Angels.

At both Mozzas—Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza next door—you find the Batali-Bastianich blend of equally robust flavors and noise levels. Silverton, meanwhile, brings flair and craftsmanship. Most nights she’s behind the long, cool marble mozzarella bar, turning out small plates like gnocco fritto—piping-hot squares of fried dough draped with ribbons of prosciutto and lardo—and fiore di latte (a fresh cheese in the mozzarella family) on a bed of iceberg lettuce, salami, olives, and peperoncini, kind of like a great Italian sub without the roll. Along with the meat-and-cheese bar at Suzanne Goin’s A.O.C.—one of the progenitors of L.A.’s food movement—a stool at the mozzarella bar is among the finest restaurant seats in America. It helps that both offer views of attractive, serious women operating meat slicers that gleam like Corvettes.

Osteria Mozza 6602 Melrose Ave., 323-297-0100

Pizzeria Mozza 641 North Highland Ave., 323-297-0101

Meanwhile (and as I’m a Brooklynite, this pains me to say), Silverton’s crust at the pizzeria is unbeatable—thin, chewy, pocked with bubbles of char. Anything tastes good on it, but I think the spirit of the place is best matched by the most traditional toppings, like soppressata and smoky Fresno chilies. It makes you wonder why the pizza at Batali’s joint back east, Otto, is so bad.

One sure sign of a food renaissance is when serious eats pop up where they are not strictly necessary. Like Bar Marmont on the Sunset Strip, which recently hired chef Carolynn Spence away from the Spotted Pig in Manhattan. Fancy-pants entrées and bar snacks like hot, fluffy gougères are never going to outdraw the trysting celebs, the barely clothed waitresses, and the Tales from the Hipster Crypt decor. But they will almost certainly leave you more satisfied.

Across town another New York transplant, Craft, has dramatically upped the culinary standards of the power lunch. Located in the chilly corporate park known as Century City and, more important, across from the headquarters of Creative Artists Agency, the latest outpost in Tom Colicchio’s empire is most fun at lunch. That’s when sunlight streams through the huge windows and suits sit in the three-sided banquettes, making deals, wining and dining stars, or just sharing romantic meals with their BlackBerrys. Hopefully, they all appreciate Colicchio’s pristine but unfussy celebrations of excellent ingredients: diver scallops served with vermouth butter, roasted quail cut with tart huckleberries, a cloudlike banana-cream pie.

Of course, not all new L.A. restaurants have New York roots. Chef David Myers has long been celebrated for the fastidious dishes at his first restaurant, Sona. Last fall he opened a bright, pleasant faux-Parisian bistro named Comme Ça. At lunch the place seemed dull; if you’re going to turn out T.G.I. Vendredi staples like frisée salad with lardons and onion-soup gratin, you’d better nail them. But returning late night, I was greeted by the funky, ripe smell of the cheese counter—a risky aroma but always a good sign. The cocktail menu was serious and creative. And the place hummed in a way that was downright, well, Parisian.

A.O.C. 8022 West 3rd St., 323-653-6359

Bar Marmont 8171 West Sunset Blvd., 323-650-0575

Craft 10100 Constellation Blvd., 310-279-4180

Sona 401 North La Cienega Blvd., 310-659-7708

Comme Ça 8479 Melrose Ave., 323-782-1178

The Best Cocktails

Forget Swingers. Actually, thank that movie and its portrayal of L.A. cocktail culture. It probably helped pave the way for a new generation of serious-minded mixologists who have made themselves indispensable at so many of the city’s new restaurants. “Cocktails are becoming the next gourmet movement,” says Eric Alperin, a veteran of New York’s Milk & Honey who came west to intoxicate customers at Osteria Mozza. Not far away, Brian Summers of Comme Ça serves up a take on the classic South Side called the East Side: gin, mint, cucumber, and lime. He’ll also decide for you, if you order the Dealer’s Choice. Trust the man; he knows what he’s doing.

Taking his fine-dining pedigree even further downscale is Sang Yoon, who quit his job as chef de cuisine at Michael’s to open Father’s Office, a “redefined” pub in Santa Monica. There are always long lines of eaters waiting to order Yoon’s meat-heavy creations, especially the Office Burger. The strict house policy of no modifications or deletions seems to represent the most obnoxious impulses of food love (especially if you consider the caramelized onions piled on the burger to be cloyingly sweet); on the other hand, the burger itself—and its other toppings—represents the best. It’s a pillow of aged beef covered in Gruyère, Maytag Blue cheese, bacon compote, and arugula. A second location, in Culver City, will open this spring.

It would be criminal to talk about an L.A. food movement based on high-quality, lovingly treated ingredients without mentioning the one culinary area in which the city has long led the rest of the country: sushi. Urasawa is about as far from anything resembling a buzz establishment as you can get. Instead, you’ll hear the other sound that denotes the presence of serious food: the Reverent Hush. Urasawa’s walk-in-closet-sized space on the second floor of a Rodeo Drive mall was once Ginza Sushi-ko, the domain of Masayoshi Takayama. Five years ago, Takayama went to New York to open Masa, and his apprentice Hiroyuki Urasawa took over, keeping the master’s formula intact: only ten diners per night, no menu, lunatic prices, and a monastic devotion to the precise art of traditional sushi-making. Starting at $275 per person, the prices are indefensible by any standard, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to sit at the raw-cypress counter (sanded daily), chat with Urasawa himself, and have him serve you some of the most beautiful fish you’ll ever set eyes on. It’s even more once-in-a-lifetime if catfish sperm sac is in season; as with Father’s Office, there are no substitutions.

Father’s Office 1018 Montana Ave., 310-393-2337

Urasawa 218 North Rodeo Dr., 310-247-8939

BLD 7450 Beverly Blvd., 323-930-9744

The Best Breakfast

The L and D in BLD stand for “lunch” and “dinner,” but it’s the B that turns us on. Breakfast at this comfortable Hollywood spot ranges from light (grapefruit brûlée) to heavy (the Ode to Butterfields, a flatiron steak and two poached eggs sitting on an English muffin and smothered in Cabernet Sauvignon hollandaise). Or like the two stylish, sunglasses-wearing, clearly hungover young ladies dining there one recent morning, you can opt for two Bloody Marys and two sides of bacon.

Urasawa doesn’t have much to say about Western chefs. One exception is Michael Cimarusti at Providence. It’s easy to understand the affinity, not just because Cimarusti is a wizard with fish, but because he ardently seeks perfection. The Hush is much in effect at Providence’s oversize, somewhat frosty set of dining rooms. The quiet makes it easier to concentrate on extensive tasting menus (up to twenty-two courses) on which every item is perfectly composed, from an appetizer of cold Dungeness crab brightened with piquillo peppers to a mind-blowing homemade salt-caramel petit four.

And then there’s CUT, the new steak house from Wolfgang Puck at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Like most of the new generation of steak houses, CUT finds its macho spirit in cool, clean modern rooms—this one a multitiered design by Richard Meier—and a menu that goes both high and low with its reverence for all things beef: Kobe sliders give way to roasted marrowbones, then Indian-spiced Kobe short ribs, and finally, the steak, brought raw to the table, the better to compare different grades and price points. At the top is a white-marbled $160 Japanese Wagyu rib-eye steak, more pleasure and fat than any man should consume in one sitting. Meanwhile, an improbable soundtrack of stoner rock plays loudly: Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Neil Young. It’s a little-known fact that the combination of beef fat, excellent West Coast wines, and Frampton Comes Alive! exactly mimics the feeling of having just smoked a giant bowl.

The thrilling parade of waiters bearing platters of meat; the anxious head-swivels every time someone new makes an entrance; Puck himself bouncing from table to table; the full, satisfied glow of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time—there’s only one word for this: buzz. And it is damned tasty.

Providence 5955 Melrose Ave., 323-460-4170

CUT 9500 Wilshire Blvd., 310-276-8500

Joan’s on Third 8350 West 3rd St., 323-655-2285

The Best Takeout

Joan McNamara has been serving baked goods and prepared foods to Hollywooders at Joan’s on Third for years, but a recent expansion has turned her shop into a full-service food emporium. There are hearty salads and well-constructed sandwiches, moist cupcakes and simple breakfasts like soft-boiled eggs on toast. But the real sell is a neighborhood vibe hard to come by in L.A. Some customers may actually even walk there.

MORE

FOOD-AND-WINE WISDOM IN ALAN RICHMAN’S ARCHIVE AND BLOG GQ.COM

Craft Applying the final touches to a dish of roasted Scottish salmon and cucumber at Craft.

Pizzeria Mozza Egg, guanciale, radicchio, escarole, and bagna cauda pizza.

Osteria Mozza Osteria’s Eric Alperin.

Osteria Mozza The mozzarella bar at Osteria Mozza

Comme Ça Man at work at Comme Ça’s cheese counter.

Bar Marmont More than just pretty waitresses. Seriously.

Bartender Brian Summers at Comme Ça.

Father’s Office Home to L.A.’s most fetishized burger.

Providence bigeye tuna with salt-roasted parsnips and wasabi.

Providence Chef Michael Cimarusti (left), sous-chef Sam Baxter, and a really big striped bass

One smart diner starting his day off right at BLD.

CUT The American Kobe porterhouse steak with wild field mushrooms and béarnaise.

Must eat! The cupcakes at Joan’s on Third.

A Man in Full (Beard)

Mick Jagger goes unkempt in 1978.

Every man should grow a beard at least once in his adult life. I specify man and adult because college beards don’t count. That scruff we sprout in late adolescence is to real beards what drunken college sex is to experienced adult sex. The point being, you should grow a beard at an age when it does more than simply prove you have the hormonal ability to do so.

I grew mine about a year ago, at the age of 33. On vacation, I simply stopped shaving for a week. One day it occurred to me that since I’d come so far, why stop? Like Madonna’s baby in “Papa Don’t Preach,” my beard may not have been planned, but the decision to keep it was unilateral. Friends were dubious. My girlfriend vowed never to kiss me again. My mother wondered if it would get me stopped by airport security.

The truth is, I grew a beard because my life was suddenly changing—some might call it “falling apart”—and I needed the face I saw in the mirror to reflect that altered reality. In a way, my follicles were way ahead of my brain. They knew the full extent of what was to come: breakup, new job, months of crashing on friends’ couches, a $1,300-per-month shrink habit.

I suspect this is why so many actors, from James Gandolfini to Ryan Gosling, use facial hair to either get in character or get out of it. (There are always a lot of beards at the Oscars, as if to scream to casting agents, “Look, I’m not the guy I just played!”) We all feel the need to escape from ourselves from time to time. Not shaving is simply the cheapest, easiest way to feel like a different man.

But remember: Leaving your razor on the medicine-cabinet shelf doesn’t mean you get to stop grooming. There are decisions to be made: stubbly or shaggy, cropped at the jawline or creeping down the neck. (Try the latter; going with the former means you could end up looking like Turtle on Entourage.)

Also, your girlfriend will still kiss you. At least mine did, for the remainder of our time together, with a passion that probably shocked her as much as it did me. It’s my immodest impression that certain women are drawn to the old-school manliness of beards in the same way men are to, say, stripper shoes. But maybe I’m flattering myself. Perhaps my beard was just the cheapest, easiest way for her to feel like I was a different man, too.

And maybe I’m just a weak-chinned guy who simply looks better with the definition that a beard gives his face. There are worse things than being in sync with Russell Crowe and Dave Grohl (go ahead and turn to page 226). Perhaps someday I’ll need to make a change again. Then it will only be a matter of reaching for the razor. But for now, I’ve made up my mind: I’m keeping my baby.

Portland, OR: America’s Newest—and Gutsiest—Food City

For years, people have been branding Portland, Oregon, as the next Berkeley, California—of food-and-drink culture, anyway. And Portland has done its best to oblige. You can’t throw an heirloom radish in the Rose City these days without hitting an artisanal producer of one kind or another: microbrewers, of course, but also microdistillers, micropicklers, microbakers, microcharcutiers, and so on. (On my visit, I came to think of the locals as micros instead of foodies.) Ramps and yuzu have taken their place beside Gore-Tex and Nalgene as hallmarks of the Portland lifestyle.

All of that might seem prohibitively precious and irritating if it weren’t for a less noted side of Portland—the seedy cowboy-drifter side of dive bars and strip clubs. (A posse of micros and their wives took me to breakfast one morning at Acropolis, where nude dancers and a fine selection of craft beers accompanied the $6 steak-and-eggs.)

When I asked Naomi Pomeroy, co-owner and chef of the restaurant Beast, to assess how the city’s food scene had grown in the years since she ran an underground supper club here, she said, “I’d say we’re like 12- or 13-year-olds. We’re not as mature as out-of-towners think we are.”

I like to think Pomeroy was speaking, in part, about the streak of lusty mischief that is the yin to all of Portland’s pious, farmers’-market yang. You taste it in dishes like the sweetbreads at the offal-centric bistro Le Pigeon—glazed Buffalo-style with hot sauce and served over shaved celery and blue-cheese dressing. Or to play the gimmick a different way, in the blazing fish-sauce-and-palm-sugar-coated chicken wings at Pok Pok, chef Andy Ricker’s revered Thai-street-food spot.

You taste it in the pork-belly Reuben at Bunk Sandwiches and in every other messy, dripping, inspired creation on the chalkboard menu—from porchetta topped with onions, fennel, and mustard on ciabatta to a spicy shrimp-salad po’boy made with micropickled green tomatoes. Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood opened this dream lunch counter last November (Habetz worked under Mario Batali in New York, and Wood at Brennan’s in New Orleans). Named for an immortal character on The Wire, Bunk proves that culinary ambition and sloppy goodness can co-exist.

More even than food scenes in other cities, Portland’s feels like the product of true community—a relatively small number of like-minded (and like-bearded) folks feeding one another, using one another’s products, and trying to outdo their friends. While no doubt claustrophobic for some (the saga of Pomeroy’s divorce from her husband and former partner, Michael Hebb, is as well-known as her foie gras bonbons), the intimacy also has a certain quality-control function: If you’re going to sit down across the table from somebody tomorrow, you’re a lot less likely to put anything less than your best effort in front of him tonight.

“Across the table,” by the way, is entirely literal, given Portland’s embrace of communal seating. At Beast there are two long tables, two seatings, and one six-course menu per night. As in several other restaurants around town, the place’s bratty inner 12-year-old is indulged in a note: “Substitutions politely declined.” My table started with a shot of smoky tomato soup accompanied by a piece of candied bacon. Then came a plate of homemade charcuterie, a slab of beef tenderloin en croûte topped with truffle demi-glace, and, only then, a revivifying salad course of shaved celery topped with a giant prawn. At $52 per person, the meal spoke to another Portland virtue: Thanks partly to Oregon’s lack of sales tax, the eating is cheap.

“It allows the chef and you to try innovative things,” said my companion, Christian Krogstad, a partner in the microdistillery House Spirits. “If it doesn’t work out, you’re only out fifty bucks.”

Another spot where you’ll eat elbow-to-elbow with strangers is Simpatica Dining Hall. Founded by three friends as a catering company, Simpatica has communal tables and an open kitchen that impart the cozy feel of a college cafeteria. An ever changing farm-to-table dinner is served Fridays and Saturdays, but Simpatica’s real achievement is brunch, when dishes like the Logger—a chicken-fried bison steak, pounded thin and heaped with sausage gravy—turn that blighted meal into something actually worth lining up for.

You’re less likely to make friends with your seatmates at Evoe, a café attached to the legendary specialty-grocery store Pastaworks. But that’s because you’ll be busy watching the chef methodically chop, dice, and assemble salads, sandwiches, and hot plates—such as razor clams tossed with almonds and scallions—from scratch. It’s like being at some genteel, yuppie Benihana.

There are plenty of reasons to be dubious about Western-run Asian restaurants, especially those in a city as strikingly un—ethnically diverse as Portland. Pok Pok has become justly famous for dispelling such doubts. Andy Ricker, after traveling in Thailand, started the restaurant as a stall, and there’s nothing gringo about dishes like green-papaya salad or roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass and garlic.

Ricker’s new operation, Ping, in Portland’s revitalized Chinatown, takes a wider view of Southeast Asian nosh. There are Indonesian and Thai skewers sizzling on a yakitori grill in the kitchen, as well as Malaysian noodle soups and Chinese steamed pork buns. And then there’s something called ju pa bao, a simple pork-loin chop fried in pork fat and slapped on a soft butter-soaked roll with all the finesse of a Filet-O-Fish. It’s fun to watch people take their first skeptical bite and then dissolve in pleasure.

At Toro Bravo, the long list of local farms and other providers on the wall clearly announces that you’re in Portland, but chef John Gorham’s flavors are straight out of Spain. His signature is a coppa steak (a shoulder cut of beef) delicately smoked and topped with olives and garlicky salbitxada sauce. But my favorite was a classic stew of chicken and clams studded with nuggets of Spanish ham. And an appetizer of brandy-soaked prunes stuffed with foie gras could legitimately compete with the best desserts in town.

If all these international forays lead to the obvious question of what exactly constitutes “Portland food,” one answer is “all of the above”—a mélange of cultural and culinary influences bound by a common spirit. Specifically, the beginnings of an answer can be found at Paley’s Place, which, at nearly a decade and a half old, qualifies as one of Portland’s grand old institutions. The profligately talented chef, Vitaly Paley, and his wife, Kimberly, an equally gifted front-of-house artist, came west from New York in 1995, drawn by the Willamette Valley’s agricultural bounty—which Paley continues to put to good use. My meal started with a pile of greens tossed with shreds of smoked rabbit and bacon and moved on to sweet razor clams, fried like schnitzel and paired with hollandaise and blood oranges.

But the killer dish was Paley’s take on escargot bordelaise, which combined all that I’d come to expect from Portland: recklessly rich ingredients, classic technique, and a wicked sense of humor. On the plate were two gnarled, glistening marrowbones in a dark pool of bordelaise; around and on them, plump snails were scattered about as though crawling through a prehistoric-volcano diorama.

If this is culinary adolescence, I hope Portland never grows up.