THE FOOD The other night, at Paley’s Place, I happened to be seated at a table next to Kimberly Paley, the wife of chef Vitaly Paley. Apparently, she had taken a break from hosting to dine with some friends and their toddler son, who was celebrating his birthday. “You’re so lucky,” Kimberly said to the boy as he tried the pasta in front of him. “Do you know where that goat cheese comes from?” It was a poignant moment, one that epitomized the way in which Paley’s Place has schooled a generation of Portland chefs and diners in a genuinely local, sustainable, seasonal, organic ethos since opening in 1995. As I dined on a grilled peach salad with prosciutto and green and white long beans, I gazed at black-and-white photos of the Oregon lamb farmers, cheese makers, and pear growers the restaurant has partnered with over the years, and I could practically taste the care that went into the sun-kissed fruits and vegetables on my plate. Taking a bite of each, I imagined the moment when the farmer drops off a box of leeks or a whole lamb and lays it on the table in front of the chef, and the chef begins to imagine all the sumptuous meals he could make. In each dish, it’s that moment diners at Paley’s Place are tasting.
THE CHEF Among the pioneers of Portland cuisine, there may well be no chef more skilled than Vitaly Paley, whose composed French- and Pacific Northwest-inspired dishes are the picture of perfected technique and exacting creativity. Paley grew up in Russia and has worked in the kitchens of some of New York’s finest restaurants (Union Square Café, Chanterelle). Perhaps because of his background, he brings a sense of European finesse and urban sophistication to each of his dishes. These range from a classic escargot à la Bordelaise with roasted marrow bones and garlic-rubbed toast to melt-in-your-mouth ravioli filled with a sunny yellow egg yolk and goat cheese. It’s often said that just about every chef in Portland owes some part of his or her success to Paley, whether by working in his kitchen or enjoying a meal at his bar. If it stays that way for another decade, we won’t complain.
THE SPACE Set in a white Victorian house in Nob Hill with seating for about 50 diners, Paley’s Place can seem a bit formal when it’s empty, painted as it is with conservative white and tan tones. But once filled with the sounds of sated diners, it becomes a warm, welcoming gourmet den. Whether seated at the bar, at one of the rowdy tables near the front door, or in the main dining room, everyone at Paley’s Place seems to view a meal here as a special occasion, even if it’s no one’s birthday. There’s an excitement in the air, as though each customer sits at the feet of a culinary guru—one they’re sure will surprise them at every turn.
THE SERVICE Kimberly Paley, once a modern dancer in New York, glides between tables, past the bar, and into the kitchen with a confidence that is practically unparalleled in this town. Most of her waitstaff follows suit, peerlessly taking orders, walking diners through the cheese course, and delivering martinis with nary a blink nor a stumble. Just as Paley’s Place in many ways defined Portland’s restaurant scene 13 years ago, so has it influenced the city’s service industry—some of the best servers in Portland have worked these tables.