Soup for you

Liquid lunches are perfect for midwinter
By BRIAN DUFF  |  February 14, 2007

BOWL OF WARMTH: Ladle serves up stew + bread.
When it’s cold it is hard to do things. In recent weather every requirement of life feels like an affront to sweet inertia. Simply getting your feet from under bedsheets and into slippers is an unreasonable challenge with which to start the day. Just peeking the remote control out from under the blanket threatens to pierce the fragile bubble of warmth you have created on the couch. Even chewing and digestion seem like too much effort. It makes me imagine the deep comfort baby birds get in taking their food already broken down by their parents’ stomachs — warm, wet, a little bitter. The closest experience we humans have to this is in eating soup.

Portland offers a number of good spots to drink a hot meal in chilly times. It has been almost a year since Erik Desjarlais closed his Bandol and focused his talent and obsession for good ingredients into a cozy underground soup house on Exchange Street called Ladle. He is serving about six soups a day in three sizes for $4, $6, and $8. The soups have straightforward names like “carrot,” “cauliflower,” and “chicken noodle,” but with the mildest prodding Desjarlais reveals all sorts of pleasing details about the stock, the ingredients, and the preparation. I was just biting into a big tender piece of meat in my rabbit stew when he told the next customer how happy the bunnies had looked the day before when he picked them up from his “rabbit guy.” That stew came off the ladle as an ample layer of meat suspended above a layer of egg noodles in a slightly thick, peppery broth that smelled intensely of the mushrooms that spotted the bowl.

I also tried a white bean and collard soup that I had been told was “vegan, but not in a bad way.” In fact it was very good. The collard gave the broth just a bit of the slightly bitter umami flavor that Japanese chefs achieve for their dashi by using kelp. The bowl was filled with tender but not soggy beans, carrots, celery, and onion. Every bowl comes with a hunk of the perfectly rendered, just slightly sour, house-made baguette.

While Ladle is serving hearty-looking bowls, Duckfat’s purees have a completely different effect upon the eye. Just as the smooth liquid sameness of a freshly opened can of paint offers the promise of happiness in the form of nicer walls, so Duckfat’s bowls of tomato-fennel and squash bisque promise warm and creamy satisfaction. The tomato was a very pleasing light orange color. It was a little smoky, and had a little of that sharp flavor tomatoes can get when you cook them. Overall I was reminded just a bit of vodka sauce. A rutabaga soup that was recently available was a great-looking nutty beige and had been splashed with a bit of a very sweet balsamic. It was a slightly sour, earthy soup with a creamy texture.

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