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Food Experts Dish on the Biggest Dining Surprises of 2014

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As is the tradition at Eater, our closeout of the year is a survey of friends, industry types, and bloggers. This year, we asked the group eight questions running the gamut from meal of the year to top restaurant newcomers, and we'll be rolling out their expert opinions all week long. Responses are cut, pasted, and (mostly) unedited herein. Readers, please do add your survey answers in the comments.

What was the biggest dining surprise of 2014?

Chris Angelus, founder of Portland Food Adventures and Right at the Fork podcasts

The meal Adam Sappington served in the Calico Room for our PFA.  He did dishes that were completely outside the realm of Country Cat fare, and showed us how well-rounded he is.  That guy is insanely talented.  2. Wildwood closing, especially because three weeks earlier when I interviewed Cana Flug on Right at The Fork, it sounded as though there was no question the lease would be renewed.  I think Wildwood's and Genoa's closing marked the end of one era and the beginning of another in Portland's food history.  3. The definition of a pop-up.

Byron Beck, editor, GoLocalPDX

The end of Produce Row. It was hard to see such a beloved Portland dining institution bite the dust. I fear this will be the same fate of Veritable Quandary in the coming year.

Karen Brooks, book author; food editor and restaurant critic for Portland Monthly

The food arrived on plates. Otherwise, nothing was predictable in a year that started out looking ... predictable.  The year's best menus — from Vitaly Paley's monthly Russian pop-up DaNet, to Ryan Roadhouse's twice weekly, Japanese dinner-party "restaurant," Nodoguro — came seemingly out of nowhere with invitations to plunge into a cooks' personal worlds, deliciously, without a crumb of pretension. Maybe it's just a delightful coincidence. Or just maybe, Portland chefs are mapping a new route to fine dining in a city that has willfully rejected it.

Liz Crain, author "Food Lover's Guide to Portland" and "Toro Bravo" cookbook

As a born and raised Cincinnati girl I spent a lot of time in Kentucky just across the river. Kentucky, of course, is known for pretty great rootsy southern food, especially fried chicken. All that said, I was pretty dang shocked to have the best fried chicken of my life a few months ago just a hop skip from my Portland home. WTF. North Williams' The People's Pig's smoked fried chicken is so good you will dream about it. PP's (tee heeee!) smoked fried chicken is juicy, tender, very lightly smoky and golden crisp. Crazy good.

Andrea Damewood, restaurant critic, Portland Mercury

I think Langbaan most surprised me. Thai is a cuisine that is so typically associated with take-out orders of noodles or at best Andy Ricker's great street-style fare. Here, it's a refined prix fixe experience, with so much delicacy and layered flavors.

Erin De Jesus, News and Reports, Eater

Okay, this was apparently not a surprise to everybody, but I'm surprised how quickly the Central Eastside/Buckman border has emerged as one of Portland's top food neighborhoods.

Allison Jones, writer, Portland Monthly

The fact that there's a raw, vegan, kombucha speakeasy/restaurant in St. Johns where you're not allowed to wear shoes (because of "earthing") and the owners keep hugging you as you sit on the floor to eat. Oh, wait, you asked for a dining surprise, didn't you...

Kerry Newberry, food and travel writer; wine editor at SIP Northwest

That late-night Russian disco (with drinks and zakuski) made it to Portland. It's about time.

Gary Okazaki, professional glutton (aka Gary the Foodie)

I had no idea what to expect from Factotum Dining's Jon Tancinco and Patrick Mannion. Given their culinary background (Eleven Madison Park, Alinea and Tru), I was excited and hopeful. But with the very first Factotum dish of cherry tomatoes with tomato water mousse and frozen olive oil, I knew I was in for a wild and an enjoyable ride - a pop-up with Michelin-star food.

Michael Russell, restaurant critic and reporter, The Oregonian

I was surprised by the number of decades-old restaurants to close this year, a list that includes Wildwood, Genoa, Esparza's, Produce Row Cafe and a trio of downtown haunts - Leo's Non-Smoking Coffee Shop, the Red Coach, and Hunan Restaurant. R.I.P.

Peter Szymczak, writer, Oregon Wine Press and SIP Northwest

The food scene here hasn't peaked, it just keeps getting better and better. The ambition of chefs, somms, bartenders, brewers, winemakers, distillers, all the food artisans keeps diversifying and raising the bar higher.

Mike Thelin, Feast Portland co-founder

Jim Meehan moving to Portland. Can't wait to see what this very talented man does in the Rose City.

Drew Tyson, writer and photographer

How well Doug Adams is doing on Top Chef! Dude came out of nowhere and is killing it.

Michael Zusman, cookbook author, restaurant critic (and judge)

I never thought I'd hear myself say, "Hey, let's go out for Russian tonight." Kachka has me repeating that about once a week. And while chef Bonnie Morales  has kept a core of winning staples on the menu, most notably the meat pelmeni in "fancy" broth and golubsti (cabbage rolls), she's swapped in new dishes often enough to keep the menu fresh and interesting.