Although Soluna Grill's space on Northeast Fremont Street, which used to house Marco Shaw's dearly departed restaurant Fife, was redesigned for its September launch, the layout of the large, boxy space is mostly the same, with minimal division between the bar, dining room and partially exposed kitchen. The menu and the service, on the other hand, are very different.
When a host greets you with, "Hi there. Would you like to sit at the bar?" when the dining room is far from full and you aren't wearing flip-flops, followed by the server's first question for the table: "Are we getting cocktails or wine?" as if the option for free water or inexpensive beverages doesn't exist—the emphasis on upselling is pretty clear.
Chef/co-owner Dan Straub, who moved to Portland from California to open Soluna Grill with his business partner, Roland Sarrazen, offers a respectable neighborhood dinner and menu changes monthly—with brunch on Sunday, a kids' menu, a good amount of Northwest wines and a full bar.
If you order just one appetizer, go for the thinly sliced, fried and kosher-salted housemade potato chips ($4) with a side of creamy melted blue cheese. It's the ultimate lowbrow-meets-highbrow snack and goes perfectly with a pre-dinner cocktail such as the Times Square ($8), shaken with Buffalo Trace, Carpano Antica vermouth and Ramazzotti amaro served up. Less desirable appetizers include the too-oily chickpea-crusted green beans with tomato ginger chutney ($7) and the bland buttermilk calamari strips ($8).
Entrees are as large as the oversize plates they're served on. The pecan trout ($17) is two ground-pecan-encrusted fillets, spritzed with lemon juice and topped with a delicious mince of crab, red onion, pickle and mayo, served over a sweet-potato hash with sautéed green peppers and onion. The only gripe: too much tarragon brown-butter sauce.
The maple-infused pork chop ($16) with a nicely spiced apple compote is a juicy cut served with sweet-potato mash, garlicky sautéed spinach, and a drizzle of maple syrup reduction. It's a robust and tasty meal big enough for two. Other entrees include potato gnocchi and chicken ($14), the Soluna burger with garlic aioli on a brioche bun ($10), and the popular Moroccan lamb shank with pearl couscous, roasted root vegetables and an orange gremolata ($17).
Soluna is a hybrid of the names of the daughters of co-owners Sarrazen and Sara Behr—Zoya Sol and Ruby Bellaluna, whose photos hang on the restaurant's south wall. The family focus makes sense, since Soluna is ultimately an upscale neighborhood family establishment with casual service and good, something-for-everyone food but no real knockouts. For more ambitious food, check out the once-a-month Sunday Supper Club (usually $55) with food and wine pairings, served to a maximum of 30 people. And no, we don't want to sit at the bar for that one.
Soluna Grill, 4440 NE Fremont St., 222-3433. Dinner 5-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-10 pm Friday-Saturday. Brunch 9 am-2 pm Sunday. $$