I once had a friend who claimed that all you need to wow people at a dinner party is a good starter and a good dessert, because the main course is inevitably forgotten. She might have taken her cue from JoPa, a new restaurant on the way to Beaverton. At JoPa, if you don't ask too much of the kitchen, you can get by with a range of simple appetizers and, if you leap ahead to the sweets--especially if you regress to gooey comfort food--you can leave with half a smile.
JoPa (a contraction of the two owners' names) is on the road to Beaverton, and it feels it. There's a suburban aura about the place, and the food seems as though it's on the way to anywhere rather than being defined by somewhere. One previous restaurant on the premises was The Melting Pot, which featured Swiss fondue in a building that seems half ski lodge and half urban-sprawl condo. And though this restaurant advertises itself as a "Northwest grill with Italian roots," the Italian origins of many of these dishes might mystify you.
JoPa seems more like a sports bar than a trattoria, with an appetizer list that features a cheese sandwich ($5.75), French fries ($3.50), crab cakes ($7) and hamburger shooters ($5.75). Hamburger shooters? Yes, Lilliputian burgers on Lilliputian buns that McDonald's might blush to serve. And crab cakes that remind me of the Mrs. Paul's fish cakes so beloved by 1950s housewives, served with a gloppy tartar sauce.
There are, to be sure, a few pizzas, risottos and pastas that represent Italy. And the small, individual pizzas ($6.50) are quite good, especially if you like the thin, crackling crusts favored in Naples. The "Porcellina," featuring mozzarella, smoked ham, gorgonzola and caramelized onions, is pungent and tasty; it will keep you happy for a while. And a skewer of grilled salmon bathed in a sticky sweet sauce ($6) might appease you as well. But a strange dip blended from artichoke hearts, Parmesan, cream cheese and sour cream ($5.50) resembles those fancy dishes women once learned to make to impress their boyfriends or new husbands--just a step up from tuna casserole. Fuggedaboudit.
Two other dishes momentarily brightened my hopes. One is a splendid platter of vegetables ($7.50) coated with a light batter and quickly deep-fried, known as fritto misto (though in Italy that term can refer to almost anything that's lightly battered and very quickly fried, including cured meats, veal cutlets, fruits, even sweet cream). The zucchini chunks don't work so well here, but mushrooms, cauliflower, and especially asparagus spears are splendidly crunchy, peeking through the thin envelope of the batter, something like a Mediterranean tempura. If you order it, steer clear of the mayonnaise-like dipping sauce and instead splash a bit of vinegar on the veggies and salt everything well.
Porcini ravioli ($10.75) may be the single best item on the menu--they are redolent of the forest, deep and earthy in flavor and beautifully cooked. But other Italian tries fall flat. The risotto ($9.95) is gummy and mushy, and while a platter of puttanesca ($7.95) has the right blast from red-pepper flakes, everything lacks freshness--from the linguini, which seems reheated or held too long under a heat lamp, to the sauce, which tastes as if it emerged from a can of Chef Boyardee. Something has gone wrong here.
I'm pleased that JoPa brings in some unusual fish for its main courses. I've tried escolar ($13.50), a delicate white fish something like mackerel, and whose name has the same root as "scholar," presumably because the rings around its eyes look like spectacles; and marlin ($13), which is very close to swordfish. Unfortunately, the latter was greatly overcooked, resulting in a piece of dried-out fish for which the accompanying mango salsa just couldn't compensate. And the steamed vegetables on the side were utterly banal. The escolar was much better, doused with capers and lively with lemon. From its flesh a purgative oil is often extracted, and purgation is just what is needed elsewhere on the menu.
But if you leap directly from appetizer to desserts, you'll experience a mini-catharsis. There's an aptly named pot of explosive goodness, the cup o'lava ($5.50): a moist, warm chocolate espresso cake holding aloft a scoop of ice cream, the entire thing wedged into a mug that's molten with gooey richness. And a child-grownup's nirvana, sticky toffee banana shortcake ($5.75), an unctuous treat smothered in butterscotch-pecan sauce that oozes into every crumb of the cake: sheer retro-comfort.
This is ultimately a casual place, so maybe it's right not to ask too much of it; but since there's a hint of skill here and there, scattered pleasures to be found if you search, it seems reasonable to demand more consistency and care. In short, JoPa needs more um-pah.
4439 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, 892-6686. 11:30 am-9 pm Tuesday- Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 am-10 pm Friday- Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Children welcome. Moderate $$.
Picks: fritto misto, porcini mushroom ravioli, cup o'lava, sticky toffee banana shortcake