You're not imagining it: This newspaper has been writing about wine bars a lot lately. They're hard to ignore. We've got a sleek wine bar (Vigne) in the chic precincts of the Gregory Towers, a comfy wine bar (Noble Rot) in a funky building in Southeast, and the newest of the lot, an industrial-looking wine bar (Navarre) wedged among the feverish restaurants of Northeast 28th Avenue. Navarre is an ancient region in the Western Pyrenees divided between France and Spain, and the most recent entry in Portland's oenological sweepstakes is appropriately named: Many of its dishes are French or French-inspired, while the atmosphere smacks of a tapas bar in Spain. But though Navarre may be eclectic, the focus is strong and the balance between excellent wines and superb simple cooking is beautifully maintained.
John Taboada, owner and co-chef with Alton Garcia, took a long while before deciding on exactly the kind of restaurant he wanted to open, and his patience has paid off. The crowds--young and very Manhattan in feel--have been enthusiastic, and with good reason: Navarre's a friendly place, with a knowledgeable, buoyant staff that understands the kitchen's workings and conveys them smartly to the customers. More often than not there's a wait to get in. The atmosphere is a bit hard-edged, with a scattering of noir-ish photographs and a lofty ceiling, but it's somewhat softened with moody lighting and radiant intensity emanating from the open kitchen just behind a bar area.
The wine list is thoughtfully chosen (largely French and Italian) and quite reasonable, with most of the bottles in the $20-to-$35 range; instead of Vigne's two- and four-ounce pours, Navarre serves ample glasses, quarter- and half-carafes (remember them?), as well as bottles. Here again the staff will be dependably helpful.
But while Navarre's an excellent wine bar, wine does not outshine the food. The menu is printed on a long strip of white paper with a box next to each item; you check off what you want, as if you were ordering sushi in a Japanese restaurant. Prices range from $1 (that's for chewy bread from Ken's Artisan Bakery) to $2 (radishes with butter, olives, almonds, and a marvelous snack of hard, tart, fried cheese called "Frico") to a few specials at $9 or $10. Obviously the MO is to order a groaning board worth of dishes and pass them around, but be warned that the servings are very small. Don't dare pass up the pumpkin fritters ($3): three little oblong beignets, crunchy with a seductively creamy interior. You'll also want a "salad" of lentils and beets ($3), fresh and glistening like a mound of little sparkling jewels. For devoted Francophiles a salad of julienned celery root and carrots will strike a nostalgic note. And for charcuterie fans there are three terrific items: a rough-cut p‰té enhanced with prunes ($5), giving a pungent earthy taste to the meat; a terrine of ham, potatoes and cheese ($4), succulent with flavors and textures in perfect balance; and a plate of salami featuring the best selection of cured meats in the city, products of a superb (but secret!) salumeria ($4).
There are heartier items as well. Potato pancakes with nicely browned, crisp edges (I almost didn't miss applesauce or sour cream, so moist were these post-Hanukkah latkes); a trio of sweet, langoustine-sized prawns that had been sautéed in crustacean-infused butter; and delicate chicken stuffed with a melange of mirepoix and porcini ($6). And heartier still, a stunning braised beef in wine sauce in which I thought I detected a subtle amount of orange adding depth of flavor to the rich meat. A few specials are written (in lipstick?) on a mirror, but you'll have to get close-up and squintingly personal with the glass to detect them through your own reflection.
Desserts are almost self-effacingly modest but congruent with the scale: port with dried fruit ($6), Banyuls (a mocha-and-chestnut flavored dessert wine) with a piece of bittersweet chocolate ($6), and an almond cookie with aromatic Beaumes-de-Venise (a fortified sweet wine, $5).
All in all, a wonderful retreat worth visit after visit after visit.
10 NE 28th Ave., 232- 3555.
5:30-10:30 pm Monday- Thursday, 5:30-11:30 pm Friday- Saturday. Credit cards. Children never seen. Inexpensive.
Pumpkin fritters, salami plate, terrine of ham and cheese, braised greens, lentils and beets.
You check off the items on the menu you wish to order.