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What famed Portland director of various Afflecks was recently seen supping at Pearl District dining hotspot Coppia with a statuesque blonde companion? Looks like this Hollywood player knows how to find a star pairing!

Enough of that. It's true that Coppia is an effort by owner Timothy Nishimoto—a vocalist for Pink Martini—to up the wattage of his wine bar, Vino Paradiso. But six months after the facelift, the place remains somewhat anonymous. Its decor is the traditional Pearl motif ("We'd like to be an art gallery, but we will settle for being the really nice part of a major airport") and its Piedmontese menu doesn't distinguish itself from most chichi dining in the city. When the subject of our attentions was spotted last week, he was tucked into one of the restaurant's deeply unfortunate back booths, where the seats are so low they turn a dinner date into a first Thanksgiving at the grown-ups' table.

But these deficiencies are worth overlooking because of Coppia's primary conceit: Every item on chef Aren Steinbrecher's menu, all the way down to the five cheese plates, is paired with a different wine. This plays to its abiding strength as Nishimoto, once dubbed the "Singing Sommelier" by Wine Spectator, knows his way around a varietal.

It helps, of course, when Nishimoto is actually your server, as he was for my party on a quiet weeknight. When he substituted my default glass with a stouter, rounder model to pour my Burlotto Nebbiolo (the suggested companion for my flank steak), I asked what the difference was. He hesitated slightly before launching into a detailed explanation of how the thick base of the glass would give an indistinct aroma more space to breathe, while the narrow rim would direct a sip to the front end of the tongue, which would catch the sweeter notes of a notoriously acidic wine. If the technical detail of this answer was startling, the genuine enthusiasm of the lesson was contagious.

It also doesn't hurt that he's right. The most inspired coupling I tried was at dessert: The table's shared plate of chocolate panna cotta was accompanied by a small chalice of Cana's Feast Chinato d'Erbetti, a Carlton-bottled fortified wine similar to vermouth. The sticky sweetness of chinato is usually best cut with soda, but a small portion perfectly complemented small bites of very rich chocolate custard—decadence in miniature.

Other meals were not so revelatory, though if the Pearl condo set has the sock to afford every suggested mating of food and drink, they may fare better. The tajarin with wild boar ragu was too emphatic in its Parmesan—and inferior in its component parts to the tajarin at Tabla and the boar ragu at Lincoln. To be fair, these are the best examples of those dishes in Portland, but if Steinbrecher is aiming for those heights, he has a ways to climb.

The quail and steak dishes were likewise unimpeachable (and the quail notable for being almost entirely deboned and wrapped like a jacket around a bouquet of mushrooms). But the strongest individual dishes were the antipasti: the bagna cauda like a garlicky Piedmontese fondue; the celery salad peppered with buzzingly tart capers; the wild mushroom soup a comforting blend of diced mushrooms, chicken stock and cream.

It's no insult to say Coppia only really flowers when the food is accompanied with its vineyard partner—rather, that's just saying it only works as it's intended. The effort to make dishes worthy of the wine is laudable and largely successful. If some of the plates are still ordinary, take another sip: Everything will seem a tad more famous. 

  1. Order this: The bagna cauda, the quail and the panna cotta—and follow those wine suggestions!
  2. Best deal: Nearly everything on the antipasti menu is under $10, and worth more. 
  3. I’ll pass: The cheese plates are heavy on the filberts and walnut bread. I didn’t find mine otherwise memorable.

EAT: Coppia, 417 NW 10th Ave., 295-9536, 4-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$$.