Let's go back to May 2002. The Portland Farmers Market has just kicked into high gear, and I'm browsing the booths for an inspired eatable to bring to a friend's birthday. Then I see it: a charming, palm-sized tart, piled high with an explosion of glistening fresh fruit. The pastry--called the Carmen Miranda--is $10, but utterly worth it. A wedge of daintily cubed mango nestles among razor-thin slices of strawberry and kiwi. Plump berries twinkle like garnets under their sheer layer of glaze. It's a dead ringer for one of the flamenco star's legendary headdresses. As I carefully tote home that dramatic dessert, I imagine it to be the impromptu brainstorm of one of the fruit vendors. But of course, such magic was no accident. It was Pix.
It's hard not to love Pix, which has made the jump to a brick-and-mortar building from its more transitory farmers-market home. Now ensconced in a red-and-yellow-painted storefront on transitional-but-still-a-bit-drab Southeast Division Street, the shop-cafe is a real taste of Europe in a town where things too often get described as a taste of Europe. The decor, rather than the hipster-engineered, design-y spaces that have debuted recently in Portland, tends toward the improvisational. From the chalkboard "Open" sign to the mismatched chairs and vintage litho advertisements, Pix gives the impression of having put on its best dress to receive company--a '40s flocked rayon, with a faint accordion melody in its folds.
Pix is primarily a pastry shop, with a roster of house desserts and chocolates made by owner Cheryl Wakerhauser in individual, eat-now sizes (larger 7- to 9-inch versions can be had with two to three days' advance notice). Superstars abound on the menu. The Amélie ($5) is an orange vanilla crème brûleé resting atop glazed chocolate mousse that's bound together with caramelized hazelnuts, praline crisp and Cointreau genoise. If that sounds like a half-dozen desserts in one, that's the beauty of Pix--the focus is on intense flavors and unpredictable combinations, rather than cakey quantity. Though familiar friends such as a tart citron and cheesecake are available for the timid, more unusual pairings like pear and herbs (in the Pear Rosemary Tart) and raspberries and pistachios (in a layered, almond-scented dessert called Le Pixie, $2.50 a bar) show you Pix is stretching its sugar-dusted wings.
And you're invited to stretch your own. Wakerhauser holds semi-monthly "magic shows" for $50 to $65 to instruct acolytes in the finer points of patisserie--cake decorating, petits fours, even a hands-on demonstration of that famous Carmen Miranda. Breakfast items, such as French toast ($3.75) and lemon crêpes ($3.50), late-night hours and a savory snack short list (grilled cheese on buttery brioche for $4, pâté, olives) further expand Pix's little empire. Theme nights and art shows, which transform the shop for an evening and include theme-appropriate desserts and drinks (the drink menu, by the way, goes as highbrow as Belgian lambic--fruit beer--and as guttersnipe-ish as 40-ouncers of Olde English 800), have further projected the shop past any kind of boundary.
These bits of fun aren't just folly. Pix's most ingenious pairing may be its first--that pinch of Portland grit added to its cup-runneth-over of French romance. Tasty.
3402 SE Division St., 232-4407. 10 am-10 pm Wednesday, 10 am-midnight Thursday, 10 am-2 am Friday-Saturday, 10 am-8 pm Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Credit cards accepted. $ Inexpensive.