Portland likes familiar restaurant formats: the terra-cotta trattoria, the white-tablecloth steakhouse, the picnic-bench brewpub. Holocene, a new music venue that also offers light-handed cuisine, is none of these. And that's OK. Holocene asks, with a stoneware trencher of exotic cheeses on your table, music in your ears and a mint-scented Piaf cocktail in your hand, do you really need a hot meal?

The blank-eyed warehouse just up the hill from Sassy's strip club is easy to miss--tiny lowercase sign, windows wrapped in airy curtains. Inside, an outsized concrete church greets you. The big bones and mineral tones of the industrial space, rather than being "cozied up" to suit a restaurant, have been amplified through objets like a large mobile of transparent white lozenges suspended in one corner. All this modernity is nicely cut by a few riffs on restaurant "elegance"--classic medallion molding debossed into the poured concrete of the bar, mismatched hotel silverware.

Before we tuck into the food, it has to be said that Holocene's raison d'être is music. A large room in back hosts bigger acts and dancing, while the front area plays home to DJs and eclectic live ensembles most nights of the week. A typical night finds intimate gaggles of friends table-huddling or lounge-cuddling on the cushion-strewn benches. The pesky smoking question is handled by a discreet warren in the back hallway, its doorway muffled by a fringe of those long rubberized meat-locker strips. Some readers--maybe those who mourn Fellini's and its approach to the rock-and-roll restaurant--may find all this a little too cool to bear.

The evening menu consists of a vellum broadsheet listing fourteen small plates--ranging from a humble olive and nut plate ($4) to frenched roast of lamb (topping out at $10). Most enjoyable are the rangy and unusual cold dishes.

A butter lettuce salad, simply described as including "summer vegetables," arrives as a teetering spiral of torn greens, scattered pea shoots, shredded jicama, long wands of chive, asparagus spears and haricots. The chilled shrimp ($8) are stacked vertically above a chunky mango-and-jicama salsa. Saturated with a tangy chili-lime marinade, they're on the bossy side but bright in flavor and texture. The beet-and-horseradish-cured salmon ($8.50) is accompanied by minced red onion, capers, and a soft house-made herb cheese--all thoughtful complements to the satiny curls of fish.

The cheese plate (diners may choose from one to five cheeses, $3.50 to $7) is an easy favorite--the selections are variegated and diverse in terms of hard/soft, sharp/mild, and bizarre/familiar. Like many of Holocene's dishes, the cheese plate is augmented by a few snazzy surprises--thin slices of tart apple and Asian pear are pinwheeled on the plate, and the whole is finished with generous slices of house-made bread. Many plates are topped with an idiosyncratic garnish that happens to be delicious--scribbles of baked cracker dough dusted with cracked pepper and Indian spices.

Holocene's cuisine, with its stark angles and spiky textures, feels engaging but a little studied for a nightclub braced to host big crowds, big music and professional drinking. The dinner menu could let its hair down a little more often without losing its dignity--as it does with the roasted potatoes and root vegetables ($5), a friendly mess of Yukon Golds, turnips and golden beets served with a tangy yellow pepper catsup. The kick and fun of the house cocktails--pert mixtures of cucumber-infused vodka, fresh pineapple juice and mint (in the Piaf), or gin, ginger syrup and lemon juice (in the Ginger Rogers)--are Holocene at its best.

That, and brunch. Brunch is the best reason to eat at Holocene--the light streaming in the upper windows is generous and soft, and all that concrete feels cool to the touch. Revive those bruised electrolytes with a beaker of Gatorade (served in an ice bucket). Plates are hearty and personable--the hash ($7) serves up yams, beets and salmon rubbed to a coarse grit and topped with a poached egg. The pastry basket ($5) is a trio of blackberry-lavender muffin, spongy fruit coffeecake and a cinnamon roll sticky with pecans. The savory bread pudding ($6.50), layered with slices of Black Forest ham and glued together with gouda, may be a little rich for all but the fiercest hangover. But the lighter fare--granola with yogurt and fruit ($4.50), vanilla cream waffles ($6), a grassy spinach frittata ($6)--will set you to rights no matter what you did last night.

Whether live music and fine
dining can mingle successfully is still an open question--but then, Fellini's wasn't exactly the gold standard. Holocene has made a bold beginning.


1001 SE Morrison St., 239-7639.

7 pm-2:30 am Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am-4 pm brunch and 7 pm-midnight Sundays.

Open from 5 pm Tuesday-Friday starting Aug. 1. Credit cards accepted. $ Inexpensive.


Cocktails, butter lettuce salad, cheese plates, roasted potatoes and root vegetables.


Nice touch:
Unobtrusive DJs, beautiful space.