Seasonal foods from around the equator provide the theme for Equinox, a new restaurant and lounge in the heart of the North Mississippi Avenue commercial district, the most recent inner-city neighborhood to be rediscovered by Portland's alternative entrepreneurs.
The menu covers a lot of ground, from skewers of chicken flavored with green curry and served with mint chutney to tacos filled with garlic mashed potatoes. This mix-and-match approach carries some risk, but Equinox wisely restrains itself from pushing the fusion envelope. Instead, the kitchen uses the strong flavors of Indian, Southeast Asian, Latin American and even European cuisines to add punch to relatively straightforward cooking.
A surprisingly good Italo-Indian combination of squid ink linguine with tandoori-style shrimp and coconut milk ($9) typifies the approach. It's basically a bowl of good pasta, cooked just right and tossed with the sauced shellfish. The flavors may not be what you'd expect, but they all work together.
The aptly named Horns of Diablo showcase chef Desmond Luesely's fondness for chilies. Roasted red fresco peppers, which look like overgrown jalapeños and vary from mildly spicy to blistering, come stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and potatoes ($5). It's a nice combination, but neither the mild stuffing nor the creamy roasted corn sauce helps if you get one of the hot chilies, so order these only if you can tolerate the heat or like to live dangerously.
A salad of spinach and mixed greens ($7) benefits from the tart-sweet crunch of julienned apples, judiciously applied disks of fresh Mission figs or apricots, and requisite salt from a scattering of peanuts. A clean balsamic vinaigrette, with a bite of lemon acidity to balance the cloying sweetness of the vinegar, connects the disparate ingredients. Even better was the grilled Caesar ($5), an unexpected twist on the ubiquitous salad. The romaine takes a quick trip to the grill and returns slightly charred and wilted, perfect for a dressing that blends the familiar flavor of anchovies with the surprising spike of habanero chili.
While the flavors are drawn from equatorial regions, substance originates closer to the 45th parallel. Equinox uses locally grown organic produce whenever possible, and meat comes from regional suppliers, such as Carlton pork and Painted Hills beef. I had a perfectly cooked pork loin chop topped with a pestolike cilantro and lemon sauce and accompanied by creamy polenta ($10).
That beef from the central Oregon ranchers' cooperative has the potential to make a much better burger than the thin-patty version currently on the weekend lunch menu ($6.50). It's what I call Texas-style, thin and cooked well-done with a crispy, near burnt edge, and it has its followers, loyal if misguided. But since we've got such good local beef, why not make thick burgers, cooked gloriously rare?
Salmon, not exactly equatorial but definitely seasonal, shows up grilled and wrapped in prosciutto in the evening ($12) and as part of the special Equinox Benedict for brunch. Halibut ($12), another northern native, gets a welcome dose of flavor from a smoky Thai-style chile relish.
The menu offers a handful of pasta and rice dishes, including a seasonal shifting housemade ravioli ($8). Vegetarian choices nearly equal those for omnivores, and dessert specials such as fried banana won tons with a thin coconut dipping sauce will quell the sweet tooth.
Equinox sits at the back of one of the former town of Albina's old brick buildings. It's got an owner-built, repurposed feel typical of the area. The courtyard out front becomes part of the dining room in warmer weather when the big roll-up door is open. It's a comfortable spot, with the only drawback an occasional waft of cooking odors from the semi-open kitchen.
The gentrification of Albina is a peculiarly Portland version, with Goodwill-clad, bicycle-mounted young hipsters as the landed gentry instead of the stereotypic polo-shirted, BMW-driving yuppies. The Rebuilding Center anchors the commercial strip, caffeine comes from Fresh Pot rather than Starbucks, and Video Vérité offers a quirky selection of documentaries, art films and other anti-Blockbuster movies on DVD.
Equinox signals that the neighborhood transformation has reached critical mass. It's not the first restaurant on the avenue: Mississippi Pizza Pub, Grandfather's Deli, Soup & Soap's classic Southern soul food (usually, but not always, consumed while utilizing the adjacent laundromat), and the Purple Parlor's vegetarian and vegan fare also feed the urban pioneers. But the eclectic food at Equinox makes the leap to cuisine, and while it may be in a category by itself (call it recycled fusion), it's good enough to draw diners from beyond the immediate neighborhood.
830 N Shaver St., 460-3333. 4 pm-midnight Wednesday-Thursday, 4 pm- 1 am Friday, 9 am- 2 pm and 5 pm-1am Saturday, 9 am-2 pm and 5 pm-midnight Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Credit cards accepted. $-$$ Inexpensive-Moderate.
Linger at the weekend brunch with an occasionally available chipotle bloody mary, the perfect accompaniment to the NoPo scramble of sausage, bacon and cheese.
Happy hour (4-6 pm Wednesday-Friday and 10 pm-close Wednesday-Sunday) means dollar fries, mac 'n' cheese for only a buck more, and other food specials.