If you're coming from the eastside, you might think that over the river and south of Powell leads to Dullsville in Foodland. But the Capitol Highway confluence offers amazingly good fodder for foodies with the original Salvador Molly's, Three Square Grill and the Capitol Coffeehouse and Bistro.
The Capitol is located in a charming two-story building with lots of dark wood and windows, which provide a distinct, if funky, ski-lodge atmosphere. The downstairs coffeehouse used to be a garage for the apartment above, but now it has been transformed into a pleasant spot to enjoy an expertly turned-out espresso drink or snack (pastries here are from Lake Oswego's La Provence bakery). The place feels a bit like a New England inn you'd visit after a day of antiquing, even if that's not the main attraction of the Hillsdale neighborhood.
The bistro part of the enterprise is upstairs, though the soaring ceiling and well-spaced tables are a far cry from images of French bistros where tables are spaced so closely together that you could sample a neighbor's coq au vin without leaving your chair.
The Capitol's menu is largely influenced by French cuisine, but also draws inspiration from Italy, Cuba, Spain--even Japan. One signature dish is a French classic, the Coquilles Saint Jacque au Gratin with baked sea scallops in cream ($15). (That lack of an "s" in "Jacque" is the sort of thing that bugs literate gastronomes.) This version is French all right, the scallops served in a delicious pool of mushroom-studded cream topped with crunchy bread crumbs. Another classic, the papillote chicken ($15), is tenderly cooked, with a fennel, leek and coconut curry sauce, and served with asparagus, simply grilled, the same vegetable that accompanies all the entrees.
A starter Spanish cheese plate ($8) provides a lavish portion, though there could be a bit more diversity in its offerings. But diversity does show up strongly during the salad courses here, including the mesclun greens ($6), which are tossed with champagne-and-shallot vinaigrette topped with luscious Spanish bleu cheese (couldn't that be on the cheese plate?), shaved red onions and excellent croutons. For the endive salad ($7.50), arugula, grapes and candied walnuts get a fine balsamic dressing, while the Spanish tuna salad with Tuscan white beans ($8) may make you swear off that terrible canned "Chicken of the Sea" indefinitely.
Caesar salads with protein have become the new burger and fries, but this one, topped with gorgeous rosy-pink smoked salmon ($10), falls leagues ahead of those awful dry and tasteless grilled chicken slices served elsewhere. One evening's daily soup also used seafood well: a tomatoey mussel stew had just the right amount of bite.
The main dishes on the menu include the ravioli of the day ($14), which on a recent night was served with large squares of toothsome fresh dough filled with plenty of Dungeness crab pooled in a rich buttery cream sauce. Much lighter, the Spanish snapper sauté ($16) could use a little more zest. It's a perfectly fine preparation, but the flavors of the capers, onions, green olives and tomatoes didn't fully enliven this simple fish. To imagine the picadillo picadura ($10), think of a Cuban version of a sloppy joe--peppers, capers, olives and raisins piled over rice instead of a gummy white bun.
For dessert, the continent-hopping works deliciously in a smooth, dense flan ($3.75) flavored with sambuca and lemon zest covered by a crunchy crème brûlée top (it raises the question: Why can't every dessert have a crème brûlée top?). Flourless chocolate torta ($4) is another one of those ubiquitous dishes that's often disappointing (a mouthful of chocolate paste comes to mind), but it's excellent here with a nearly brownielike texture and complex flavor.
To accompany your meal, the full bar serves fun, international cocktails, plenty of wine and beer, and some thoughtful, special non-alcoholic drinks. The Cuban iced tea ($2) is sweetened with mango, a fruit native to India.
And maybe that drink says something about what this cozy neighborhood spot achieves, a day-into-evening spot that's a coffee shop, a bistro, a lounge, whatever. The food comes from all over the place, and the mix here creates a melting pot of a restaurant.
6446 SW Capitol Highway, 297-1455 7 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday; 7 am-10 pm Friday and Saturday; and 9 am-3 pm Sunday.
Capitol Coffeehouse will celebrate its second anniversary in March.
The restaurant offers live music on many weekends. One notable upcoming show: Nancy Curtain sings Brazilian songs accompanied by Latin guitarist Alfredo Muro, 8 pm Saturday, March 6. $10 cover. For a complete schedule, check capitolbistro.com.
Taste Capitol's take on Cajun and Creole food at a Mardi Gras party on Tuesday, Feb. 24.