It was bold for Il Piatto owners Eugen and Lenor Bingham to choose Brooklyn, the neighborhood just south of Powell Boulevard around Milwaukie Avenue, for Sala, their second restaurant. Anchored by the Aladdin Theater and dotted with small businesses--a pharmacy, a coffee shop, a couple of rowdy pubs--Brooklyn seemed a neighborhood on the brink of something when the Italian bistro opened in 2001.
But so far, Sala's success has been uneven. The kitchen's rep for slapdash preparation kept the foodies away, and Sala's fortunes on a given night seemed tied to the performance schedule at the Aladdin. This is still true.
Arriving at 9 pm on a Thursday, I found the dining room deserted, but my server assured me that "when there's a show across the street, you can't get a table here." New chef Glen Rogers and an updated menu signal that, despite a rocky ramp-up, Sala is here to stay. As long as the Aladdin keeps it in business, that is, for Sala's cuisine and service still lack the polish to make the bistro a destination.
Located in a converted house, Sala borrows its decor from Il Piatto's shabby-chic aesthetic, with its mismatched crystal chandeliers, antique sideboard and lace curtains. A small bar can be found up a half-flight of steps off the dining room; this placement cleverly shields diners from the chatter and clink of the cocktail crowd.
Dinner begins with small plates, several of which can also be ordered in larger or entree sizes. The best of these is the lavender-and-cornmeal battered calamari ($5/$9). Served with an herb-flecked mayonnaise (called "salsa verde aioli" on the menu), the squid are crunchy and satisfying, with the hint of lavender providing an unexpected spiciness. As much of the menu seems laden with overly fancy flourishes, a caprese-like salad is refreshingly simple, with fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and greens ($5).
One such overladen dish is the house-made ravioli filled with twice-baked potatoes and sage ($6/$14.50). Served with a white wine sauce flavored with prosciutto, raisins and more sage, the dish labors under its competing ingredients, tasting at once sweet, salty, tart and oily. The prosciutto is put to better use wrapped around the grilled prawns ($9.50), which are paired wisely with a grapefruit-caper relish to cut the dish's richness. Matched with one of the inexpensive wines on Sala's mostly French and Italian list, these smaller dishes are the strongest on the menu.
Pasta dishes tend to be busy, as exemplified by the seafood lasagna ($16), which layers sheets of pasta with rock shrimp, scallops, cured salmon, spinach and fennel. A lobster béchamel and ground pine-nut crust binds the whole together. For all its complexity, the cube of lasagna lacks flavor as well as texture, not to mention being disastrously overcooked. In contrast, the fettuccini with Italian sausage, mushrooms, caramelized onions, tomatoes, arugula and balsamic vinegar ($13.50), while competently prepared, is a salty riot of assertive flavors fighting for dominance.
Some entrees offer a casual elegance, like the pork tenderloin ($17), which serves cured medallions with a fruit-and-sherry glaze and cakes of polenta. But others seem cobbled together without giving thought to how ingredients will interact--the red-wine-braised lamb shank served with roasted root vegetables and saffron gnocchi ($18) sounds dashing and highly textured, but tastes uniformly earthy (not to mention colored uniformly purple).
You might wonder whether Sala focuses enough on its Italian roots. Many of the Italian ingredients and cooking terms--arugula, bruschetta, mascarpone, carbonara--are misspelled on the menu, and the more-the-merrier addition of heavy French-style cream sauces and nouvelle cuisine oddities like dried cranberries and nut-encrusted goat cheese makes it seem like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe that's where everyone is--on two visits, it took several minutes to locate a server.
Sala's casual approach to service can be off-putting--my waiter, once located, informed me when he was going out for a cigarette--but then that can be expected from a restaurant that serves heavy rushes of one-time visitors. Still, it's hardly enough to lure a diner a second time.
In a pinch--say, before queuing up to see Hot Tuna or Puppetry of the Penis--Sala's unbuttoned fare fills the bill. But there are much better Italian restaurants in nearby Sellwood. For the moment, those driving through Brooklyn in search of a great supper might want to keep on driving.
3200 SE Milwaukie Blvd., 235-666511:30 am-2 pm Tuesday-Friday, 5:30-9:30 pm nightly. Checks and credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate.
Picks: Lavender-and-cornmeal battered calamari, mozzarella salad with roasted peppers on greens, grilled prawns wrapped in prosciutto, pork tenderloin over polenta cakes.