Two new restaurants have fired up their stoves on opposite ends of the close-in NoPo neighborhood, and that's not the only distance between them.
Bold-Sky Cafe has the enthusiasm and splash to suit North Mississippi Avenue's energetic new vibe. The restaurant is the invention of artist, stonemason and interior designer Nicole Davis--hence the "and Studios" in the restaurant's name. Decor is important here, certainly, from the chandelier-crowned ceilings (the building used to house a church), to the carefully curated array of folksy objects (baskets of horse chestnuts and novelty baby squash crowd the many ledges, lintels and mantels), to the flagstone patio with its whopper of a stone fireplace.
Call it Aspen, call it Jackson Hole, but the look here is so arrestingly not North Portland that it's a genuine jolt to the eyes. Not that disorientation is a bad thing, particularly when you're out back under the stars, the air temperature kept balmy by the fireplace and propane heaters.
The food has Northwest roots, to be sure; the earthy flavors of root vegetables, greens and grains play across many dishes. "Play" may be too light a word, as some of the pairings, like the sides accompanying the planked salmon ($17), seem a bit leaden. The preparation of the fish is clearly expert (it tasted fresh and faintly salt-rinsed, as salmon this time of year should), but the heavy supporting cast--black-eyed peas, kale and a smoked tomato jam that tastes a bit like barbecue sauce--all but drown its soft flavor. The mole-rubbed pork chop tastes underwhelming, given the fanfare of the menu's promise of a "secret blend of spices." The flatbreads ($9), a specialty of the house, present a lively mix of ingredients (lemon-brined chicken, sliced onion, and a bright arugula pesto), but the bread itself has a damp texture that does little to lift the flavors.
Given the dramatic atmosphere and lofty aesthetics, much of the menu seems earthbound in concept and execution. Bold-Sky's food could use more of the kind of flourish that's evident in the decor. By contrast, the kitchen feels neglected. Maybe that's what comes of having too many irons in the flagstone fireplace. Bold-Sky offers not only dinner, but design services, classes, live music and art shows. With so much flash, one longs for a little more pan.
In contrast, Echo seems to have only food and drink on its agenda, and the focus on fundamentals pays off. The lean brick building presents a stately facade, its red sign a bright stab on a dim block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Snug booths line the windows that look out on the busy street, and a scattering of tall tables cluster around the entry and the granite bar. It's civilized but unstuffy--a cool, grown-up bar that has so far escaped the encroachment of fratty rowdies or, worse, fickle hipsters. In short, it's a legitimate neighborhood joint, with a mixed crowd to match: couples on dates, a handful of post-work thirtysomethings, punk-rock kids nursing beers at the bar.
The menu offers such unpretentious descriptions of bar-food platters that the fine-dining quality comes as a surprise. The trusty baked crab-and-cheese dip ($6) is both rich and surprisingly zingy, and yes, warm bread does make a difference. The greens and roasted peppers dressed in basil oil and a potent balsamic syrup are a perfect counterpoint to the smooth ricotta custard appetizer ($6), while a simple green salad ($4/$6) includes the dashing addition of jicama shavings. Sandwiches are sprawling and generous, the star being the pulled pork ($7), a glorious mess of seasoned shredded meat and spicy cabbage slaw.
Sophisticated execution also sparks the handful of seemingly predictable entrees, like the savory grilled ribeye steak ($18), served piled atop rough-mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. The humble-sounding chicken-in-a-biscuit pot pie ($11) is updated and freshened with hand-built pastry and from-scratch gravy.
Dessert choices change nightly, and one unlisted marvel is the three crèmes brûlées, vanilla, cinnamon, and chocolate pots de crème ($7). The waiter described the dish with a shrug, and the little ramekins may not have looked like much huddled together on a saucer. But the trio of tiny custards was memorable--the chocolate dense and bittersweet, the cinnamon pure. Echo's humbleness may just be confidence: After all, who needs fanfare and flag-waving when you have flavor?
3943 N Mississippi Ave., 287-0154.Brunch 9 am-3 pm Saturday-Monday, dinner 5-10 pm Monday-Sunday, late-night menu 10 pm-midnight Monday-Thursday, 10 pm-2 am Friday-Saturday. $-$$ Inexpensive-Moderate.
Echo2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 460-3246.4:30-11 pm Monday-Wednesday, 4:30 pm-midnight Thursday, 4:30 pm-1 am Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. Credit cards accepted. No checks. $$ Moderate.