The best thing to happen to Lake Oswego's dumpy downtown in recent memory is Lake View Village, a shopping center tarted up with Craftsman-style wood and glass. Lake View Village owner Barry Cain leased space to upscale shops and restaurants but reserved the center's prime location, on the second floor overlooking the lake, for his own restaurant, Fivespice, which opened in January.
The restaurant's menu is billed as Pan-Asian, and influences trek from India to Hong Kong, with significant layovers in Thailand and Vietnam. Fivespice's interior interprets the Asian theme in a sophisticated mix of materials like bamboo, limestone and iridescent tile, set off by orchids and other tropical blooms—picture a luxurious hotel in Bali and you'll get the idea. The terrace offers views that are usually available only to the owners of million-dollar lakeside homes; what a spot it will be for sunny spring lunches and cocktails on summer evenings.
If only the food at Fivespice evoked Asia as richly as the decor. The restaurant's aspirations inevitably invite comparison with Seattle's Wild Ginger, which invented the Pan-Asian riff close to 15 years ago. Yet what makes Wild Ginger the benchmark of the style (as well as one of Seattle's best restaurants, period) are consistent execution and a thorough understanding of the nuances of flavor in the various Asian cuisines. Under chef Jon Beeaker, a veteran of Bluehour and Saucebox, Fivespice hasn't demonstrated either.
In Southeast Asian cooking, skillful cooks balance salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavors in each dish. But on our first visit to Fivespice, each dish seemed to get just one flavor rather than all four. Clay-pot chicken ($15.25), touted as a house signature, was more like chicken in caramel sauce, overwhelmingly sweet, without a whisper of the garlic, ginger, chilies and black pepper promised by the menu. Green-papaya salad ($8.75) was simply hot, lamb tikka masala ($6.75) merely sour, and seared scallops ($19.75) only salty.
The second time around, the kitchen sharpened up, with snazzy presentations and more balanced flavors. Creamy Thai-style green-curry chicken ($13.50) combined zesty spice and with a squeeze of lime. Vietnamese grilled calamari ($7.25) looked and tasted stunning, with tender, charcoal-tinged pieces of squid on a crunchy cabbage-and-peanut salad doused with sweet/sour/hot tamarind dressing. Vietnamese salad rolls ($5.75) were a respectable rendition of the old standby. The scallops, perfectly crusted, came on a bed of stir-fried greens and mushrooms so good they inspired competitive cross-table chopstick spearing. Still, the kitchen seems afraid of even hinting at the funky taste of fish sauce, an essential element in Thai and Vietnamese dishes.
Dessert prices match some of the city's finest restaurants, but the sweets don't measure up. Warm sticky rice with fresh fruit and palm-sugar syrup ($6.75) can be a heavenly combo with tender, puddingish rice and fragrant fresh mango. Fivespice's rendition topped sticky grains with underripe fruit and an overdose of Karo-like syrup. And there was nothing molten about its molten chocolate cake ($8.50), which on both visits arrived rubbery and scorched-tasting after a microwave blast.
The drink menu highlights a selection of Asian-inflected cocktails, like the tasty house champagne cocktail with Cointreau and pomegranate essence ($8). The wine list includes some fine pairings at generally fair markups, like Sokol Blosser's off-dry Evolution ($27) and Chateau Ste. Michelle's Eroica riesling ($32). Unfortunately, the only riesling offered by the glass, Noble House ($6), is a flabby, uninteresting wine. And shouldn't any restaurant be ashamed of featuring Kendall-Jackson's supermarket-special Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay on a wine list, especially at $9 a glass?
Even in the tony precincts of Lake Oswego, Fivespice isn't cheap. Our dinners, with one drink each and stylishly slim portions, ran $30-$40 per person. Yes, you're paying for the view, the cushy chairs and, presumably, higher-quality ingredients than you'll get at most ethnic dives. But the main point of a restaurant is the food, and Fivespice has a long way to go before it does justice to the subtlety and verve of the cuisines it aspires to serve.
315 1st St., Suite 201, Lake Oswego, 697-8889. 11 am-11 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-midnight Fridays-Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. $$
Fivespice hosts live jazz Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.