Among the restaurant openings during the past year, two places stood out, places very different from each other but embodying a common spirit: jazzy yet cool, buzzing yet serene, contemporary yet classic. No other new Portland restaurants have drawn crowds eager to be there simply because walking through the front door transforms you and instantly makes you happy. One restaurant is essentially a blend of Northwest and Mediterranean, the other Caribbean/Latin American; one is housed in the dramatically restored building next to the Wieden+Kennedy quarters in the Pearl, the other in a free-standing brick building from the 1890s down the street from the funky, venerable White Eagle Tavern; one is high-ceilinged, industrial in feel but softened with sumptuous hangings, the other is intimate and cozy though punctuated by electric, cocktail-blue lighting; and one draws its major clientele from nearby gentrified neighborhoods and the West Hills, the other from the city's youthful and far-flung bohemia. But both are committed to dining experiences not duplicated elsewhere in town. At a time when carbon-copy restaurants flatten the soul like proliferating clichés, Bluehour (250 NW 13th Ave., 226-3394) and Mint (816 N Russell St., 284-5518) stand apart, each in its own way, enticing and seductive. They are both, to put it most simply, terrifically exciting places to be.
BLUEHOUR ON THE RANGE: The organic vision of Bruce Carey and the assured stovetop skills of Kenny Giambalvo (pictured) have made their restaurant rip-roaring fun..
Bluehour is, of course, Zefiro redux. Both were started with help from visionary Bruce Carey. While it doesn't revise our concept of dining out as its avatar did a decade ago, Bluehour embodies much of what made Zefiro, Portland's groundbreaking upscale 1990s haunt, so thrilling. It takes Zefiro's menu and ratchets it up a few notches (where else can you find a luncheon club sandwich of lobster?). Bluehour chef Kenny Giambalvo's plates have the bistro look that Zefiro chef Chris Israel's imparted at the old place, but there are new touches of elegance. An appetizer of seared scallops wrapped in smoked bacon and enlivened with a dressing of creamed celery root and capers--ingredients one might find in any Parisian bistro--is not only so good that you slowly savor each lingering bite, but the dish itself dazzles like a gorgeous still life. The standbys are there, evoking memories and giving evidence of continuity: the bracing Caesar salad, the luxurious gnocchi, the meaty quail, the briny oysters, the carpaccio showered with arugula. But now the gnocchi are adorned with black truffles; a quail leg is stuffed with diced chanterelles and couscous, the grains glistening like miniature jewels; and foie gras, which formerly appeared largely as an accompaniment, moves into the spotlight with a thick sauce of figs and port.
The old restraint on keeping the entrees at a manageable number remains, and the list is both basic and imaginative. Always a test of a kitchen, the grilled chicken, a dish I might hesitate to order at most places for fear of getting a dried slab, here is crackling and luscious. Half the menu consists of fish, and I was fortunate to be at Bluehour during the short season for sturgeon, when the simple grilling brought out all the flavor in this high-fat fish (so prized it got royal status in 14th-century Britain!). And one of the most satisfying aspects of Bluehour is the smart pairing of accompaniments with a main dish.
Mandy Groom's desserts are superb, the flavors clear and uncompromised. She has an unerring sense of what works in what weather. Her panna cotta, flavored with an intense jolt of bitter almond, is silky and both rich and refreshing; and her granita trio of red, green and yellow watermelon looked like a celebratory banner. There are few dinners in town that close with such aplomb.
Bluehour has a big-city feel, with its classy bar and lounge, spiky tone and sure-footed, efficient, snappy service. Lucy Brennan's Mint seems right out of New York's East Village, a haven from its surrounding hard-edged industrial neighborhood.
Everything is fresh, and it has to be: Seviche is sparkling and effervescent, the fish, chili and onions nicely contrasting with the richer avocado. In a splendid turn on ubiquitous fried calamari, Mint puts its smoky version in a salad with summer-fresh tomatoes and serves it over grilled bread. Main courses sing with tropical breeze. The outstanding item is a duck breast glazed with rum and nestled by a salad of duck confit, the ensemble showered with figs and pine nuts. It's a symphony--or a steel band--of vibrant tastes. A long-simmered pork stew with cumin served with grilled peaches is another example of meat and fruit pairings, while prawns with tropical fruits and coconut rice transport you to the islands. Not everything is elegant, but it's all surprising and addictive, such as a lamb burger with mint chimichurri, a brilliant turn on the dreary overdone lamb-and-mint dinners from the '50s.
The food is so enticing that you'll be tempted to devour it greedily, but Mint is also a spot to linger with such mojo drinks as the house signature avocado daiquiri, with two rums and avocado cream (there's sometimes a mango version). Though I-5 may be within sight, you'll feel as if palm trees are swaying just beyond.
Bluehour and Mint may not change Portland's restaurant landscape forever, but in their savvy, upbeat ways they have brought a new tone of kinetic pleasure and, above all, cooking done with boundless zest and relish.