The menu at Northwest 21st Avenue's new Virgo and Pisces is an eclectic smorgasbord of Korean short ribs and Grandma's meatloaf. And yet eclectic isn't always a good thing, as evidenced by the restaurant's often empty seats. Some will blame the Pisces location, a cursed corner that has hosted three failed restaurants since Zefiro closed in 2000. Others will point to a menu whose aim is entirely unclear.
Starters include a sub-par pan-seared crab cake—a lack of breadcrumb coating should bode well for the crab but, alas, it doesn't—paired with a micro green salad ($12). A pasta loaded with local Willapa Bay Manila clams and Carlton Farms pork sausage ($14) looks appetizing but lacks both character and flavor. And though gingered gulf prawns ($17) are prettily presented, sticky Koda rice and bland sautÉed pea shoots dull the delight of the big, tender shrimp.
Luckily, the fried pork pot stickers ($7) are a tasty—albeit standard—Asian tidbit, and the alcohol list offers a decent selection of cocktails and wines by the bottle and glass (and saketinis come summer). Bonus: In latching onto the truffle-fry trend that's hit Portland of late, the kitchen succeeds by sprinkling a tower of crisp, aromatic fries ($6) with earthy black-truffle sea salt.
New restaurant owner Steve Kwak and consulting chef Paul Moss, formerly of Portland's defunct and similarly focused Aja's Pacific Kitchen, bill the menu as "Northwest cuisine with a Pan-Asian flair." Sadly, that flair translates to an unlikely brunch/lunch menu (whose 9 am service is meant to provide a breakfast spot for odd-hour workers) where the two cuisines don't merge; they battle for space.
Free starters of puffy cinnamon-and-sugar doughnuts or housemade scones channel Americana, while the lunch portion of the menu lists more Asian-inspired entrees like an organic-salmon BLT topped with a wasabi aioli ($10). The sandwich is noteworthy. A chewy ciabatta roll serves as the base for crisp slices of bacon, a salmon filet, lettuce and tomatoes. Sadly, a small, scarcely dressed Thai "Cobb" salad ($10) calls to mind Red Robin's lackluster Chinese chicken salad.
The servers at Virgo and Pisces are mellow and unassuming. On the other hand, the loud dining-room décor trumps the waitstaff's easygoing manner by a mile (though the bar is more subdued). The dining room is best described as ornate Chinese food restaurant meets tacky tarot-card parlor. One vast stretch of bright-blue wall space harbors a sea of fish sculptures while another houses an enormous mermaid mural. Both pair jarringly with the randomly placed astrology-themed paintings.
Though each element plays up this mythic theme, the décor (like the food) lacks a cohesive confidence. However, with a few alterations—notably dialing up the flavors in dishes and muting the décor—perhaps its fate will align more favorably with the stars.