As a wine bar, new Northeast Killingsworth spot Dame is a pretty good restaurant. And as a restaurant, it's one hell of a bar.
There seems to be some public disagreement about which one it is—the owners say it's a restaurant with a bar, while a recent newspaper review cheerily informed them it's a bar with food. But the real surprise is that anybody cared enough about a new Portland wine spot to debate its precise definition.
Since Frank and business partner Jane Smith opened Dame in September, their 100-plus-bottle stock of natural wines has been unrivaled for hundreds of miles in any direction. You can drink orange wines that have been fermented with grape skins, wines that taste like mushrooms, bottle-fermented peasant bubbly, or Croatian and Georgian wines whose traditions long predate the vineyards of France.
It's also not a bad hang.
Dame's location, the former home of French bistro Cocotte, has retained a lot of the previous spot's charm. The warm-toned, hardwood-floored front room is split just about evenly between bar and tables—decorated with bright white-and-blue trim, Old World tchotchkes on the wall and lush, patterned wallpaper on one side that's the approximate color of midnight. In terms of decor, it's a cross between the nostalgic midcentury France of Amélie and a northside cousin to Clinton Street mussel spot La Moule.
Oysters aside, Dame's food menu avoids most of the typical wine-bar trappings of meat-and-cheese boards; it's also not messing around with wine pairings. Chef Eli Dahlin—who ran the kitchen at Seattle's revered Walrus and the Carpenter—is instead treating the wine as the main show and opting to stay out of its way by constructing dishes of subdued, balanced flavors pinging with bright notes of pickle, roe or pepper.
From mahogany clams ($1) to oysters ($3.75) to a pungent snack of cured smelt ($7) and a balanced fig-coconut-turmeric halibut entree ($19), the flavors across much of the menu tend toward a triad of brine, acidity and earthiness that reads, roughly, as "wine food." Each bite of grilled fontina-stuffed pepper carried a faint premonition of the wine that seemed meant to follow it.
In dishes like an airy plate of salt cod dumplings ($16) grounded by Brussels sprouts and shiitakes, Dahlin ended up somewhere much more interesting, layering the pumpkin flavor in chicken broth by using pumpkin parts from seed to rind.
Whether within the same dish or across the menu, Dahlin tends to use every possible part of a veggie or animal. That halibut plate ($19) featured not only the fruit of the fig but its leaf, to play up an affinity between fig leaf and coconut, which served to balance the clarified turmeric-spiced broth. Meanwhile, the skin off that tender-poached halibut was served on a different plate altogether—fried up as a pleasantly trashy appetizer with roe.
There's such a thing as too much delicacy, however, a line that was crossed by the time an anchovy-celeriac beef tartare was completely overwhelmed by the grain of a cracker. A cheese-plate dessert suffered the same fate at the hands of a thick cracker made with rye and buckwheat.
On the other hand, the drinks at Dame have all been in the range between interesting and excellent—which can make the place trouble if you drive there. Currently, there are no orange wines among the glass pours ($10-$18)—something Frank says she's changing—but those new to natural wines can get a fine introduction with a nutty, floral, but still very accessible Domaine Belluard "Les Perles du Mont Blanc" sparkling white ($12). Frank herself is also often accessible and willing to help recommend bottles in your price range.
But the very best item I had at Dame also underscores a danger of the place. While my attention wandered, my dining companion got caught up in ordering a Paolo Bea Arboreus—a trebbiano whose 80-year-old vines have been trained to grow like trees, and which sometimes produce so few grapes that cases end up vanishingly rare. It was bright-flavored and rounded across the palate, somehow singing with both honey and orange sweetness and tealike notes. It was one of the best wines I've had all year.
But I'd also been thrown on the hook for a $67 bottle.
"That's a bargain!" my friend said. "In New York, it would have been three times that!"
I looked it up. It was more like two and a half.
EAT: Dame, 2930 NE Killingsworth St., 503-227-2669, damerestaurant.com. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.