Pop-Up Wine Bar Sardine Head Brings Natural Wine to the People

Sardine Head feels, if anything, more like a burgeoning restaurant.

Sardine Head is not quite what it claims to be.

Hosted three nights a week inside Sweedeedee (5202 N Albina Ave., 503-946-8087), the pop-up bills itself as a "natural-wine dive bar." But that claim is somewhat dubious. There are too many menus and linen napkins, for starters, and it's not nearly dark or grimy enough.

Instead, what you've got is a perfectly pleasant, not-at-all divey extension of the bakery's daytime space—wood floors, warm tones, snuggly tables and charming bar seating along the west-facing windows—turned classy by dint of candlelight and table service, with a smattering of charming outdoor seats facing out onto a quiet stretch of Albina.

Occurring Friday to Sunday, Sardine Head feels, if anything, more like a burgeoning restaurant. That's thanks to very good small plates like the radicchio salad ($10), a layer of varying crunchy textures with hazelnuts, shallots and unctuous Mimolette cheese. And that's to say nothing of the bar's signature Breton high tea ($22). It's an ambitious mélange of cheese, a palate-cleansing jicama and herb salad, real butter, baguette, an assortment of "smut"—dehydrated flavors activated when combined with fat—and a teapot full of pommeau, an apple-based tipple from the north of France. It's one of the most original drinking snacks in Portland today, and dying to be shared—certainly enough for two, or a pleasant nibble for larger tables.

As for the drinking, here's where Sardine Head's mission statement—"to democratize natural wine"—truly connects. The restaurant's bottle list is deep and impressive, but wine bars are judged first by their glass offerings, and they're owning that here. On successive visits, I've enjoyed glass pours of Denavolo's orangy and mysterious Catavela ($8), off-dry Vouvray from François Pinon ($8), brooding and hypnotic Columbia Valley Mourvedre from Joe Swick ($10) and delicious, party-ready sparkling wine from not-yet-trendy Modena winemaking house Baschieri ($8), whose bubbly vigor underlies a seriously compelling sparkling white minerality.

This last glass was paired with the restaurant's namesake, a tin of sardines from Pollastrini di Anzio ($10), plucked from the Mediterranean outside Rome. Sardine Head's owners travel regularly to Europe, and their bar's enviable offering of tinned fish—a half-dozen options on a special menu sheet—reflects the wine-bar snacking vogue of the continent.

I'll admit to being half-suspicious of eating tinned fish at a restaurant. But served with a generous assortment of fresh baguette, pickled rutabaga strands, chili oil, more of that house butter and those perfect supple little sardines, the plate made me a believer. I found myself dunking the last of my bread into the depleted tin, taking in the quiet evening air, finishing my glass of bubbly mineral wine and wishing for more fishies.