Many places in Portland feel like answers to questions no one is asking.
All over the city are examples of curious hybrid businesses mixing libations with retail, where customers can sip beer or coffee while shopping for bikes or antiques, or waiting for a haircut. In a lot of cases, it's debatable whether they're filling any sort of demand. But at least the idea of offering a cocktail and snack to guests in the midst of a spa experience makes sense.
Comma, the nearly hidden cocktail lounge connected to a downtown spa of the same name, is fine at doing just that. But its modest goal of operating as a standalone bar experience needs some adjustments.
Certainly, the owners could've done worse things with Comma's downstairs lobby than turn it into a Vietnamese tapas bar. The décor doesn't shake the feeling that someone nearby is receiving a facial mask, with a generic "ambient chill" Spotify playlist humming in the background, but the dark accents and clean lines feel professional.
The handful of small plates on the menu hover around $10 and include well-known classics like barbecue pork bao buns ($9), beef rolls ($10) and spicy wontons ($10), plus banh mi pizza ($8), xiu mai crostini ($9) and the Banh Bot Log ($9), a plate of five dumplings that use tapioca starch for the casing instead of traditional flour dough.
It's peculiar, but at least it's interesting. The same cannot be said about the cocktail menu. The majority of the drinks lean heavily on the juxtaposition of sweet and sour, like the Bourbon Smash (Woodinville bourbon, lemon, mint, simple syrup; $11), which suffered from clusters of loose mint leaves and bits of ice that probably should've been strained out. The best drink we had, an old-fashioned made with Bulleit rye, Earl Grey-infused simple syrup and a float of Grand Marnier ($10), isn't even on the menu yet.
With reliably excellent cocktail bars like Kask and Shift Drinks nearby, that won't really fly. Most of the customers who trickled in during our visit acted as if they'd found the place by accident, and while some were pleasantly surprised, others simply beelined to the bar for kamikaze shots en route to the Timbers match. If the sip-and-dip crowd continues to be Comma's bread and butter, then it might do all right. But if it's angling to attract customers who aren't already there for a Swedish massage—or "vinotherapy," whatever the hell that is—it's got a ways to go.
DRINK: Comma Cocktail Lounge, 1126 SW Morrison St., 503-241-6500, commavinospa.com. Noon-9 pm Monday-Wednesday, noon-11 pm Thursday-Saturday.