Heavenly Creatures was predestined to be excellent.
With the backing of longtime Portland sommelier Joel Gunderson and chef Aaron Barnett—the team behind the opening of St. Jack 13 years ago—it would have been shocking if it were anything but lovely.
Yet somehow, sitting at a table for two in the back, sipping a chilled gamay and pinot noir blend from the Saint-Pourçain region in France while snacking on a skewer of fried sweetbreads doused generously with pimentón-infused oil ($20), I found it even better than expected.
Gunderson, who looks a bit like John Lennon, with his wire-framed glasses and scruffy hair, is always on the floor, happy to chat about which wines excite him right now, which is basically all of the excellently curated by-the-glass offerings. Ask and thou shalt receive a nice sample if you, like me, can never choose, along with a short but informative description of what’s being poured.
Heavenly Creatures, named by Gunderson and his wife, Jena, after the 1994 movie starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, is also the nickname for the many bottles of wine that line the walls, which you can also grab to go or drink in house for just a $15 corkage fee.
It’s an intimate bar, located inside the Coopers Hall event space that Chesa and 180 Xurros once called home on Northeast Broadway. There are no reservations and seats for about 25, so I’ve taken to showing up for the 5 pm opening to guarantee a spot with no wait (going later in the evening would also probably work well, but I’m a little tired by then).
The food is just as strong a pull as the drink here: Barnett is the de facto chef de cuisine and helps create the menu, while Matt Mayer runs the kitchen day to day and works with Barnett on new plates.
One way I’d like to experience Heavenly Creatures would be to come alone on a rainy weekday with a book, help myself to a lush French blend of chardonnay, poulsard and savagnin grapes from Domaine Pignier ($18), and order the most perfect plate of hearty slices of young yellowtail, served raw on thick toast with tonnato (the classic condiment of tuna, anchovies and mayonnaise), with bright pops of mustard seed and capers to set it off ($18). While much of the menu rotates regularly, this has rightfully remained a staple.
Plates are mostly small and meant for sharing and tilt seafood heavy. A raw scallop cru ($18) has had evolving accompaniments; at the time of this writing, the sweet, soft bivalve shone in a pool of bright green sauce with poblano pepper, fennel and a drizzling of parsley oil. A fried mackerel was a twist on fish and chips, served with sauerkraut and a tartar sauce with tart richness that puts most others to shame.
A plate of grilled rapini with a seaweed bagna cauda was generous ($15) but somehow felt like a slog toward the end, even with the help of shaved Comtè cheese and fried breadcrumbs. It’s not a bad dish; it’s just not quite as good as some of the others. Even a serving of kettle-cooked potato chips felt festive, served alongside a dip of Camembert cheese and jalapeño for kick ($12).
While the staff is predominantly male, Heavenly Creatures itself has a flair for the feminine, from the round, pink terrazzo tables with clay flower vases to the tea candles, ample plants, and bright pink grasslike weavings on the walls. It would make an excellent date-night spot, regardless of gender, but I have found myself bringing along my girlfriends.
The only thing Heavenly Creatures is missing? Dessert. That would be divine.
EAT: Heavenly Creatures, 2218 NE Broadway, heavenlycreaturespdx.com. 5-10 pm Monday-Saturday.