It does not take a doctorate to understand that neighborhood restaurants occupy a special niche in the dining world. They are the places we favor after the toughest days at work or when the weather is especially foul or if we need simple sustenance and prefer to stick close to home. These may not be the spots we tell our visiting foodie friends they must try on their whirlwind Portland eating spree, but they equally tend to be the ones we hold most dear for their engaging hospitality and perhaps a special menu item or two.
Scholar, on the southeast edge of Irvington, epitomizes the charming neighborhood spot. The décor whispers. Lights are low. One wall is brick, no doubt a relic of some past enterprise. The others are painted dark, reinforcing a sense of calm. There is no blaring music. Tables are well-spaced in both the bar area at the front of the restaurant and dining room in back. Altogether, Scholar seats around 50, so even when full, the noise level does not approach oppressive. Conversation is easy, the better to download the events of the day and share aspirations. Couples, friends and families filter in and out. I would be surprised if most had not arrived from within a short radius.
Of course, there are those like me who would drive a considerable distance for an order of Scholar’s Buffalo chicken livers ($13), which gloriously anchor the small plates section of the menu. These iron-rich, minerally gems are battered lightly and fried, creating a satisfying crunch. They are then judiciously doused with the alluring hot sauce-butter potion everyone understands as “Buffalo,” topped with a crumble of smoked blue cheese and a few slivers of celery, and served over a circle of creamy, perfectly cooked polenta. The Buffalo sauce has a definite kick to it; the polenta plays the foil, tempering the heat. This is just a wonderful plate of food, and I’m not sure it can be found anywhere else in town. My only gripe: A larger portion would make an excellent entree for two. Also, be warned that the livers are available Thursday to Sunday only.
Pizza is featured every night. While it may lack the panache of pies at Portland’s pinnacle, these are solid renditions well worth ordering. They are thinnish with kisses of char, just the way us pizza mavens prefer. No one will mistake them for the pallid offerings from the frozen aisle of the grocery store or national chains.
There are five base pizza offerings ($15-$18): cheese, pepperoni, fresh mozz (with basil), white (with ricotta, Parm and herbs, but no sauce) and The Classic, which includes sausage, green peppers and onions. Each pie is 12 inches, so enough for one hungry human or two who also order from elsewhere on the menu. For those who feel the need to embellish, there are a handful of additional toppings for $2 (vegetables) or $4 (meats) each. The pizzas are also available gluten-free for an extra $10.
There are plenty of other items to order at Scholar. One of three salads (each $14) can serve as a healthy starter. I prefer the “Winter” ensemble with arugula, pickled fennel, beets and more topped with Gorgonzola and dressed with blood orange vinaigrette. Others might like the kale and radicchio Caesar or the “Rosa,” which adds pomegranate to gem lettuce and is dressed in a red wine vinaigrette.
There is a pasta section on the menu, too. Pumpkin pesto ($22), a generously portioned vegetarian option of radiatore and Gouda with butternut squash, is the top choice. There is also beef Bolognese over pappardelle ($26), chicken or eggplant Parmesan ($25) or, for the picky eater at the table, simple spaghetti marinara ($20). As with the chicken livers, take note that pasta is not served on Wednesday.
Until the last of my three visits to Scholar, I might have been inclined to omit mention of dessert, which, while competent, was not memorable. That changed with the recent addition of butterscotch budino ($11) to the menu. It is creamy, rich and viscerally satisfying. If you have ever had this dessert at Nostrana over the years, I daresay Scholar’s is its equal.
Irvington neighbors are fortunate to welcome Scholar to their doorstep as a place to call their own. The rest of us can brave a longer trek and be thankful that nothing in Portland is all that far away.
EAT: Scholar, 2226 NE Broadway, 503-344-1507, scholarpdx.com. 5-9:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday (limited menu on Wednesdays).