Drink and Be Merry

Saucebox built its rep on cocktails and a smashing setting. Along the way, it forgot about the food.

The first time I notice Saucebox it is because six women are seated out front, shrieking over an engagement ring.

"Let's never go there," says my husband, Din, though I suspect this edict won't hold, as I've heard Suacebox, which since opening in 1995 has been venerated as one of Portland's coolest and most innovative restaurants, makes great cocktails. I've also heard tell of a pan-Asian menu, so when a friend visits town requesting just that, off we go, hysterical women or no.

It's a Saturday night, and every sort and age of person is crowded into the bar. The room is a gorgeous and sexy brunette, the Salma Hayek of bars, with ceiling-high murals of robots and poppies, and a stream of throbbing techno that sets the ice cubes in our mojitos ($7) on vibrate.

And whoa, what mojitos: the rum infused with a fat toss of fresh mint and enough lime to make me squint. The drinks, the surround-sound music, the off-kilter art: I want to stay here, but alas, we have reservations next door, in the new dining room that owners Bruce Carey and Joe Rogers popped open to the public on New Year's Eve, a naughty smoke-free, platinum sophisticate of a space to complement the dark nightclub.

First things first: Ladies, wear a short skirt to enjoy the suppleness of the dining room's white leather chairs on the backs of your naked thighs. Next, notice the clean lines of cutlery, as well as the entire north wall of booze, a glass-encased lab of flasks and bottles and fruits macerating in alcohol. Notice these, because the fun ends here, in a room where the techno beat competing with the clang of downtown traffic outside on Broadway is so pervasive it's like being trapped in an underground parking garage.

To blunt the sound we order more mojitos, which achieve superstar status compared to the lackluster starters. The "dim sum" pupu platter for two ($18)-tidbits of shu mai, salmon pot stickers, spring rolls, won tons and salad rolls-tastes as though it was pulled from the freezer case. Only the gelatinous tapioca dumplings with pork and a month's ration of minced garlic hold any interest. Wild Oregon albacore sashimi ($9) turns out to be a plate of thinly sliced raw tuna gone limp and gray in its shallow bath of soy, ginger and wasabi, a sauce so acid as to feel corrosive. Green papaya salad ($8), tricked up with cherry tomatoes, toasted chopped peanuts and (oddly) green beans, is both flat and too sweet.

The entrees begin promisingly. Kauai crab cake ($22) has a chili kick and an unctuous richness. Javanese roasted salmon ($20) is lovingly seared, but its palm sugar-and-lime sauce is thick as honey and bright orange, the sort of syrup that'd be swell over ice cream. Kalbi beef ($20), a Korean standby of short ribs braised in soy and sesame, tastes as though a box of salt fell into the braising sauce, causing it to become so intense the skin on the roof of my mouth begins to peel back.

After leaving a lot of food on our plates, we try to figure out why so many dishes have gone wrong. Liz thinks the chef, Adam Kekahuna, has a "raging sweet tooth." I suggest he's a heavy smoker and cannot taste what's going on. Din's theory is the most sensible: "Maybe everything is so salty because he wants you to drink more."

After learning Saucebox has expanded its menu (as well as its formerly bachelor-pad-sized kitchen) in early January, Din and I return-with a plan: Stay in that fabulous bar and order drinks and appetizers only. We order hijitos ($7), muddled lime with mint, ginger vodka and hibiscus syrup, and they're two-minutes-and-they're-gone superb. We love three-way nigiri ($11), seared ahi, wasabi-cured salmon and, best of all, Hawaiian hamachi, the white fish both delicate and intense. We like it so much, we order "hamachi + avocado" ($14) and vie for the last slice.

We're just thinking we've cracked Saucebox's code when we're delivered several of Saucebox's new satays. Pulehu beef tenderloin yakitori ($8) is four wee cubes of chewy, near-raw tenderloin in an overly sweet pineapple sauce, and shrimp sticks ($7) are cooked "hibachi-style," which apparently means in such a way that the shell adheres to the shrimp, which makes eating rather too much work.

"The food they didn't cook is better than the food they cooked," says Din, and then takes a bite of "new wave" haupia ($7), fried coconut cream with roasted pineapple. His expression goes quizzical as he runs a finger through the dessert's sake-caramel sauce. "It's really salty," he says. "Isn't that weird?"

At Saucebox, no. Another cocktail, darling?


214 SW Broadway, 241-3393, www.saucebox.com . 4:30 pm-12:30 am Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30 pm-2:30 am Friday, 5 pm-2:30 am Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $$$ Expensive.

Picks: House-specialty cocktails including mojito, hijito and Sammy's Martini; tapioca dumplings; three-way nigiri and hamachi sashimi.

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