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Smallwares pours out a menu of precise, dainty Asian goodies

Bread and Brew
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Asian delicacies abound at Smallwares on Northeast Fremont Street, including the dungeness crab with wakame, nigella, egg and chili flakes. The environment is bright and adorable, but the menu requires some explanation.

Eggs, seaweed, scallions and fish sauce are the recurring themes at Smallwares, which has been bringing small plates-style dining to Beaumont Village since February.

The food is, broadly speaking, Asian -- but not all the time. Oysters on the half shell are served spicy, with cilantro and lime. But dessert may be as straightforward as chocolate pudding with whipped cream.

The dining room is bright and adorable, with huge windows, rows of globe lights hanging from ropes, and everything trimmed in red. The menu requires some explanation, especially the drinks list, which is divided into categories -- funky, fizzy, fruity -- and is also color coded.

Rest assured that you can order from a good selection of beer, wine and sake, once you figure it out, or just go straight to the cocktails.

Vodka is mixed with Benedictine, lime and black pepper for a drink that is simply called "vodka." There's enough pepper to make it really spicy, and it works surprisingly well against the sweetness of the Benedictine.

The "whiskey" is a whiskey old fashioned with garam masala added, which warms the drink nicely.

My favorite, which is only listed on the bar menu, is the "sake." The main ingredient is sweet, unfiltered sake, shaken with Aperol, bittersweet vermouth, and lemon peel, for a beautiful semi-opaque apricot-pink color with a refreshing kind of fruitiness that reminded me of kiwi and cumquat.

It's precise and dainty, like the best of the food here.

A salad of Dungeness crab and seaweed was briskly seasoned with chili flakes and nigella, a seed that is traditionally used in Indian naan. Thin strands of cooked egg added some sweet, almost starchy solidity.

A miso broth did wonders for thin, bright green spears of asparagus, which were mixed with fat, sweet golden raisins and pine nuts. The dish was buttery without being fatty, and had flavor to spare for a side of white rice. We were scratching our plates with our chopsticks for every last bit.

And we were noticing that the chopsticks were the splintery, disposable kind. With food of this caliber, better chopsticks are in order -- especially at these prices.

Some dishes are definitely worth it, but others are too expensive. I thought $13 was too much for a smallish portion of somen noodles, tossed with chili paste and topped with a fried egg. The noodles were very spicy, and lacked the complexity and originality that we were starting to expect as we moved through the meal.

There were too many green onions on top of the mapo dofu, a Chinese dish that is traditionally made with pork and tofu. In Smallwares' version, the spicy ground pork is served, instead, over a light egg custard. The custard was lighter than tofu, with a silky texture, but it was too bland.

There are tastes of India here: quail with Indian preserved rhubarb, or an oxtail curry with plantain chips.

Thailand is represented by a banh mi-style pork sandwich. Fried broccolini with candied bacon sounds like something that could have come from a Portland food cart.

With all these intriguing dishes, there's not much room to play it safe. There's nothing geared towards kids, although I sat near several parties that included children.

I also thought the bar menu was a little sparse, especially considering the long hours that the bar is open -- until 2 a.m. nightly.

The bar is cool and airy, with a long marble bar top and a huge table in the middle that would be a good place for a casual work meeting, as long as your coworkers perk up at words like bonito, dashi, tamarind and sriracha.

11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday, 4605 N.E. Fremont St., 971-229-0995, www.smallwarespdx.com

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