People watching: a setting as intriguing as the food


• Mint

Even on weeknights, Mint hums. As servers weave through the small, busy restaurant, it is hard to believe that several years ago it was considered a bold move to set up shop on this quiet stretch of North Russell Street.

Plentiful pillows on the banquettes and raspberry-colored lanterns suspended from the ceiling create a luxurious lair. It's a mood that's underscored by the low-key wait staff, who seem to understand that the attitude that what works in the Pearl doesn't fly on this side of the river.

Make someone else drive. Dinner at Mint would be wasted without sampling one or more of its decadent drinks. Ease taste buds into it with the roundly smooth Avocado Daiquiri: rum blended with avocado, cream, lemon-lime juice and sugar. Done? Now try Lucy's Sidecar, a mixture of rum and mandarin orange purŽe served in a sugared martini glass.

Mint's dinner menu also shines, especially where it incorporates elements from warm-weather climes. Start with the coconut black-eyed pea fritters with habanero-papaya dipping sauce, and then move on to a house favorite: the chubby and succulent Cuban lamb burger topped with manchego cheese and Serrano ham.

Ñ Jill Spitznass

Bottom line: Charming interior, inventive drink list and multiethnic menu

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $13-$23

Address/phone: 816 N. Russell St., 503-284-5518

• Noble Rot

Nervy and full of verve, Noble Rot emanates a fun, youthful spirit.

This is just as evident in warm weather, when the windowpaned garage door is swung open and languid diners spill onto the sidewalk, as it is in dead winter, the place steamy with conversation and laughter.

The first of several fine wine bars to open last year, Noble Rot blazed a trail, bashing the preconceived notions of what a wine bar embodies. What this wine bar is all about is facilitating patrons' acquaintance with exciting wines, offering several inexpensive flights (a trio of West Coast table reds doesn't sound so intimidating, does it?) and dozens of glass pours.

Noble Rot pays equal attention to the menu; each tapas-sized plate is cleanly presented, the flavors brilliantly focused. Mainstays such as a simple butter lettuce salad, rib-sticking macaroni and cheese, sweet onion tart and caramel-topped brownie sundae please diners year-round. But it's the market-driven fare Ñ smoked trout, beet and endive salad, lamb and eggplant cannelloni Ñ that really wows.

Ñ Christina Melander

Bottom line: Convivial atmosphere, heavenly crme bržlŽe

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $4.50-$10

Address/phone: 2724 S.E. Ankeny St., 503-233-1999

• Pho Van Bistro

Pho Van's original location on Southeast 82nd Avenue earned a sterling reputation for its aromatic pho, presented nearly a dozen ways.

Where that restaurant offers pho made with tripe, fatty brisket and meatballs, the sleek, newer bistro serves just two skinnier soups: one with round steak and lean brisket, the other a chicken noodle with rau ram (Vietnamese coriander). That leaves room for intriguing salads (banana blossom with chicken, grapefruit and jicama, for one), grilled pork and chicken dishes, and delicate seafood entrees.

Hints of honey punctuate more than a handful of Pho Van's offerings, from the headlining (and highly recommended) fishes Ñ a lightly battered Tilapia filet with garlic sauce and a snowy, steamed Chilean sea bass Ñ to the caramelized chicken and pork stews served in clay pots.

But the sugary flavors are never cloying; they pair well with hoppy Asian beers, such as Tiger and Tsingtao, or a glass of Beaujolais.

Don't overlook the unusual hand rolls such as Chao Tom, a viscous p‰tŽ of finely minced shrimp and chicken that is molded around sugarcane stalks and grilled.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Refined, exquisitely fresh Vietnamese cuisine presented by knowledgeable servers

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $9-$16

Address/phone: 1012 N.W. Glisan St., 503-248-2172

• Saucebox

If you prefer your wontons dipped in a downtown vibe, Saucebox is for you.

The hip Asian-accented cafe and bar is owned by Bruce Carey (of Bluehour and the once-reigning Zefiro). Saucebox has been in this Broadway spot since 1995.

Inside Saucebox, the bamboo and exotic palms sway in the candlelight. Swampy house music is good for dancing but not always for digesting. It's better to come during the dinner hour, when a more down-tempo dining experience awaits. Arrive late on a weekend night to dine, and you run the risk of eating on the edge of a dance floor.

Spicy Korean baby back ribs and Burmese braised lamb shank are both excellent. Ribs are served with mounds of snowy jasmine rice and a side of Korean-style kimchi vegetables.

Saucebox holds happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily, and chances are that if you go you'll be tempted to stay for dinner.

Ñ Michaela Bancud

Bottom Line: Remixed Asian delights

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $14-$17

Address/phone: 214 S.W. Broadway, 503-241-3393

• 750 ml

Bedecked in ivory and chocolate hues, the rehabbed Pearl District wine bistro-bar-retail shop, looks as fresh and breezy as a setting in a West Elm furniture catalog. Wine and food now receive equal billing, and menus encourage nonlinear sipping and grazing.

Dozens of wines can be ordered by the sip, glass or bottle, and the dinner menu consists of first plates (starters) and second plates (entree-type offerings). All the plates are bitsy, but this is not a detriment. The format allows greater sampling of chef Josh Shartzer's precise cooking.

Shartzer sharpened his trade as sous-chef at Paley's Place, and the discipline he learned there comes across in every scallop and roasted loin of rabbit he touches. Pork tenderloin, a ubiquitous restaurant order, is Shartzer's own. Pounded thin, rolled around plumped cherries and prunes, and cut into rounds, it's pink in the center and fork-tender. The spinach risotto, with each rice grain properly articulated but creamy as a whole; braised lamb with silky, house-made pappardelle, chopped artichoke and olives; and incomparable fries will vanish from your plate much too quickly.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Fun wine descriptions, killer french fries

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $6-$12

Address/phone: 232 N.W. 12th Ave., 503-224-1432

• Zinc Bistrot

For a restaurant as lively and carefully decorated as Zinc is, and with food as good as chef Lawrence DiJoseph is capable of creating, the cost of a meal could be punishing.

But it's not.

Zinc's reasonable prices are made even more affordable thanks to an unrestricted, three-course prix fixe option. For $27.95 Ñ the price of a single entree at some comparable restaurants Ñ diners can choose from soups and salads to start, any desired entree (add $2 for premium selections) and any dessert.

DiJoseph's frothy soups trump the lesser salads (in fact, the menu playfully suggests 'Take Chef Lawrence home tonight!' in the form of a to-go container of his soup). The star of the sizable entree list is wild mushroom and duck risotto 'Picholine.' Adapted from a recipe by DiJoseph's former boss, Terrance Brennan of Manhattan's Picholine, it pairs wild mushrooms with duck confit, ingredients that are unbeatable in their earthy compatibility.

Another DiJoseph specialty is absurdly tender brick chicken. A half chicken is lightly breaded and cooked under the weight of a brick, which serves to compress and seal in its juices.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Sublime house cocktails served at the zinc-topped bar, homemade ice cream

Serving: Dinner

Entree prices: $14.95-$21.95

Address/phone: 500 N.W. 21st Ave., 503-223-9696