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Incongruity, with a side of comfort

Accompaniments anchor eclectic menu

In many cities Ñ say, Tulsa, Okla., or Sacramento, Calif. Ñ Springwater Grill would be considered the best restaurant in town, reserved for after-graduation celebrations, anniversary dates and 40th birthdays. In Portland it doesn't even merit mention in most dining guides, although it is worthy.

The large, two-tiered space once housed the more expensive and esoteric Fiddleheads, and its marbled and terra-cotta walls, comfortable chairs and handsome bar are soothing.

The dŽcor also conveys aspects of the Southwest, which is borne out on the menu in the spicy seared shrimp with chili oil and spicy rice. The eclectic bill of fare also travels to the South by way of country-style barbecue pork with corn bread. Those yearning for Asian cuisine can find satisfaction in the chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce and coconut jasmine rice.

Usually, all-over-the-place menus like this are a recipe for disaster, but Springwater Grill ties together the incongruous with common themes: comfort food and excellent side dishes.

Entrees are hearty; flavors are strong and simple. Large portions of meat, fish and poultry are accompanied by heaps of rice or potatoes and equally ample vegetable portions.

Crab cakes are heavily battered, but a creamy filling and garnishes of pesto, ginger-jalape–o aioli and siracha chili paste redeem them. Plump shrimp seared in chili oil has so much zing it needs to be tempered by the 'dirty' rice it's served on. Pan-seared salmon is crisped on the outside with a sweet Moroccan sauce and cooked perfectly. Oven-roasted chicken breast is marinated with fresh herbs and a natural jus.

Some of the most successful meals are the slow-cooked meats. Pot roast is pink and juicy, served with stew-style chunks of vegetables and creamy garlic mashed potatoes. Pork, served in a thick, sweet barbecue sauce, is cooked in its own juices for four hours and is so tender you could cut it with a plastic fork. It's accompanied by a hunk of corn bread so decadent that it might have been pan-fried. (The manager promised it was baked, but he was not forthcoming with his Tennessee grandmother's recipe.)

The produce that accompanies each meal is way more than a garnish. Grilled salmon is accentuated with chunks of zucchini, asparagus and sweet potatoes straight from the grill. Both crab cakes and seared shrimp come with a delicious medley of sweet corn and crispy snap peas.

Nightly specials are more hit-or-miss than the regular menu. A risotto special treated with a mushroom broth and meaty slices of shiitake mushrooms was missing the layers of flavor and texture a great risotto should provide. A duck's hindquarter was plopped on top of the grains and failed to establish a dialogue with the risotto. The crab ravioli was even more disappointing. The promised roasted pepper and corn sauce tasted more like bell peppers in heavy cream spiked with canned chipotle. What a waste of fat calories!

Fortunately portions are large, because appetizers are Springwater Grill's weakest link. Instead of piquing the appetite with unusual flavors and textures that complement the main course, these mimic it. Several appetizers are just smaller plates of dinner entrees, but without the delicious sides. An appetizer of cornmeal-crusted oysters on potato cakes sounds intriguing, but the oysters are dry and gritty, the potato cakes oily and frivolous.

Springwater Grill positions itself as a neighborhood restaurant and offers some great bargains at every time of day. If you're feeling flush, you can spend $100 on a three-course dinner and a nice bottle of pinot noir or shiraz. Or you can easily get away with two main courses for under $25 while taking advantage of some of the recent cuts in wine prices with a respectable $14.50 bottle of Adelsheim Riesling.

A prix fixe $6.95 brunch starts with an assortment of breads and fruits followed by a choice of omelets or Benedicts. Lunch is also reasonable Ñ everything is under $10 Ñ and features some dinner leftovers such as a barbecue pork sandwich (the meat is even better the next day).

The best deal of all is the happy hour menu, served from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Salmon tacos, burgers and crab cakes are only $2.50 and go great with a Pabst Blue Ribbon or BridgePort Blue Heron, both served on draft.

Contact Brooke DeNisco at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .