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Pinot hasnt reached its potential

Bread & Brew
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT The Pinot American Brasserie, a downtown restaurant open since August, has to-die-for dungeness crab cakes on the menu – served with pesto, citrus and endive.

If everything were as good as the crab cake, Pinot American Brasserie would be on its way toward becoming a Portland dining staple.

Located on the ground floor of the gleaming new Indigo building, Pinot is sleek and industrial without looking like a warehouse. Massive windows rise from the floor to a high ceiling, echoed by a high-mirrored wall in the dining room. There are pillars that look like girders, and a restrained color scheme of gray, black and red.

Chrome edging on the tables brings a diner-ish feel to the place. The menu follows through on the idea with roast chicken, pork chops and fish and chips.

Let's start with the good news: the crab cake is a knockout. It's light and almost fluffy on the inside, but full of fresh crab, and it's seared on the outside to a brown crispness for contrast. A dollop of pesto adds an herby green note, and peeled sections of citrus add color and tartness.

Other starters were not as successful.

The Caesar salad was just plain tedious. It should have been served on a plastic tray with a spork. That, at least, would have left more room for some laughably large china. The waitress struggled to fit our appetizers onto the table, eventually removing the bread plates. An order of fresh mozzarella was served on a round platter so big that it made the cheese look like a dab of clay on a potter's wheel. And the mozzarella was rather dense. It tasted like it had been broiled, and was stretchy and bland when it should have been milky and toothsome.

Things took a turn for the better with the seafood chowder. A shallow pool of light, creamy broth held smiling clams, pleasant mussels and wonderful large chunks of Dungeness crab - but also some oppressively dull salmon. Tender cod was counteracted by dry potatoes, which had been roasted and then added to the bowl. The whole was heavily imbued and unified with bacon, chunks of which floated in the broth as well.

There was also bacon in a side of greens that came with fried chicken, although they tasted more of butter than of pork. The chicken was fine, if unlikely to make anyone's 'best of' list, and there were other good things on the plate. A hazelnut gravy tasted deliciously like an old family recipe, and hush puppies were sweetened and moistened with diced apple in the batter.

Cooked in duck fat

If you're wondering what an American brasserie is, I guess the fried chicken explains the 'American,' and steak frites cover the 'brasserie.' The steak is bavette, a flavorful cut that in this case was perhaps a bit too highly seasoned. It came with a monster pile of thin fries that were crisply savory, although I wouldn't have known that they were cooked in duck fat if I hadn't read it on the menu.

As for the pinot, one whole wall is a window into a wine cooler, where you can see row upon orderly row of bottles. The wine menu is extensive, if somewhat haphazardly organized. I was hoping for more pinot noir by the glass; there are three. The bar area doesn't feel like a wine bar - it has TVs, not wine flights - and the bar menu is a little odd (chicken pot pie, churros, pickled vegetable fritto misto). Pinot is also open for lunch and for brunch on the weekend,

As people who follow the local restaurant gossip know, Pinot is on its third head chef, and it's only been open since August. It's an attractive, grown-up place with the potential to be a solid, if not wildly innovative, destination. But it's not there yet.

Pinot American Brasserie, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 1205 S.W. Washington St., 503-719-5506, www.pinotpdx.com, entrees $15-$29

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