Bread and Brew
Tired of garlic, tomatoes and olive oil? The antidote is Grüner, a sleek new restaurant that keeps its compass pointed toward northern Europe. The name is German - it means 'greener' - but save your lederhosen jokes for another day. The food and the setting here are stylish and subtle, and the bratwurst and liverwurst mingle with flavors evocative of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe: dill, paprika, caraway.
The cocktail list deserves a review of its own, and makes the most of feudal-sounding liqueurs like Zwack, Baronjager and Zirbenz, made from the fruit of the Austrian stone pine. A cocktail called the Bartlett Beauty uses a little grenadine and vermouth to bring out the pear in Clear Creek Distillery's pear brandy without getting sugary. Aquavit is the base for a drink called 3's and 4's, with Benedictine, Lillet Blanc, orange and Fernet Branca. The result is herbal and pleasantly cleansing.
Grüner'sbread plate is a danger to the appetite, especially the soft, dark-hulled pretzel bread. You can also ease into dinner with a bowl of salty, grassy pumpkin seeds.
Beet and ricotta dumplings, nuzzling each other in a pool of butter, are deceptively light in the mouth. They're fluffy yet rich, with a striking bright pink color. They'd be almost too unctuous, if not for a cap of poppy seeds that provides texture and a bit of bitterness. Another appetizer, venison terrine, is rustic and woodsy but not very memorable.
Stuffed like Christmas
The stolid pairing of meat and potatoes appears in almost every entrée, but Grüner spices up the marriage in various ways. Quail, trout and rabbit join chicken, pork and beef on the flesh side, while the potatoes may appear in a salad, as dumplings, or in a terrine.
Instead of wiener schnitzel (veal), there's a schnitzel made with pork tenderloin, which delivers a good, porky flavor even in very thin strips, coated in a crisp and uniform breading. In fact it's a little too uniform, although it's greaseless and has a kick of spice. Cranberry sauce and a squeeze of lemon add tartness. Dainty yellow potato slices form one salad on the side, countered by another salad of paper-thin cucumber slices with vinegar and dill.
Chicken paprikash has a home-cooked look and taste. It's comforting, warming, with lots of paprika, along with tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers and crème fraiche. The potato dumplings alongside are tinged with fresh dill.
One night we finished with a cookie plate, with cookies arranged and described by the waitress as if they were cheeses: a buttery jammer, gingerbread, a pleasantly unsugary chocolate button and pfeffernusse. We left feeling very full and strangely as if we'd just celebrated Christmas.
Grüner's chef and owner is Chris Israel, who will always be known as the force behind the legendary 1990s hotspot Zefiro. His name is one reason that Grüner received such a large amount of advance press. Another is the designer of the building, Jeff Kovel, known for the much more surreal looks of the Doug Fir and Departure.
This room is a study in comfortable minimalism. At first glance it's like a million other votive candlelit pseudo-industrial dining rooms, but the lines are cleaner, and sparing details, like the white tree trunks in the front window, speak volumes.
The cunning bar, however, is way too small. It can't accommodate both diners waiting for tables and a significant percentage of patrons who want to focus on drinking, snacking on a 'hambürger' or on liverwurst canapés which, by the way, are fantastic.
5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday, 537 S.W. 12th Ave., 503-241-7163, www .grunerpdx.com, entrees $14-$22