Bread and Brew
A man in a trucker hat takes a bite of his dessert and tilts his head to one side, thinking.
'Saffron?' asks his date.
'I think so,' he says.
Nearby, a couple giggles nervously as their entrees arrive. The portions are smaller than they expected. When the server is out of earshot, the man jokes that they are about right for a pixie.
It's a joke, because the restaurant is called Pitxi - pronounced pee-chee - a Basque term of endearment.
Since April, Pitxi has been trying to create the kind of high-end, high-concept dining experience that you might expect from the Pearl District - but way out on North Lombard Street. Dinner starts with a ruby-like miniature canapé of beet gel, beet mousse and candied orange peel. The meal ends with a complementary dice-sized bit of cake, covered in chocolate and coconut, stabbed through with an edible toothpick of brittle caramel.
If the restaurant doesn't do well, people will blame the location. Actually, I think this neighborhood is hungry for a special-occasion spot. But if Pitxi is going to be that spot, it has some serious issues to work out.
The best things at Pitxi are simple. The sole was tender and buttery, cooked to exactly the right split second. Pork belly was surprisingly light, with a crisp outer edge and melty interior. These successes, though, are obscured by foam.
An appetizer called Lamb Pillows is really lamb ravioli, served with a frothy billow of sauce seasoned with dill. The lamb itself had a good, robust flavor, but it was a bit chewy, and there wasn't enough of it.
Still, it was better than the Swiss chard custard. I was expecting some kind of savory flan. Instead, I got a pile of cooked greens, molded into a dark dome. On the side was a bright pink cloud of very salty raspberry mousse. There was more pink stuff in between the leaves of chard, and down below that, raisins and pine nuts. It was weird, and it didn't work.
A special of duck with cherries and chocolate had some charm. Slices of duck were arranged in the center of the plate. Rows of juicy cooked cherries were lined up on one side, and symmetrical black pools of spicy dark chocolate sauce anchored the lower corners of the plate. Elongated, hand-shaped dumplings were lined up like pencils to the side.
The geometrical plating felt a bit pretentious, which wouldn't be worth mentioning if it didn't represent the central problem with Pitxi. I got the sense of a competent kitchen that was trying too hard to be fancy. The idea of working chocolate and cherries into an entrée, for instance, seemed to distract from the duck, which was treated offhandedly. And I would have preferred regular egg noodles to the tough dumplings, which required more culinary effort but reminded me strangely of waxy yellow candles.
I liked the new peas and fresh zucchini that came with my fish. Also the bed of quinoa on which pork was served - the individual grains were toasty and savory and popped in my mouth like caviar. And the Pitxi Cocktail, made with sparkling wine, vermouth and fruit syrup, is an excellent pick-me-up, especially on a hot day.
The room is airy and cool, with a small bar off to one side where you can sit and sip.
Pitxi's brief menu consists of appetizers, all of them $9, and entrees, all of which are $18. It's a bit steep, especially with no wiggle room on the low end, and entrées certainly are not big enough to share.
Desserts are shareable, but somewhat odd.
A delicious strawberry cheesecake, made with a mild cheese and topped with cooked strawberries, had a chewy, buttery crust flavored with hazelnuts. On the side was a totally unnecessary tube made of strawberry leather and filled with white fluff.
What the menu calls a 'raspberry frozen air pocket' is a whipped and frozen dessert very similar to, for want of a better term, ice cream. On one side of it were twin tubes made from sheets of crunchy caramelized sugar, stuck upright in a raspberry mousse. They toppled over as the server delivered the plate - too much foam, not enough foundation.
5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, 5225 N. Lombard St., 503-360-3963, www.pitxi.net, entrees $18