Bread and Brew
There is no finer cocktail than a well-made Manhattan. It's got a sophisticated balance of sweet and bitter that doesn't hide the alcohol at its heart. It comes in the classic cocktail glass and glows a warm, rosy amber in the dim light of a bar. In an era of endless house cocktail lists, it's endlessly tinkered with and never improved.
Some variations, however, are well worth the drinking.
As yet another wave of new bars has hit Portland this fall, I thought I would use the Manhattan as a focal point for a tour of new establishments.
At Cruzroom (2338 N.E. Alberta St.), there's a bourbon-based drink that is tinged with blackberries and served with blueberries on a spike. It's called the Eastsider and the menu explains: 'If your wife was a Manhattan, this is her older sexier sister. Look out!'
I found the drink pleasant enough, with its faint berry backdrop, but unlikely to steal anyone's husband. Other cocktails on the menu appeared similarly overambitious: a special, the Green Man, included avocado, coconut milk, vodka, lemon juice and an outsized sprig of dry thyme. Interesting, but a little odd. Kind of like the all-taco menu, which includes the Poco (Oregon bay shrimp and Louisiana hot sauce) and a breakfast taco.
Cruzroom is paneled inside and out with smooth, horizontal wooden slats. It's long and narrow, with large windows and a mellow, grown-up feel.
If you're looking for that feel on the eastside, try Circa 33 (3348 S.E. Belmont St.), on a stretch of Southeast Belmont that is erupting with new business. The cocktail menu at Circa 33 is divided into pre-Prohibition items (Boston sour, monkey gland, brandy crusta) and cocktails 'c. 2000.'
I got a Bourbon Fashioned, from the new side. With cherry bourbon, orange peel and bitters, it lay somewhere between a Manhattan and an old fashioned, but was slightly too bitter. The pisco sour ('c. 1924') was more well balanced.
Circa 33 has a serious kitchen, with a full dinner menu, and the food is good. An order of mac and cheese hit the spot and the pulled pork sandwich was fine, too, but the pot roast sandwich was a clear winner. The pot roast was tender, beefy, fatty and nearly melting into the bread.
The name Circa 33 refers to the end of Prohibition - too bad they couldn't have played some of old-time jazz to complete the image. Instead it was smooth jazz, as if we were being put on hold while waiting for our drinks.
For serious music lovers, there's the bar next door, Hall of Records (3342 S.E. Belmont St.) which is part record store, part DJ showcase, and part hangout. They don't have hard liquor, though, so we headed to yet another new bar on Belmont, the Globe (2045 S.E. Belmont St.).
Tucked into the space that used to be the waffle shop Jace Gace, it's cozy, with hints of coffee shop and wine bar. The cocktail menu includes drinks made with wine (pinot gris, Campari and lime) and beer (Kölsch and ginger beer). I had a Waldorf, made with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, absinthe and bitters. Here, I felt like I was on the right track: a drink traveling between Manhattan and New Orleans, with a round full flavor and lots of complexity.
My favorite drink of the search, though, was at Star Bar (639 S.E. Morrison St.). Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I also felt most at home here - something about vintage orange hanging lights and velvet paintings and black vinyl booths puts me at ease. There's a great jukebox, as well as nightly DJs - 'all vinyl, all the time' reads the music calendar. The drinks on the current menu are all named after songs by the band Big Star.
The Mod Lang is made with Rittenhouse rye, Fernet-Branca, bitters and simple syrup, with an orange peel. It's potent in the right way, with lots of depth and all the arcane herbal flavors of the Fernet. As the menu notes, this drink can also be called a Toronto, and I have to commend the decision to stick with a classic.