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Suave, smart Nel Centro lacks spark

Bread and Brew
by: L.E. BASKOW, Nel Centro in downtown Portland features an open and bright dining area. Some options include (clockwise from front) the warm hazelnut crusted goat cheese, lamb sausage with spinach and feta pizza or baked al creppo with pumpkin, sage and fresh ricotta.

The dinner I had recently at Nel Centro was a lot like a certain kind of first date - the kind where you meet a cool person, but it just doesn't click.

We got off to a good start with charming house cocktail called the Lillet Midi. It's a sort of defanged Negroni, with Lillet Blanc instead of gin, Aperol as a milder take on Campari, and tangerine instead of orange.

The Genevieve Cocktail, on the other hand, had too much lemon; you could barely taste the gin. It ends up as just another lemon drop - not that that's the worst thing in the world.

My interest started to lag over a salad of winter squash with radicchio, chanterelle mushrooms, and goat cheese. It's a good combination, but it needed a dressing with a little more zing to tie it together. Also, the cubes of winter squash were too big and too cold.

Moving on through the menu, you might start to wonder, is this an Italian restaurant or isn't it? The name Nel Centro is Italian for 'the center,' but the inspiration - as described on the Web site - is the Riviera. That includes both the French and Italian coasts, both Nice and Genoa. The restaurant's owner, David Machado, has done well in the past with his border-hopping approach to food. His two eastside spots, the Mediterranean-inspired Lauro Kitchen and the India-meets-Northwest Vindalho, both cinch their open-ended interpretations of traditional cuisine.

But downtown is different, and Nel Centro, which is built into the boutique Hotel Modera, tilts more toward corporate stolidity.

Wild boar ragu, for instance, is served over herb gnocchi rather than the more standard pappardelle noodles. This slight twist mated an avalanche of rich, shredded wild boar meat (more like beef than pork) with fluffy gnocchi that were flecked green with herbs. Tasty, but conservative.

Entrees start with basic building blocks - steak, chicken, roast pork, lamb - that are given Mediterranean twists. Grilled tuna comes with French lentils and mustard sauce. Roast pork gets a fennel gratin and mostarda di frutta (a fruit and mustard condiment that is a specialty of northern Italy).

The braised lamb shank that I tried lacked personality. It was big and well cooked, if a bit on the oily side, but it didn't evoke the sunny coast as I was hoping it would. It came with sides of chicken-flavored rice and bright green kale.

More exotic is burrida, a seafood stew from the northern Italian region of Liguria. Here it consists of fish, mussels, shrimp and octopus in a spicy tomato-based broth, served with two big rustic hunks of grilled bread. The broth was bracing and spicy, and the shrimp particularly good and buttery. The octopus, though, was so rubbery that it caused a long awkward pause in the dinner conversation while I chewed.

Unfortunately for it, I came to this soup at the end of a shellfish bender, and I was comparing it to other, better - and cheaper - dishes. I'd recently had the awesome mussels Basquaise from Laurelhurst Market for $13, and before that the profound paella at Toro Bravo, which costs $19 but serves two.

Each should be rated on its own merits, but still, for $22 in this town you better be getting a damn fine fish stew. The burrida is simply fine.

And that's Nel Centro. I would certainly eat here if I were staying at the hotel, especially in summer, when you can sit out in a stylish, retro-modern courtyard. Even on a chilly night, you'll find people gathered around the fire pits, enjoying the place.

It's suave, smart and good-looking, but for me, the spark just wasn't there.

Nel Centro, Monday-Thursday 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; 1408 S.W. Sixth Ave., 503-484-1099, www.nelcentro.com, entrees $18-$23