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Bar Mingo skips the gimmicks

Bread and Brew
by: L.E. BASKOW, Bar Mingo, an extension of Caffe Mingo next door, features a long list of small dishes, including (clockwise from front) mussels, asparagus, sausage, salumi and Insalata di Mare, pared with a glass of chianti and an Emily's Sidecar.

The angel mural is weird and the light fixtures are ugly, but Bar Mingo is still one of the most comfortable places in Portland to grab a bite. In fact, although it's partially a staging area for the well-loved Caffe Mingo restaurant next door, the bar is more than worthy of being a dinner destination in its own right.

When Caffe Mingo expanded into a space next door in 2008, it snatched up chef Jerry Huisinga from Genoa. At Bar Mingo he's often visible in the kitchen, where he puts together small plates of simple, intensely flavored Italian food.

If you only get one thing, get the lamb meatballs (polpettine). Served in a peppy tomato sauce, they're fat and meaty yet somehow light, almost fluffy. Without maligning Mingo's flavors, I'd say that Huisinga's real talent is for texture.

Take the calamari. They're sauteed, not breaded and fried, and served warm, tender and tentacle-laden. The flavor is a sparkling mix of garlic, parsley, lemon and green onion, with a pungent aioli on the side. These sharper tastes create a perfect contrast for the smooth, almost blank slate of perfectly textured calamari, which resists just the right amount against the teeth.

Appetizers fill most of the space on Bar Mingo's menu; there's a long list of small dishes for $8 each, or three for $21.

The crespelle are smooth, eggy pockets filled with house-made ricotta and just slightly crisped and ruffled along their edges, although the tomato sauce on them doesn't feel quite right.

The cheese plate is excellent and begs for wine. The by-the-glass selection is broad, but I wish the wine menu had been arranged differently. I ordered only from the domestic side, not noticing the Italian wines, which are printed upside-down, until it was too late.

There's also a good, not overly gimmicky cocktail menu. We tried a fig- and vanilla- infused whiskey, served hot, which was delicious but should not have been served in a brandy snifter. The shape of the glass concentrated the fumes of booze and vanilla so powerfully that it overwhelmed me before my lips could reach the liquid.

One more complaint, and then I'll be done. The chicken liver on toast is way too strong. The liver was so aggressive that it completely overpowered the toast, which surrendered. And rather than harmonize with the liver, additions of wine, anchovies and capers sharpened its rough edges.

Much better is a plate of sausage, polenta and spinach. The sausage is mild yet flavorful, with a snappy casing, and the polenta flavored with cheese and the garlicky spinach aren't chosen at random. The best bites from the plate are forkfuls of all three together.

All the pasta is made in-house and, again, it's the texture that really sets it apart. Fresh noodles have a spring in their step that you just can't replicate by cooking dried noodles 'al dente.' Tagliatelle is served with Bolognese ragu, a mixture of crumbly pork and beef, that could have had more kick. But I was too busy enjoying the noodles to really care.

For dessert we had a little plate of fine, fluffy ricotta fritters, fresh from the fryer. They're basically Italian donut holes, sprinkled with powdered sugar - straightforward yet irresistible, like Bar Mingo itself.

Daily 4 p.m.-midnight, 811 N.W. 21st Ave., 503-445-4646, www.barmingonw.com, entrees $13-$20

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