Bread & Brew

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The grilled shrimp at Riffle in Northwest Portland is served with braised pork shoulder.With up-to-date recipes and a strong sense of place, Riffle NW is not so much a fish house as a Pacific Northwest bistro with a seafood focus.

In fact, the name is a little misleading — riffle is a term used by fly fishermen, but almost everything here comes from the Pacific Ocean.

A raw bar offers shrimp ceviche, salmon tartare, and something stranger: a shot glass holding a raw quail egg and a nugget of sea urchin meat. You toss it back. It tastes briny and bacon-y. It feels slippery yet dense, with a rich liver-y meaty chew at the end.

I suppose it’s what we’d eat if oysters went extinct. For now, it’s a tasty novelty, but Riffle NW also has a nice selection of the real deal — kumomotos and kusshis, plus beausoleils from back East.

Heirloom tomatoes and golden beets brighten some of the salads. Another gets its kick from albacore tuna, mixed with a big pile of slightly bitter greens and summery green beans. It’s a good way to start a multi-course meal where every course is seafood.

The menu is a bit diffuse. You choose from plates, sides, suppers and features in somewhat random order, but the result is a pleasant succession of dishes.

Grilled shrimp are served with their heads and tails, glinting with butter. They are posed on one end of a long plate. On the other side is a luscious slab of pork belly. In the center is a pile of cole slaw, hot with slivers of fresh jalapeno.

The idea is somehow to get a bite of all three in your mouth at the same time. It isn’t easy, but something happens when they come together. The pork and the shrimp have something to say to each other; they seem to have formed a mutual admiration society.

Seared scallops held that odd, alluring ability to deliver the very faintest possible taste of fish, that pristine lack of texture that makes a scallop seem to melt before you can chew it. They were served on a bed of nutty romesco that wasn’t smooth enough to keep pace with the scallops, and some charred fronds of fennel.

Riffle NW has been getting a fair amount of attention for its ice cubes, which are custom-tooled for specific drinks. Frankly, I’m more interested in the other part of the cocktail — you know, the TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Riffle NW is a new Pacific Northwest bistro with a seafood focus, with every item on the menu fresh from the Pacific Ocean.

Among a handful of snappy, upscale cocktails, the best by far is the RNW Collins. It’s exceedingly rare in the cocktail world to find a new combination that really clicks, and this is one of them: gin, absinthe, celery, lime and salt. It’s perfect for a hot day, and it goes beautifully with oysters.

Desserts are basics like a tarts and cheesecake, made with up-to-the-minute fruit. Yogurt panna cotta, with a clean buttermilk taste, was layered with raspberries and topped with a ripe fig.

The surroundings are also light and fresh and seascape clean. There are understated references to nautical kitsch: sailcloth upholstery and thick ropes that look like ships’ rigging, from which exposed filament light bulbs hang. The original warehouse space has been broken up into nooks and counters and bays, still spare, but not cavernous.

At lunch, people sip wine on the breezy erstwhile loading dock and eat burgers and king salmon sandwiches. But on one afternoon, the chowder was a disappointment. It was full of cream and butter and bacon, but it was thin. The menu promised mussels and clams, but all I could find were cubes of undercooked potato and crunchy celery.

Other than that, I’d say Riffle NW is a keeper.

11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Tuesday-Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday-Sunday, 333 N.W. 13th Ave., 503-894-8978,, entrees $21-$29

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