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  • 24 Apr 2014

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Bread & Brew: No excitement, just a Picnic

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: ADAM WICKHAM - 'The Yankee' picnic box from the Picnic House includes a Buffalo chicken sandwich, potato salad, sea salt kettle chips and a chocolate chip cookie.Grizzly bears, thunderstorms, crazed gun-toting hill people — these are all things you don’t want at a picnic. Watermelon, corn on the cob, chocolate chip cookies — this is what you want on a picnic, and in this sense, the new Picnic House is well-named. It’s a pleasant place for lunch or dinner, comfortable and friendly, in a great downtown location.

Thankfully, the owners don’t take the picnic thing too far. There’s table service, silverware and a bartender, and the space is civilized, even elegant. Part of the dining room was once the lobby of the original Heathman Hotel, built in 1923, with a soaring ceiling supported on grand pillars, and an intricate black and white tile floor.

The walls, stairs and bathrooms are decorated with vintage printing blocks — a stylish and funky array of fonts and logos, including those of some long-lost local businesses. If you’re at all interested in design, it’s worth stopping by for a drink just to see them.

Order a house cocktail if your taste swings toward the sweet and fruity. A drink called the Sauvie combines Rogue hazelnut rum with Coca- Cola syrup for a soda pop effect. The Moulin Rouge’s mix of berries comes across as dessert-like, and at $9.50 it’s more expensive than a dessert.

It’s not the only case where a price seemed a little high or a flavor ran a little too sweet. At lunchtime, a prosciutto sandwich wasn’t nearly filling enough to be worth $10, and the toffee richness of fig butter drowned out a dressing of arugula and parmesan. A poached shrimp sandwich was more balanced. Big, tender chunks of shrimp were deviled with crunchy celery, herbs and a lot of mayonnaise. It overflowed from a baguette that was just OK — there’s better bread in Portland. (For a better deal, you can pre-order box lunches with sides and desserts for about the same price as a regular menu sandwich.)

Lunch is a busy time at Picnic House, and I was impressed with how quickly my order was filled. Dinner is quieter — peaceful, even, which is a rare thing in a new restaurant.

A charcuterie board had very nice ingredients, served in restrained proportions. Slices of salami formed the centerpiece, with a pile of thinly sliced, salty prosciutto on one side. On the other side were condiments, a few good olives, and a ramekin that I wish had contained more of the crisp, spicy house-pickled green beans.

A small clutch of entrees is in the comfort food line: a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, pork loin, roast chicken. The lists of appetizers, soups and salads is much more extensive, and offers enough choices to put together a satisfying, shareable meal.

Don’t pass on the grilled watermelon. Heat brings out flavors that cold suppresses, and the warm watermelon is juicy and sweet, set off with basil leaves, salty dabs of fresh ricotta, and blueberries.

Roasted corn on the cob, also summery and sweet, was dressed up with a bit of lime and light ricotta salata shaved over the top.

A comprehensive salad list includes a Caesar, pasta salad, potato salad and mixed berries. The arugula salad is everything it should be. Peppery young greens hide avocado, almonds, roasted tomatoes and snap peas in good proportion, and it’s large enough for two people.

Desserts hail back to Betty Crocker with chocolate bundt cake, rice pudding and pound cake with strawberries. The pound cake is crisped and warmed on the grill, which is a good idea, but the overall effect was boring. Little spurts of whipped cream and a few sliced strawberries held down the corners, and there was a bit of citrus flavor from a lemon curd that had been completely soaked up into the cake.

It was fine, just not very exciting. Then again, you don’t want a picnic to be exciting.

As if acknowledging this fact, a sign up front reads, “Mind the bear.” His head is mounted over the bar, genteelly dressed in a bowler hat and monocle.

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, 723 S.W. Salmon St., 503-227-0705, www.picnichousepdx.com

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