Whenever I’m in the mood to join Bend friends for a glass of wine and a few small bites, and I don’t feel like running the downtown gauntlet, there’s one meeting place that comes to mind immediately: portello winecafe in the Northwest Crossing neighborhood.
This classy wine bar — its brick walls reclaimed from a demolished circa-1900 Portland building, its high tables crafted from World War II-era Willamette Valley cherry barrels — fits easily into the west-side district whose architecture is mainly contemporary Craftsman in design.
Beneath a high ceiling of exposed ventilation ducts, sofas and plush armchairs lend a living-room ambiance to one side of the cafe. Nearer the door, additional tables are framed by handsome wine racks and two walls of windows that look out upon Northwest Crossing Drive.
An ever-changing list of wines and craft beers, international as well as domestic, complements a simple all-day menu of salads, panini sandwiches and bruschettas, along with cheeses, breads and antipastos.
Opened in July 2006 by partners Lance Newman and Mitch and Amy Chamberlain, portello was one of the earliest businesses established in Northwest Crossing. Its success has contributed to that of a growing commercial district.
You probably shouldn’t count on getting a full-meal deal at portello, unless you’re reeling in your appetite. But there are plenty of choices for lunch, or perhaps for a light supper after a larger midday meal.
I find that a selection of bruschetta is a great snack to share with a glass or two of wine. On a recent visit, from a choice of nine options, my dining companion and I shared four bruschetta (oven-baked toast spread with olive oil and finished with various toppings).
My favorite featured roasted beets with goat’s-milk chevre cheese and shaved fennel. My companion loved the smoked salmon with thinly sliced cucumber and marinated onions. We also loved the prosciutto with brie cheese and fig jam, which was not as sweet as a bruschetta with bleu cheese, walnuts and a drizzle of honey.
Our enthusiastic server recommended classic Italian meatballs, and she did not steer us wrong. Made with pork and beef, a little bread and a generous dash of oregano, the meatballs were surprisingly light. They were served with grilled focaccia bread in a home-made wine-reduction sauce with pomodoro tomatoes. We loved it.
I am impressed that portello’s service staff is not only prompt and friendly, but is quick with a good recommendation. A server suggested both of the two salads I enjoyed, from a difficult choice of eight.
The hazelnut spinach salad featured toasted hazelnuts and crumbled Gorgonzola cheese on a bed of very fresh baby spinach. Thinly sliced green apples and red onions topped the salad, which was tossed with a warm apple-cider vinaigrette with chunks of crunchy bacon.
On another visit, I was very pleased with an albacore tuna salad, a sort of takeoff on a traditional French Niçoise salad. An ample scoop of tuna, blended with capers and kalamata olives, as well as a modest amount of mayonnaise, was served on a bed of crispy romaine lettuce and sun-dried tomatoes and bell peppers. Lemon juice was a dominant flavor in the vinaigrette offered; it complemented the fish and olives nicely.
As much as I enjoy the portello salads, however, I don’t love the croutons. They are presented as three small rounds of bread, baked nearly to a point of crumbling. I might like them better if I could dip them in hot soup.
Soup and panini
There are always two soups on the menu here, a weekly (or daily) special and an immensely popular tomato basil potage. I ordered a cup of the latter, and found it so deliciously creamy that I craved a grilled-cheese sandwich like the one Mom used to make.
In fact, portello does offer a “grown-up grilled cheese” panini. It’s made with melted Gruyere and Fontina cheeses, white truffle oil and sage. I’ll look forward to that soon.
My companion had a different panini, “The Holiday.” Indeed, it would have gone quite well with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey meat was matched with a light cheese spread of chevre and butternut squash, layered with fresh spinach, caramelized onions and fig jam on freshly toasted focaccia. (Ciabatta was a bread option.) It wasn’t a light sandwich, but the juxtaposition of sweet and savory flavors were a tasty match.
Accompanying the panini was a house-made slaw of white cabbage and capers. Lighter than many slaws, it had a distinct flavor of vinegar; I prefer a better balance of sweetness.
But sweet is fitting for dessert. Portello’s pastry expert always has a fruit cobbler on the menu, so we shared the day’s fare, a pear-ginger cobbler topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. It was a perfect finish to a fine light meal.
Perhaps the best time to visit portello — certainly, the best time for a bargain — is during happy hour. During these times, every glass of wine, normally priced anywhere from $7 to $11.50, costs just $5. That’s from a choice of more than two dozen.
The $5 wine list is offered from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday and from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
But that’s not “happy hour.” From 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, portello offers $5 white and red glass selections, $3 seasonal beer selections and a special happy-hour food menu.
On Saturdays, local musicians perform at portello from 7 to 9 p.m., drawing throngs of locals who are glad to have live music within walking distance of their homes.
Trattoria Sbandati has announced that it will now offer fixed-price Saturday wine dinners only once a month. The intimate Italian restaurant had been offering the four-course meals every weekend, but owners Juri and Kinley Sbandati said they have decided to stick with an a la carte menu “due to continued cancellations and no-shows” on fixed-price nights. Entrees are priced $14 to $29. Open 5 p.m. to close Tuesday to Saturday. 1444 N.W. College Way, Bend; www.trattoriasbandati.com or 541-306-6825.
The Jackalope Grill has begun interior construction at Putnam Pointe, where the restaurant now plans to relocate in the early spring, according to owners Tim and Kathy Garling. Facing Lava Street, the Jackalope will be on the ground floor of the downtown Bend parking garage. In the meantime, a Feb. 14 Valentine’s Day dinner and a Feb. 20 wine dinner with Maysara Winery are scheduled at the current premises. Open 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. 1245 S.E. Third St., Bend; www.jackalopegrill.com or 541-318-8435.