Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Commingling at Mingo

Like traveling to a place I've never been before, a new restaurant entices me with its siren song of adventure. The promise of new sights, new sounds, new tastes wiggles its hips, bats its eyelashes and beckons me to give it a try. Add to that the thrill of risk. Will it end up being a botoxed, liposuctioned, silicon-injected fake, full of flabby frippery and inflated prices? Or an intriguing journey full of never-before-seen vistas and strange, vibrant flavors?

The scene at Bar Mingo.

Here in Portland there's no shortage of opportunity, considering that dining establishments are opening up with startling regularity even in these lean times. So many, in fact, that longtime favorites are overlooked to dash after the latest cutie on the block. So when my friend Kim recently suggested meeting at Caffe Mingo on a relatively quiet stretch of NW 21st, my first thought was, "Oh yeah, Mingo! I've been meaning to get back there for awhile now."

Market asparagus with red onion and egg.

Putting our name on the list for a seat at the bar, next to the chef's table the best seats in the house, we went next door for a drink and a snack at the relatively new Bar Mingo. Both places have a wall of windows looking out onto the street, though the cafe has discreet drapery that adds a sense of privacy while not obscuring the view.

The view from the bar at Caffe Mingo.

We ordered plate of perfectly prepared asparagus topped with sauteed red onions and a crumbled hard-boiled egg to accompany our drinks and the complimentary bowl of chips. Very soon we were called next door to be seated at the aforementioned bar with a perfect view back into the kitchen. With very reasonably priced glasses of an Italian red in front of us, we decided to share several plates starting with bacon wrapped scallops and a mix of seasonal greens (top photo). To say this was good is an understatement, since the scallops were lusciously moist and the thinly sliced, lean bacon that wrapped them accented rather than overwhelmed their flavor.

Those killer gnocchi.

When I saw potato gnocchi on the list of specials I had to order them, though the sauce they came with seemed like it might be too heavy and, if they were a decent version, I wanted to experience them prepared as simply as possible. Now, in a lot of places, asking for a different preparation of a special item might be akin to asking for the chef to juggle in the nude while riding a unicycle. But what I love about this place is that our waiter simply suggested a butter and sage preparation instead as if it was no big deal.

Panna cotta to die for.

And when they came out they were all I'd hoped for. Soft and lightly pillowy, briefly tossed in sage-infused butter and sprinkled with coarse salt and fresh-ground pepper, these were the best gnocchi I'd had since the ones made by Sabrina Tinsley of Seattle's Osteria la Spiga when I interviewed her for NW Palate magazine.

At that point we were ready for dessert, and it was seeing our waiter Josh's eyes roll back in his head while describing the panna cotta with black cherries that made the decision for us. Not only gorgeous to look at, the creamy, lightly flavored custard was the ideal foil for the cherries' dark richness, making it almost a tragedy to get to the last spoonful.

It just reminds me that sometimes it's better to occasionally go backwards than always charging forward to the (purportedly) next great thing.

Details: Caffe Mingo, 807 NW 21st Ave. Phone 503-226-4646.

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