Wine With a Side of Martini

IMG_2889I’m not a big imbiber these days (preferring to spend excessive money on food rather than liquor) so I rarely visit bars, taverns, go on wine tours or to wine tastings or even to wine bars. Probably about seven years ago I was more into drinks and sips and such, and a friend and I stopped in to Vino Paradiso in the Pearl for a glass of wine and a small snack. At the time I remember thinking the space was pleasant, there was a decent selection of wine by the glass, and the snack was tasty. This being said, we waited FOREVER for service, even though there were few patrons, and the waiter was not particularly friendly. The upshot, with wine places bursting out at the seams, especially in the Pearl (remember, this was around 2005) why bother going back to a place that makes you feel unwanted?

Several months ago, I read on that the owner of Vino Paradiso, Timothy Nishimoto (who is also the male singer in Pink Martini) had decided he wanted to upgrade his space and start serving more serious food. I also remember reading, a bit later,  that he had decided to rename his rebooted establishment Coppia. Slightly after this, I forgot about the whole situation, because as I mentioned before, my previous experience with this business was not the most positive, and since he was a local celebrity, I’m sure my disinterest in his business would hardly be a crushing blow to his entire life.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate myself about a 9, as far as keeping up with the new restaurants opening which are suitable for our group (the average food cart or pop up does not work for group dining due to size/kitchen capacity issues. They would be FUN though!)IMG_2888 Anyway, Coppia fell off my radar, as it wasn’t exactly getting heavy publicity, and I was focusing on lots of other places soon to come. Recently, however, the A&E gave Coppia a relatively decent review, especially noting the pastas made in house, so I thought, hey, here’s a “new” place I can shove on the roster until all these other new places that I’ve been talking about actually open. I was still a bit uncertain about restaurant size, but Open Table happily gobbled up our reservation, so we were all set. Although we had experienced some nicer weather, it was as relatively cold May evening, and most of us were bundled up in sweaters and other heavy layers of clothing. As this is the heart of the Pearl, I was quite glad to find a parking space about a block and a half away, as it had earlier been raining quite hard.

When I arrived I found Tracy, Peter and Glenda all huddled around a small sofa/table combo having wine, my arrival immediately over-crowding the situation, mandating moving to a different but larger sofa/table combination on the other side of the wall, which actually held us relatively well until the last one or two of us arrived (there were nine of us.) IMG_2895I had thought that when Coppia stepped up into the serious dining leagues they might have expanded their dining space and/or kitchen space, but they are still tiny, and perform their fancier cooking feats with the same minimal amount of space (much like Navarre, who is finally expanding south in their block.) Anyway, to seat our group they needed about three tables to empty out, and people were lingering over wine and chit-chat (didn’t they understand how much more important WE are than they were?? How rude!) so we did have to gather in the waiting area for quite a few moments.  I really didn’t consider this Coppia’s fault, however, except for the fact that places this small maybe should not take groups over six or so (although we do appreciate them welcoming everyone, unlike other certain restaurants here that are named after a month, and “are not interested in seating groups.”)

I don’t remember tons about the atmosphere inside Vino Paradiso, except that I found it pleasant, maybe with some rich golden tones, but the A&E review slammed the previous interior space, calling it amateurish. Whatever is was before, now it’s tranquil and relaxing, with sage green tones, modern art and furniture, and interesting lighting. Still small though, although looking in from outside you might imagine there is ample seating hiding behind the main wall in the dining room, but really it’s basically the second waiting area, a few small tables, the office and some restrooms. Also, I’m sure there’s a big area loaded with wine lurking somewhere, since this is still a place where wine reigns supreme, and I couldn’t help but notice that Tracy and Peter took some bottles home (although chances are, they paid for them first.)

This was more or less the group we had at Aviary, with the addition of Cora and Sam and the subtraction of the Halle family.IMG_2893 Perhaps with memories of that delicious bread dipping sauce we had at Aviary, Liz and I were both pining for bread, and Liz spotted on the back of the menu that you could get a plate of bread and olive oil for something like $5, so I told her we could go halfsies on that. David also did the same thing, and someone seemed to have ordered a third plate of bread. The restaurant also provided several containers of those spindly little bread sticks that are of so Italian (rather weirdly, whenever I see those tiny bread sticks I am reminded of that rather perverse but enjoyable 1990 movie The Comfort of Strangers, which featured a cast of Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, Christopher Walken and a really HOT looking Rupert Everett, not to mention an always moldy Venice. If you’ve seen it, maybe you’ll remember the bread sticks. Okay, so what if I’m weird, and that’s what that relatively sex and gore laden movie makes me think of?)

Anyway, back to the wheatish items. About this time Mr. Nishimoto himself started lending a hand in servicing our table (he had on a really snazzy greenish sport jacket) and when he heard us order the bread and oil, he piped in that he and the chef had toured the Piedmont Area of Italy for a few weeks looking for good eats, and that the olive oil was one of their finds, and it would “be the best olive oil we ever had.”I asked him if it had a grassy flavor, and he said, as a matter of fact, it was quite grassy. (This is my ONE olive oil conversation, as long ago at Navarre I was offered a choice of grassy or fruity olive oils, and I’ve noticed that most here seem grassy.) IMG_2890Grassy indeed, it was basically like shoving a mouthful of grass and bread in your mouth and chopping on it. As it happens, I don’t actually like my olive oil overly grassy, and neither did someone else at the table (Tracy, Sam, Cora, it escapes me) but if you are into really strong flavored olive oils, this was probably first rate. As per usual with our group, we gobbled up the bread like a table full of vermin (yes, I do cherish my members!) and when we were asked if we would like more bread, we gladly sang out YES! Right after that, as we are single girls on budgets, Liz and I started to worry whether we would have to pay for another plate of bread (after all, $10 for bread is way too much) and when the bread kept coming, we were extra worried. It seems like Sylvie also must have gotten some bread, as she too was wondering about the ultimate charges from all these plates of bread, but in the end we weren’t charged for any bread at all. It’s hard to believe that since Coppia offers complimentary bread sticks they would also provide bread, especially as they sell it on their menu, but perhaps if you order considerable food (which RR always does) or at least more than just glasses of wine or little snackies, they don’t charge you for the bread and olive oil. Whatever the case, we appreciated Coppia’s copious bread generosity.

IMG_2903Before I discuss the other foodstuffs we gobbled, I do want to mention the major change I found in this establishment between my two visits, many moons apart (at least the major change if you don’t count the new name, new decor, new business plan and new menu focus.) The last time I didn’t really want to bother coming back, largely because the service was unfriendly and practically non-existent. This time, except for some dragging on towards the end (Coppia is another of those places where the waitress offers to split the check as many ways as we like, but then has to do it herself, manually) the service was very good, the waitress was friendly, knowledgeable, and professional, and Mr. Nishimoto also helped out all night  in a personable and helpful manner. They most likely don’t get lots of larger groups, so it’s good to see that they wanted to make sure we were covered adequately.

Piedmont is one of the regions in Italy that is not overly well-represented on our local dining scene, and the other notable restaurant around Portland with this background, Alba Osteria, went out of business in 2011 after several years in business (to be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed during our dinner there.) I don’t know if Mr. Nishimoto decided to mirror Piedmont cuisine because of some great passion for the region, or just because the genre was relatively scarce in these parts, but whatever the reason, the menu at Coppia did have a few items you don’t see too often on Italian menus here (veal with tuna sauce; bagna caoda, quail.)

While still nibbling the bread, I decided I would try the Willamette Valley Pinot Gris/Grigio Wine Flight in lieu of a cocktail, because although Coppia had mixed drinks, wine seemed more appropriate.IMG_2907 I would have to say this is the first time I’ve had a wine flight of all Pinot Gris/ Grigio, especially one from the Willamette Valley, and the contrasts were very stark between the three glasses (perhaps that’s why the three were selected.) Very nice, the accompanying placemat/card the flight was delivered with, that way it was really easy to remember what you were sampling. The Lumos was my least favorite (too sweet and fruity) and the Vista Hills probably the most suited to my palate, drier. Most everyone else had glasses of red wine, although Liz also had a cocktail, as she’s our young party animal.

Here’s our list of what we ordered ……

bagna caôda –  warm dipping sauce / anchovy / garlic / cream / butter – served with fresh seasonal vegetables & bread

IMG_2894Although it probably exists on some menu around town, while the name is relatively familiar, I certainly have never seen this ordered or consumed. Basically, it’s like a butter and cream fondue, and while anchovies were an ingredient, most people detected what they thought was a mild clam flavor. David ordered this for the table, and I know I saw it go by my place about 10 times (and of course I sampled it about nine times, mostly with the bread from the bread plate. Why have grassy olive oil when you can have cream and garlic?) Very good, and obviously rich.

olive warm marinated olives / garlic / peppadew / bread

Sam ordered these, and commented on how hot they were. She wasn’t kidding, they weren’t warmed up, they were close to burning hot. Tasty though. And MORE bread..

vitello tonnato thin-sliced, braised veal / lemon & tuna sauce / pear mostarda

IMG_2891Several people at the table got this veal dish, and even if veal with tuna sauce sounded good to me (NOT!) I would not touch it with a 10 ft. fork. Sad carnivore that I am, I still gave up one of my favorite meats, Veal, in my 20s, and have not eaten it since. Those people who ordered it (Tracy, Sylvie, maybe Peter, maybe Glenda) thoroughly enjoyed it, however, and gave it some of the highest reviews of our various eats. Issues aside, I guess I’m still tougher than Sam, who sat next to me, and was fraught with agitating emotions each time cute animal items like veal and quail passed by.

insalata di radicchio olive oil / crème fräiche / anchovy / garlic / crouton

IMG_2900Basically Coppia’s version of a Caesar salad, and several were ordered. Someone gave me some of their portion, David I think, and while it was pretty good, still not as good as the two best radicchio salads in town, those at Toro Bravo (soaked for ages to alleviate bitterness) and Nostrana.

zuppa wild mushroom soup / chicken stock / marsala / cream / thyme

IMG_2899Timothy obviously supports his establishment whole-heartedly, as he should, and when he was lurking in the area and heard the mushroom soup being ordered, he once again promised it would be “the best we ever had” (do you hear that Campbell’s? But can you put it in green bean casserole?) Seriously though, as one of the people who ordered it, it was decent, creamy and full of wild mushroom flavor. Sam also got it, and remarked that it seemed a bit lacking in seasonings though, which was true, it could have used a bit more salt and pepper, and I never add salt in a restaurant, except perhaps on frites.

peperonata – red bell pepper/ housemade ricotta/ lemon zest/ crostini

I don’t remember this, except for maybe the crostini, but I think maybe Cora ordered this.

tajarìn hand-cut pasta / wild boar ragù / parmesan

This was Peter’s entree, but I didn’t hear his opinion. It’s supposed to be one of the better things on Coppia’s menu.

fettucine fresh pasta / smoked trout / brussel sprout / cream / flying fish roe

IMG_2905Liz ordered this, and really loved it. Like all the pasta’s here, you can order a half an order as a primi or a whole order for your entree. I love it when the decent Italian places around town give you this option (Luce is another one.) When I sent out the RSVP, Heidi emailed back saying she and Julian would have loved to have joined us, but they were going out of town this Friday. She emailed me later, though, saying that her, Julian and friends had gone to Coppia later, and they had loved both the smoked trout pasta and the golden trout entry. I guess I should have tried larger samples of both, but I had eaten too much bread earlier (imagine that!)

trota stuffed golden idaho trout / salsa verde / roasted fennel / truffled polenta

IMG_2908Sam, being less sensitive about gobbling water creatures, often has trout. I remember her delicious, golden skinned trout at Luce, as the outside was so crispy and delicious. She might have forgotten just how good that one was, as she claimed this one was even better, with even more golden, tasty skin. Obviously, Italian’s have respect for eating the whole trout, and prepare them deliciously, inside and out.

quail partially boned & stuffed quail(s) / baked polenta / stuffed onion

IMG_2904According to the A&E, this is one of the better things to order at Coppia, juicy and flavorful, and as you don’t see it on menus around here very often at a reasonable price, three or four portions were ordered at our table. (Sam had her hanky out a LOT.) Interestingly, no one seemed to particularly enjoy it, and the polenta was not very popular either (I think one person liked it.) Weirdly, I did hear positive comments on the stuffed onion.

piemontese skirt steak / bagnet ross / potato / brussels / spring onion

Big surprise, myself and several others had the beef entree. Often, it doesn’t matter if your cut of steak is fancy, as long as you manage to improve it with either a nice sear or a good sauce, or both.IMG_2911 According to my taste-buds, Coppia got it half right. They did a good job with the cooking level, pleasantly rare, and the first thing I tasted when I bit into my beef was a nice, mildly charred flavor. So far, so good. I wasn’t thrilled with the Bagnet Ross sauce though, which turns out is a specialty of the Piedmont region. At first I thought it was a red pepper sauce, but it turns out it’s a combination of red peppers and tomato. As far as I’m concerned, no tomato based sauce belongs anywhere near beef, unless it’s meat loaf or a nice juicy burger with catsup. Sam had a bite and also found it an awkward combination, and Glenda and Cora, although also finding the meat good, thought perhaps a different sauce would have been better. Beef goes best with savory, not sweet like red pepper. I did choke down a few brussels sprouts for a change, as they weren’t too big and chewy, but my late in life aversion to roasted vegetables, especially plain potatoes, goes on. I think it was that trip to Greece quite a few years ago, where everything is served with potato and carrot hunks.

The dessert selection at Coppia is a bit sparse, only three to select from, although they also have hunks of cheese you can nibble on after dinner at $5 each. IMG_2914Most of our group was too full to plunge into dessert, but five of us had mild to serious interest. I was a bit surprised no one wanted the chocolate panna cotta, as each time panna cotta is offered at a restaurant we go to, there is usually at least one taker. Sylvie made up her mind quite rapidly that she would order the ricotta cheese tart – house made ricotta/cognac soaked golden raisins & raspberry kumquat sauce, and she shared that with Tracy and Peter. Unfortunately, the other four of us all wanted the same thing, the hazelnut cake – hazelnut liquor/chantilly, hazelnut praline, and after the first two of us ordered, the other two were told there was no cake left. Glenda was one of those left out, and she had a look on her face like she just had really bad news from her doctor, so I asked the waitress for an extra plate and silverware, so we could each eat half. Sam was the other desertee left out in the cold, but Liz is always a generous soul, so she shared some of her ration with Sam. The cake was quite good, nutty, golden, and only mildly liquor soaked, not like that similar booze-soaked Italian nut cake at Luce. When Glenda was finished, she remarked “that was so good, I could eat another portion all by myself, if they had any.” Hmm, does this mean I should have relinquished both of the original halves to her?

As I mentioned previously, it was rather tough sledding towards the end, because as per our request, the waitress made eight individual bills, which took some time. IMG_2896They did all seem correct though, not like when this same situation happened at Aviary and there were a couple of errors. At least this time the bills, although individualized, were not hand-written out. It’s good I’m not a waitress (in oh so many ways) because if I had to hand write meal tickets people would take one look and think it was a prescription and shove it in their wallet (my handwriting is approaching hideous these days.) Anyway, despite the time consuming nature associated with doing so many non-computer separated/generated bills, service was quite good, the waitress was very attentive all night, and Mr. Nishimoto added much assistance and chit-chat throughout the evening, and even assisted Glenda with the seemingly complex exercise involving putting on her coated to leave (it appeared to take awhile, and I thought I saw some wrestling going on.)

Food preparation-wise, judging from my meal, other’s meals, and the comments of my co-diners, I would gave Coppia about a seven. They do some things really well, and some things somewhat average, but nothing was really substandard. They coax a great deal from their little space, and their menu features some less common Italian preparations. The food came as you would want, not in little trickles, and our table of nine was well-covered as far as everyone having something to eat at the same time, and from the same course. I know this is what decent restaurants are supposed to do, but in our group’s early days, several restaurants, many well-established, faltered in delivering everyone’s food on time, and some gave up on furnishing all the food we ordered (I’ll abstain from talking about the sushi joint that had no rice, for hours.)

Anyway, Coppia was good, if not overwhelmingly outstanding. Portland has so many Italian restaurants these days with high-minded ideals, but none of them strike me as being quite as good as the early days of Assaggio was, when the original owners were in charge. IMG_2897They had a wonderful, long list of really flavorful pastas and small plates, at a reasonable price as well, and not even really good places like Nostrana have such outstanding pasta selections every night. But sadly, once the original owners sold Assaggio it was not the same, slipping downward and actually abruptly closing, permanently, the weekend of our RR dinner there (that was not a successful dinner, and one of those where food delivery was an issue.) As pasta is supposed to be one of the standouts at Coppia, I wish I would have tasted more, a half-portion would have been great before my entree, but if you have wine, and dessert, the prices at Coppia add up considerably, so I had to keep it modest (the desserts were reasonably priced, by the way.) As everyone notes, dining out in Portland has gotten expensive, and I always pay $10-20 more than I did a couple of years ago (the one reasonable exception, Red Onion Thai.) It’s always the starters that do you in now, everything is regularly $10, when it used to be $6 or $7, and cocktails averaging $10 help no one’s wallet either. None of this is Coppia’s fault, however, they only charge market value, or what has to be market value in the Pearl. Good food, fancy wine, nice atmosphere, earnest people, you probably won’t regret visiting Coppia. Just stay away from the coat rack area when Glenda has those elbows swinging.