A Cena

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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A FEW WEEKS AGO, after being seated in the rustic dining room at A Cena, a new ristorante on Sellwood’s main strip, I watched as car after car pulled up out front. Out of each stepped dapper, bow-tied old chaps followed by several genteel matrons. The spectacle brought to mind a kind of Old Portland that I wasn’t sure even existed. The presence of such patrons, I thought, spoke well of the establishment.

Yet A Cena feels like much more than a magnet for dignified elders. On my first visit, there were plenty of thirtysomethings and families to balance out the crowd. With such a diverse clientèle, the atmosphere felt downright convivial.

So how does a new restaurant attract such a following so quickly? It could be that Scott Shampine, former executive chef at Olea, heads up the kitchen. In fact, many of the dishes served here resemble those that graced Olea’s menu during his tenure. I loved the idea of the asparagi al cartoccio, asparagus enclosed in pastry dough and slices of prosciutto and accompanied by a soft-boiled egg and a shot of fontina-truffle fondue that my waiter poured onto the plate tableside. The pastry dough was undercooked, and asparagus is out of season, but the combination delighted.

Instead of the standard Caesar salad, grilled romaine hearts wrapped in pancetta are paired with roasted cipollini onions. An espresso-braised oxtail ragù comes nestled in a bed of crispy, fried orecchiette pasta that provides a nice counterbalance to the ragù. And beneath a perfectly cooked brick-roasted half chicken lie a lovely bread salad and whole fried chicken livers, an impressively bold, down-home touch.

While the service team seems to be working out some kinks, servers want to help the general joie de vivre along. But if such sophisticated, spirited guests continue to grace the place, they won’t have to try too hard.

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