Down on the Bay

Sustainable seafood, thrice-filtered water and Monica Lewinsky sightings keep the Pearl’s Bay 13 packed like a sardine can.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the June 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

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“Tap, please.”

“Our tap and our sparkling water are filtered three times with our in-house filtration system, but you get to drink it for free. It’s a really special program.”

“Oh. OK. Umm … thanks?”

I had only stopped in for a cocktail, but between the holy water and the incessant boom-boom of the ambient music pumping through the dining room, I was already a little put off.

This was my first visit to Bay 13, one of the newest, shiniest restaurants to hit the Pearl in the past year. Opened in the recently restored Crane Building in February by the Moana Hotel & Restaurant Group (owner of Paragon restaurant, just two blocks away), Bay 13 bills itself as Portland’s first sustainable seafood restaurant. Under the same sustainability umbrella, my waiter tells me, the place also offers its house-filtered water in an effort to cut down on bottle waste—an equally worthy venture, to be sure, but I could live without the in-house lobbyist.

Is ‘fine’ good enough when you pay $24?

Such thoughtful attention has been paid to the design of the space as well. Inside the sleek, nautical-inspired metal exterior lies an impressive urban dining room (which seats more than 200) marked by 20-foot ceilings and exposed industrial trusses; hulking natural wood partitions loosely separate the main dining room from a bustling cocktail bar and a modest sushi bar on one end, and a more secluded dining area on the other. An outdoor patio frames the front of the restaurant, and an adjoining Bay 13 fish market is slated to open up in July next door.

With this aesthetic, the designers have accomplished something many other Portland restaurateurs seem incapable of achieving—a network of partitioned spaces that flow seamlessly together. As a result, Bay 13 is incredibly conducive to social ease, at least among the city’s young professionals (Monica Lewinsky was in the room the night of our photo shoot), who seem to overrun the dining room each evening.

In the face of all this, one might be led to think that the food offered here would reflect the same innovative allure. Yet there’s something distinctly “boardroom” about the menu, as though each dish were settled upon around a conference table. While the seafood was always of superb quality—and quite surprisingly, cooked to perfection—the flavors of the dishes were, to put it bluntly, quite dull. Which prompts me to ask: Will seafood ever graduate from its “seared fill-in-the-blank served on a bed of fill-in-the-blank” status in this town? And, more importantly, why does the bed of fill-in-the-blank so rarely have anything to do with the flavors and textures of the seared fish splayed on top of it? Sure, the arctic char was nicely crisped on the outside and moist inside, and the sweet cranberry beans underneath popped in my mouth, but do these two elements really belong together? I’m not convinced they do. It tasted fine, yes, but is “fine” good enough when you’re paying $24?

Other dishes weren’t even close to fine. The Dungeness crab “cocktail”—a parfait glass of delicate, sweet crab meat ruined by layers of what tasted like avocado concentrate spiked with lime, overly sweet mango salsa and shavings of red cabbage—reminded my dinner companion of “Ruby Tuesdays on a really good day.” The ahi poke (pronounced PO-kee)—a Hawaiian dish of fresh sashimi that’s supposed to be lightly seasoned with soy sauce, ginger and scallions—might have been good had it not been doused with marinade.

There were a few exceptions: The freshness of the sushi shined through even a simple tuna roll, and a light fin-and-shellfish stew offered a refreshing break from the tomato-sauce-laden seafood stews I’ve encountered in Portland.

Service remained remarkably friendly and efficient—thankfully, they never again felt the need to tell me how special my water was—despite the shocking hordes of patrons each night I visited. In fact, no matter what the beds-of-fill-in-the-blank may be each night, Bay 13 has obviously already cultivated a loyal fan base. Which prompts another question: What is in that water they’re serving, anyway?