Taste Test

One of Portland’s most eclectic oenophiles opens up a tiny, unpretentious East Side wine bar that passes with flying colors.

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

AS A RESTAURANT CRITIC, I occasionally experience fleeting moments of heartbreak when reviewing an establishment, even when my meal nears perfection. These moments very rarely have anything to do with the rather runny consistency of a chef’s béarnaise sauce, such minor disappointments being par for the course. No, they run more along the lines of a longing to connect in some way with the person responsible for making my dining experience so pleasant—be it the chef, the owner, the waiter, or the busboy. After my meal I often wish I were able to introduce myself, shake their hands—hell, maybe even give them a kiss on both cheeks or a friendly slug on the shoulder as a way of telling them how much I appreciate what they’re doing. But, alas, a critic’s need for anonymity—in order to avoid special treatment, which might tip my opinion—remains a reality. And so I always pay my bill and leave without a word.

And so it was at the new East Side wine bar Kir when I dined there this summer. At some point during each meal, I wanted to pull up another chair to my table and invite Amalie Roberts, the wine-obsessed wunderkind responsible for Kir, to have a drink with me. I wanted to talk to her about her passion for rosé, a wine upon which she expounds eloquently to diners (with a slightly sheepish grin), or about the fact that almost everything on her menu can be prepared on two hot plates and a cutting board. I wanted to commend her on her knack for creating just the sort of unpretentious, European-style drinking establishment that Portland seems thirsty for these days. (In fact, just last year she opened—and then sold—Victory, an equally charming bar and eatery on SE Division Street, and she’s also created the funky but very respectable wine lists at Clyde Common and Aalto Lounge.)

Indeed, Kir’s wine list offers some fairly esoteric options—the choice of rosés is especially intriguing, ranging from those made in the style of Spanish txacoli, a slightly effervescent wine, to heftier, dark-red chiarettos made from Italian gropello grapes. When I’ve described my wine preferences to Roberts, she’s always been happy to bring out a couple of tastes, all of which she describes, quite poetically, with words like “misty” and “intense” and “outrageous.”

Once I’ve settled on a glass or a bottle, I let the whims of my palate dictate what I eat. For those who are fans of the small plates at Navarre on NE 28th Avenue, or the bocadillos (sandwiches) and charcuterie that were served at the now-defunct Busy Corner, Kir’s modest menu will feel familiar—probably because Roberts consulted with Susan and Kyle Cheney, the couple behind both restaurants, before opening Kir. On each of my visits, I started my night with a bowl of luscious anchovy-stuffed olives spiked with orange peel, and a salad of watermelon drizzled with moscatel vinaigrette and served over a bed of lightly dressed, peppery arugula. Then I’d turn to the rest of the menu, which is easy to eat your way through with just one other person since all the dishes are meant to be shared.

The only thing that could use some improvement is the tortilla Española (a sort of Spanish frittata). One night it was studded with pistachios and curry powder, and the egg was overcooked; on another night it was served more traditionally, simply with sliced potatoes and spinach, but it lacked flavor and seemed dense. On the other hand, almost every sandwich, from a simple smoked trout and arugula combination to smoky jamón with capers, spring onions, and tomatoes, has paired superbly with most of the rosés that I’ve ordered.

Of course, Kir has its downsides as well. Set in a minuscule storefront on a deserted side street behind the old Ozone Records store off of E Burnside Street, the space is quite small, with only about six stools at the bar and a few two-seater tables—though on warm nights, diners can stretch out at one of three tables outside. Owing to the interior’s lack of lived-in ambience (in fact, it’s downright sparse), I often preferred to sit outside, though the view of Oregon Artificial Limb Co across the street isn’t exactly breathtaking. Indeed, for many visitors, Kir’s location and funky vibe may not be appealing. There is also a lackadaisical quality to the service, perhaps because Roberts is often the only person working there—or simply because she seems to like her wine bars that way: unrushed, quiet, and calm.

But given Kir’s well-curated wines, its gracious host, and its menu of simple culinary pleasures, I’ll certainly go back again. I suppose my nod of approval in these pages will have to suffice as my moment of connection.