Wine Up Front

Wine bars have been popular with the Vancouver, B.C., in-crowd for years, and lately they’ve been popping up all over Portland as well. The fashion’s been slow to get off the ground in Seattle. Or maybe we here at the Weekly, hard-pressed merely to keep up with the constant opening (and closing) of full-service restaurants, have just been slow to recognize it. I know that I only began to think about the subject after visiting Purple Cafe & Wine Bar in Woodinville.

Purple has some interesting wines on tap, and serves them properly in big balloon glasses for leisurely appreciation. But Purple is very much a restaurant with wine on the side, and its food, even its appetizers, isn’t particularly appropriate to take a back seat to the fruit of the vine. Downtown Seattle’s Le Pichet offers an enormous list of well-priced wines by the glass, but there, too, the food dominates the atmosphere; how can one dare take up a table at Le Pichet and not pay suitable respect to its wondrous kitchen?

But now I’ve discovered Portalis, and my mental image of what a wine bar ought to be has snapped into focus. Portalis, right in the midst of the fashionable stretch of Ballard Avenue Northwest, serves food, but it is minimal food. Every two weeks, a seasonal special hits the menu, crafted specifically to match a featured wine. There’s a sandwich (small) and a soup (also small); beyond that, a salad plate, cheese plate, salami plate, and a couple of dainty desserts. The rest of the multipage menu is dedicated to a smart, wide-ranging selection of wines by the glass. These are not obscurities, economically purchased and priced at the margin; they are first-rate, often name-brand samples of their various kinds, and priced accordingly. What a treat to start off an evening with a glass of Marty Clubb’s stellar Ecole 41 semillon ($7), a rankly juicy Nepenthe sauvignon blanc from Oz ($7), or a Ken Wright Celilo chardonnay ($8.50); then move on to a Dunham’s Trey Marie red blend ($8), a Les Hauts de Pontet Bordeaux ($8.50), or K Vintner’s luscious “End of the Road” syrah ($11). No question here of the food standing in the wine’s way; modest handmaid’s more like it.

It could take three or four visits just to taste through Portalis’ by-the-glass selection, but there’s no likelihood of boredom setting in thereafter. Above the register is a chalkboard listing a couple dozen current special bottles, with the discounted price appetizingly displayed beside the list price. Order right off that lineup, or, if you’re in the mood to shop, explore the hundreds of bottles on sale and have your choice opened at your table. It’s a delightful way to spend an evening. More restaurants should open wineshops. Or vice versa.

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