I once had a colleague who claimed to have such a discerning sense of taste that he could tell blindfolded the stupendous olfactory superiority he accorded to Hydrox vice Oreo cookies. I thought he was a moron, especially when he would stuff his suitcase with junk food staples while worrying that he was going to starve to death on a European business trip. On one such junket the rest of us took pity on the poor devil and escorted him ceremoniously to a McDonalds in downtown Paris (there may have been alcohol involved). He showed zero gratitude, however, for our gastronomic sacrifice, denouncing the French Royale with Cheese as laden with garlic and other Gallic impurities unlike the Ronald McFundamentalist quarter pounders served up in his beloved Orange County.
I still think the guy was a moron and resent even to this day the fact that he stole from my only life an opportunity to partake of a gourmet temple in the City of Lights. But over the years I have come to sympathize and support people who are stigmatized as exacting eaters. Having experienced the satisfaction of cooking and serving food compatible with dietary restrictions and palate preferences at home, we have also been learning where to take finicky fressers out to eat in spoiled-for-choice Portland.
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When the picky chikcs or difficult dudes of Montucky come to visit us during our sojourns in the gastropolis, we often take them to Bar Mingo. In fact, Team Mago did not realize until recently how often we have relied on Bar Mingo to satisfy persnickety gourmands who want great food that is not too spicy, rich, raw, different, etc. Taking the culinarily challenged to Bar Mingo also allows Mr. “I will eat anything that I can Indian wrestle down my throat” to dine at an Italian restaurant outside of Italy. As I have remarked before (see Grassa is Fat with Potential), I am a real snob about regional Italian cooking. So if I have a serious jones for carbonara, I’ll make it at home with Chopped/Olympic Provisions/Tails and Trotters guanciale and local duck eggs—or I’ll go to Palermo for milk-fed lamb intestines wrapped around pancetta and a spring onion (that would be the divine stigiole alla brace, which are not for the faint of heart nor the lactose intolerant). And yet I always leave Bar Mingo content and I look forward to the next visit from my friends of finical food preferences, because I have just the place for them.
To be fair, Bar Mingo does have some authenticity issues—albeit far less than many other more expensive Italian restaurants in Portland. But in almost every case, the kitchen trades authenticity for the brash and intense flavors of Pacific Northwest cuisine. Here are my takeaways from Bar Mingo’s happy hour and dinner menus.
Oysters: Bad shellfish are as rare as free-range organic hen’s teeth in this town, but Bar Mingo’s are exceptional. On our last visit with MagoGuide’s unpaid interns from County 7, we were presented with three different varieties each with distinct levels of brininess and differently nuanced umami notes (don’t ask me their nomenclatures, there may have been house Barbaresco involved, see below). And these puppies are three bucks cheaper than they retail for at St. Jack (Northwest Portland’s shellfish gold standard, see St. Jack: Un Véritable Bouchon). My only quibble is that Italians, who love oysters just as much as the Celts next door, never serve them with mignonette sauce. However, Bar Mingo also supplies plenty of lemon slices so that brutta figura can be safely discounted.
Chevre in spicy tomato sauce served with bruschetta: This is not an Italian dish, but it is very good. Italians do use hot pepper in some of their tomato sauces and other preparations, but the use is subtle, too subtle for Team Mago. This ain’t and it is a better dish for it. At the very least, however, the menu could be rendered more Italianate as in formaggio di capra (and they could also fix that “mognonette” typo on their website menu while they are at it—how about mingonette?).
Chicken livers sautéed with capers, anchovy, Marsala, onion, and sage: This one is killer and I usually get it all to myself, kittie!! This dish takes the humble hindl leber and gives it an incredible upgrade courtesy of Sicily’s cucina baronale. There is definitely some serious monzu influence at work in Bar Mingo’s kitchen, combining a savory Mediterranean-driven flavor profile with gutsy mineral notes from the chicken livers, which are then softened with the richness and voluptuous mouth feel of a sweet Marsala-based sauce. That little hit of sage at the end is killer dude! When I get back to my off-the-grid propane-fired organ bank freezer hidden deep in the American Redoubt, I am going to try this prep with antelope liver (that would be prairie foie gras for you snooty Oregon foodies). The perfect pairing for this superbly executed dish would be a dry aged Marsala, which sadly does not exist on Bar Mingo’s otherwise excellent and eclectic little wine list.
Mussels with shallots, white wine, parsley, and bruschetta: This essentially French preparation is well executed, the mussels were perfectly cooked the last time MagoGuide indulged, but 1) they fall short of Franco-Belgium-Global approaches at La Moule (where they are the same price or cheaper… see our review in La Moule: Of Brewskis and Bivalves) and 2) why not serve them with either the excellent tomato sauce that accompanies the lamb meatballs (see below), or the spicy sauce that spikes the goat cheese (see above)—at least as options?
Crespelle: The Italians have the French beat all to hell in the land of crepes. Crespelle constitute a micro-cuisine all of their own throughout the length and breadth of the boot. Bar Mingo’s crespelle al forno channels Marcella Hazan’s layered crepe pie with a stuffing of shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and parmesan, but with a twist in the substitution of mascarpone for the traditional béchamel. The result is a rich, savory, crispy riff on lasagna. The accompanying arugula salad supplies a much needed hit of contrasting bitter acidity.
Lamb meatballs in tomato sauce with mint, oregano, and pecorino: This dish encapsulates the culinary heritage of Magna Grecia amped with Cristoforo Colombo’s New World culinary gift to his homeland. It was the lush pastures of the mezzogiorno and trinacria that kicked off the Hellenization of Roman cuisine. Bar Mingo continues the tradition by making a gutsy call with all-lamb meatballs backed up by a sauce of giant berries from the Americas and spiked with large hits of Aegean herbs. Even our guests who do not like the taste of lamb loved these flavor bombs.
Calamari sautéed with green onions, garlic, lemon, and served with aioli and bruschetta: This is not an Italian dish by any stretch of the imagination and I really love it. Whoever writes the menus at Bar Mingo also knows this squid preparation has more in common with Asia than the Med, because they make a point of noting (parenthetically—ha!) that the accompanying rings and tentacles are not breaded and deep fried. The very forward heat profile is definitely not Italian and perfectly delicious. The squid is so fresh that it comes to the table after only a nodding acquaintance with the pan. The result is a complex, chewy-soft texture that embraces the tripartite burst of aromatics, acid, and lush olive oil mayo with gusto.
Cacio e Pepe: Snob alert, this ain’t right but it ain’t bad either. I love the Romans of any era, but the ones you can actually talk to and eat with are some of my faves. They have no shame about inherent contradictions, one of which is pasta cacio e pepe. Many, many Romans will tell you that the only way to make authentic cacio e pepe is with tonnarelli (Lazio’s version of Abruzzo’s more famous maccheroni alla chitarra). When you go out with the same folks to their favorite trattoria, however, this dish will be made 90% of the time with spaghetti and occasionally with buccatini or linguine—and your Roman dining companions will wax rhapsodic concerning the dish’s authenticity.
Bar Mingo’s take on cacio e pepe confirms what the Romans know instinctively, that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small gastronomic minds. The tonnarelli at Bar Mingo is a perfect example of bespoke pasta, but it does not stand up to the deceptively simple ingredients in this classic Roman pasta dish. More than even carbonara, cacio e pepe must be finished in the pan using some of the pasta boiling water to meld the sheep’s cheese, black pepper, and olive oil into a sauce. This process makes fresh tonnarelli wilt just a bit too much on the soft side of al dente. Bar Mingo does not need to lose the tonnarelli, they just need to sauce it appropriately, serving it like they do in Rome with foraged wild asparagus in the spring or with black winter Oregon truffles they way they make it in Norcia. And while I am complaining, I will also opine that Bar Mingo’s preparation did not have enough black pepper nor was the pecorino sufficiently salty and soapy enough for my tastes. Bottom line, its not horrible, but it could be much better with a couple tweeks—until then order any other pasta on the menu and you will not be disappointed.
Sea bass with roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach: Perfectly cooked sea bass with crispy skin and moist flavorful flesh. Nothing about it screams Italian (or even whispers it), but it is a great Pacific Northwest fish preparation that lets the ingredients speak for themselves.
Risotto: Bar Mingo did not meet my expectations with their cacio e pepe, but their risotto covers a multitude of sins. This is flat out the best restaurant risotto I have ever had anywhere. I remain firmly convinced that the mini-cuisine of risotto is best executed at home where time and timing can be controlled and you can have a lot of fun making and serving this dish, which is ambrosia if you get it right and something the dog won’t touch if you blow it. They get this at Bar Mingo. Risotto is only served on Wednesday night and, further, it is only served at 6:30 and 8:00. Given my spousal unit’s temporal nourishment preferences, this means I usually have the risotto for dessert, kind of an après pasta. But frankly, I’d scoop it up off the floor at 4 AM if that was the only way I could get it.
Risotto is not hard to cook (at least not after you have made it a couple dozen times or so) but it is impossible to cook it correctly in any way other than one long go on the stove top. I know all the restaurant tricks that inevitably involve starting the rice on the stovetop and then allowing it to congeal, next firing it in the oven when the order hits the kitchen, and then finishing the dish with a shit load of softened butter in a desperate attempt to disguise the culinary crime scene. At Bar Mingo they avoid this proliferation of sins against one of the greatest rice dishes in the world, and they should be rewarded with our dining ducats; especially since they serve their divine risotto on Wednesdays when a) the kitchen can handle the labor intensive care that must be lavished on the dish, and b) we could all use a stellar dining experience to bolster us for the second half of the week.
Pappardelle, rabbit ragu, and parmesan: Bar Mingo’s take on pappardelle sulla lepre is an excellent simulacrum, missing only the hare’s exquisite gaminess that is the hallmark of this Tuscan staple. A long braise, followed by a thorough boning and super-reduction of the cooking liquid results in a depth of flavor often absent in commercially raised rabbit dishes. Couple the results with perfectly al dente pappardelle (an appropriate use of house-made pasta by the way) and 18-months plus aged parma and you have an amazing pasta dish. Which kind of begs the question concerning free range, humanely raised Oregon hares: as in why aren’t there any?
Bar Mingo also has some excellent side dishes including baked carrots, roasted beets, and sautéed spinach.
Bar Mingo is a bar (duh) and they do a great job with all aspects of mixology, oenology, and brewskies. I often avail myself of their rotating taps at happy hour, but at dinner I never can get beyond the house Barbaresco, which you can get by the glass, quarter liter, or bottle. They were pouring a Produttori del Barbaresco 2011 last time we dined at Bar Mingo. The wine had wonderful forward fruit that hung on tenaciously until replaced with leather, game, and tar on the finish. I am always happy to see Barbaresco placed front and center as a food wine. Long and unfairly compared to the more expensive and tighter wound Barolo, Barbaresco strikes me as a far more drinkable expression of the Nebbiolo grape, both with respect to bottle age and pairing potential.
Team Mago does have a couple service nits, however. Service can be uneven, especially when you are a bald curmudgeon seated between tables populated by young hotties of either gender. Those tables got amuse bouche that we did not receive while I was not getting the wine I had ordered about 20 minutes prior. Also, what is up with the smallish plates at Bar Mingo? They make the food look crowded and ugly, starving the eyes of an experience to equal the flavor of the preparations.
Mago Tip: Unless you are amazingly disciplined, a bottle of Bar Mingo’s house Barbaresco is a much better deal financially than either by the glass or the quarter liter.
Over the years I have come to understand that the human culinary palate is a highly individualistic bio-apparatus, and that there are plenty of food-loving people who find certain preparations too rich or spicy, unethically harvested—or just plain unhealthy—no matter how much I may love such preparations. Helping people enjoy food is far more fulfilling than forcing them to eat things that repulse them on multiple levels while condescendingly explaining that acquired tastes are simply a matter of education and experience. Cafe Mingo makes accommodating picky palates easy and fun.