Cathy Whims is justly lauded for her restaurant Nostrana, which offers the option of dropping $100 on a sophisticated Italian dinner, or drunkenly hacking your way through a $5 happy-hour pizza. Her newest venture has more in common with that $5 pizza; she's teamed up with bartender Ryan Magarian of Aviation Gin for a menu that pairs Italian comfort food with a thoughtful selection of vintage and house cocktails. The result is one of those bar/restaurant hybrids where dim lighting and boisterous, boozing clientele conspire to make every hour feel like happy hour. (Actual happy hour is from 10 pm to midnight, daily).
Oven and Shaker's sleek dining room is long and dark, with a bar running the length of the room and both communal seating and individual tables. The room prioritizes style over comfort and caters to a crowd that does the same; you'll probably be seated too close to your neighbor, but at least they'll be good looking.
The centerpiece of Oven and Shaker's food menu is a list of wood-fired pizzas. But Portland's fancy pizza market is currently pretty oversaturated—even McMenamins is in on it now, with wood-fired pizza at their new Zeus Café. Oven and Shaker's pizza boasts creative toppings, and not much else; if I come back, it'll be because of combos like salami and honey, or brussels sprouts and pancetta, not the too-thin, too-chewy crust.
The pizza ranges in price from $12-16 and comfortably serves two; the rest of the menu consists of a short list of salads (try the dinosaur kale, which brightens up breadcrumbs and a salty anchovy vinaigrette with tart sections of grapefruit) and a selection of drinking snacks heavily geared toward some combination of "fried," "starch," and "animal."
A mix-and-match arancini selection offers combinations like saffron risotto with pork and pea ragu; the snowball-sized risotto balls satisfyingly crack open to reveal sizzling hot insides or an outpouring of molten mozzarella. "Tuscan potatoes" is code for french fries, which come in a paper-lined cup with strips of roasted red pepper and fried sage. While the potato and parmesan croquettes were like a less-disgusting-but-still-underwhelming spin on Shari's mozzarella sticks, the polenta crostini was a standout: wedges of firm, perfectly prepared polenta smeared with whitefish spread and topped with roasted peppers.
Vegetarians will have no trouble cobbling together a dinner of pizza, salad, and a few sides (the ricotta, kale pesto, and candied tomato crostini sounds particularly good), but there's no reason for a vegan to set foot in this place—unless you're prepared to be a really good sport about dining on fried chickpeas and a salad.
House-made gelato doesn't live up to the standard set by the dearly missed Alder, and the flavors vary, but on one visit a scoop of olive oil gelato paired with balsamic vinegar sorbet made for a memorable finish to the meal.
The best way to experience Oven and Shaker might be for happy hour—which brings us to the "shaker" portion of events. My favorite cocktail was the Pepper Smash #2, which combined aquavit, mint, and lime juice with "freshly extracted yellow bell pepper juice." A Presbyterian's rye whiskey/lemon/soda balancing act is lent a spicy warmth with house-made ginger syrup. And in an unusual touch, the bar lists actual recipes for its drinks: Any ambitious home mixologist can attempt to replicate the clean, crisp flavors of the Corleone—just rustle up 1.5 ounces of Aviation New Western Dry Gin, some Clear Creek Grappa, and "five seedless green grapes," among other things.
I'm not sure I'd cross the city to eat at Oven and Shaker—especially when to do so, I'd have to pass Nostrana, whose more extensive (and more expensive) menu offers a better representation of Whims' genius in the kitchen. But Oven and Shaker is serving up great cocktails and some deftly prepared drinking snacks; plus, the service is attentive and the bartenders are handsome. It's not revelatory, but it fills its niche.
Tony Perez has been the Mercury's food critic since December 2010, but last week marked his final official column in that capacity—we're saddened to announce that he's leaving the post in order to focus on his full-time job as an editor at Tin House Books. HOWEVER! This cloud's silver lining comes in the form of newly hired food critic Chris Onstad whom you know best as the creator of the hilarious comic strip Achewood (occasionally seen in the pages of this very paper). Chris has an encyclopedic knowledge of the local food scene and his writing has been published in Saveur, The New Yorker, GQ, Vice, and more. Tune into this space next week for his inaugural column.