The smell of fresh paint was the first thing that registered when I walked into Apotheke--followed shortly by the realization that everyone in the room was hipper and better looking than me. My date and I, luckily, were wearing black, so at least we matched the monochromatic decor: white floors, white walls, and black clad patrons. We selected a seat on the upper balcony, overlooking the stark yet intimate main floor, where pretty couples canoodled as electronic music throbbed quietly in the background.
Combining a Scandinavian-inspired menu with an array of herbal aperitifs and digestifs, Apotheke aims to introduce an edgy, European dining experience to Portland. Mysterious and intriguing food and drinks, and slick and spacey ambiance combine beautifully--and thankfully, without the requisite Pearl district pretension.
Upon opening the menu, my date and I were confronted with the realization that we couldn't pretend to know what we were doing: The drink list alone was many pages long and full of unpronounceable beverages. Forced to abandon any ideas of being cool, we threw ourselves at the mercy of our waiter, who proved endlessly patient. He talked us through the drink menu, suggesting as aperitifs the Campari and the Chambord, which he described as tasting like "the white part of the inside of an orange" and "over brewed iced-tea," respectively. His descriptions were accurate--and the drinks were crisp, pleasantly exotic, and refreshing.
Once into our beverages, our saintly waiter began treating us like an old foreign couple with limited language skills. After he helped us decipher the menu, we optimistically settled on gjetost and gurkas norge as appetizers, not quite sure what to expect from either.
The gjetost was an intriguing, peanut buttery brown cheese served with grain toast, while the less-satisfying gurkas norge were cucumbers topped with caviar, herring, and creme fraiche--the thick slices of cucumber overpowered the complex flavors of the toppings. When our meals arrived, my bock sandwich suffered from the same failing as the gurkas norge. Essentially a fancified grilled cheese with raw swiss, goat cheese, and chives, the bread-to-filling ratio was off, as the too-thick bread slices muted what would have been a cheesily delicious experience. The accompanying potats (aka fries), cooked to a deep orange-brown, were excellent, somehow different and superior to fries of the standard French variety.
The star of the meal, though, was the venison: perfectly cooked, it was tender and juicy, with a distinct but not overpowering flavor of juniper. The tender meat was served with brussel sprouts, which I generally loathe, but these were rendered almost palatable by a savory gjetost sauce, and accompanied with caramelized potatoes that were more novel than delicious, but not without a certain crunchy, sugary charm.
For dessert, we perhaps unwisely skipped the homemade ice cream, opting instead for bread pudding and the chocolate plate. The pear and anise bread pudding was meaty and rich--impossible to finish after such a heavy, starchy meal, but it would make a great snack with a cup of coffee or a glass of Apotheke's reasonably priced wine. The chocolate plate, however, was a massive disappointment, essentially nothing more than a chocolate bar broken into small pieces and served with too cold, under-ripe Brie.
Chocolate plate aside, though, Apotheke is a worthwhile destination, pairing chic decor with an affordable, intriguing menu. And they won't make you feel stupid when you mispronounce the menu--which to me, means a lot.