I'M GOING to start with the things I like about Fenrir, the hideaway of a cocktail bar and restaurant above Cellar Door Coffee that opened this spring, because while my visits included execution problems and an hour wait for entrées on a recent busy Saturday, I still descended its wooden stairs with a smile and a light cocktail buzz.
Despite its flaws, I'd encourage a friend to try Fenrir, and I'll say the same to you.
Things could go Portland-pretentious pretty quick at Fenrir, what with servers in suit vests and a name that references the Norse god Fenrir, the wolf who will eat the world if ever unleashed. Instead, there's zero snoot when your dining companion asks what dolin blanc is (sweet vermouth), and the mythical wolf is rendered as a charming wall decal across one of the two tiny rooms that serve as the dining area.
As such, it feels like a dinner party where your hosts make fancier drinks (like an old fashioned made with aquavit) than anyone you know. Fenrir is, first and foremost, a place that should join any conversation about serious cocktails. The drink list is always rotating, constantly tweaking obscure classics, and never afraid of potentially alienating liquors like brandy or aquavit.
On a busy Saturday this month, owners Ian Wilson, John James Dudek, and Tyler Hauptman were in the throes of a "Nordic Night," with aquavit-based drink specials, a collaboration with guest bartender Jacob Grier. There was the Second-Best Amaretto Sour in the World ($10)—a nod to Clyde Common's Jeffrey Morgenthaler's self-proclaimed world's best amaretto sour. With aquavit, amaretto, lemon, simple syrup, and egg white, this drink makes a strong case to stay on the permanent menu; it's a sweet sip countered by the biting liquor and fresh citrus. And the salty deep-fried Brussels sprouts ($7) for the table hit the right notes.
On the current menu, the Stomach Reviver ($9) is just as it sounds, a strong herbal punch of brandy, aquavit, Fernet, and bitters—I honestly see a lush like Zelda Fitzgerald (or me) drinking it first thing in the morning after a rough night. This one was made for the house-pickled mackerel ($4), little bites of briny fish standing like small icebergs in dill sauce.
The menu is revised often, with Wilson driving changes based on the seasons. Unsurprisingly, given the whole Scandinavian thing Fenrir's got going, winter dishes provided the most solid dining experience. Eat family style, and for best results, go as a party of three to five. Order one dish per person from the right side of the menu, and augment with a couple extra starters.
I wanted to hoard the braised lamb neck with chickpeas ($14), fork-tender with pronounced crispness on the outside, seasoned with rosemary and acid from tomatoes. A potatis korv ($15) sausage combined lamb and potato inside pork skin for good effect, but the accompanying sauerruben, or pickled turnips, lacked tartness to make the whole thing pop. A fresh rye pasta ($14) was topped with white miso—something that I'd certainly never had, although the noodles stuck together because the dish needed more of the salty umami sauce.
Not all is perfection. Trout ($15) on the summer menu, served whole with cucumber, fennel, and cranberry, was overdone by a mile, while a bone marrow dish ($12) with parsley salad and bread (the exact last meal Anthony Bourdain famously said he'd eat), failed to release its meaty goodness without a fight. The pricy $18 goat shank needed salt and tasted like beef.
This month, the tiny kitchen in back was clearly overwhelmed, with every table full. Our wait was nearly an hour for entrées. This—because of the homey atmosphere, flowing cocktails, and good company—was only a problem because we had to make an 8 pm show. They're details that are forgiven when you're part of the wolf pack.
Winter hours: Wed-Sun 5-10 pm. Not great for large parties.