Larger than Life 

Pinot Lacks Character, but Not Heart

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THE TWELVE WEST TOWER gleams near Burnside's West End like an expensive, futuristic jewel: a LEED-certified structure with a sleek glass façade and turbines on the roof. It's home to Pinot American Brasserie, a new, oversized, upscale eatery that strives to pamper every eater in town—with the notable exception of vegetarians. It's possible to be dizzied by the sheer number of choices at Pinot, and it's possible to have a pricey, forgettable meal in a somewhat anonymous environment. It's also possible, with luck, to have some truly spectacular food.

Founding chef Bill King (who just left the nascent restaurant this week, it was announced, to be replaced by Paul Arnold) was enamored with the traditional French concept of the brasserie, meaning an upscale but comfortable spot with a broad menu, open most hours of the day, offering a raw bar and plenty of meat. King's pedigree was with the ever-present McCormick and Schmick's chain of seafood restaurants, and he brought a similarly inoffensive whiff of corporate sterility in the door to Pinot, which hits most of its bases while distinctly lacking a personal touch.

First off, the place is enormous. Its immensely high ceilings and walls of windows could house what feel like hundreds; an imposing wine closet, with two walls of glass, separates the far end of the dining room from the private room. The crisply dressed wait staff gets their daily dose of exercise just walking around the joint. On all visits, they were sharp and knowledgeable about every facet of the gargantuan menu—the wine recommendations, in particular, were thorough and practical.

And what a wine list they have: The sommelier sought the advice of the Oregon Wine Brotherhood, who apparently gulped their way through 246 Oregon Pinot Noirs to put the list together. There's plenty of other wine as well, including a few choices on the list that've been tagged "Crazy Good!"

As far as what to eat, my experience found that the earthbound, hoofed creatures did better than the waterlife. A shrimp cocktail arrived with two ridiculously huge poached Gulf white shrimp, perched on a little bed of shredded greens. The shrimp were too large to be perfectly flavorful, although they were exquisitely textured. A dish of mussels and sausage was also lacking, perhaps suffering due to the other outstanding mussel options around town.

They also have frog legs on the menu, although I didn't see escargot. The frog legs are a fun novelty, especially during happy hour when they're half price ($5). "They're tedious to eat," the bartender warned me. And they were, but not without a salty, murky-water charm. A nugget of flesh hangs happily at one end, and making one's way down the rest of the leg is a trick of navigating the fry batter and the frog's easily splintered bones.

I was also warned away from the lamb sliders and pointed toward a burger ($9.95), which arrived in an eye-pleasing stack too tall to fit in my mouth, the burger hanging lopsided out of its tiny, shiny bun like a herniated disc. It alternated between gloppy and dry, and the fries lacked salty punch, but tasted soft and buttery.

The remarkable French onion soup gratinée ($7.95) arrived in a seemingly bottomless urn, thickly overflowing with cheese and onions. Its rich saltiness approached the curative properties of a good bowl of pho; it, along with an accompanying basket of bread and delicious, crackery flatbread, stands as an outstanding and substantial lunch option for downtown workers, especially during oncoming winter months.

Meanwhile, a dinner of a whole roast hen ($18.90) was terrific, relying earnestly on the moist, familiar flavor of the hen itself to do the heavy lifting. Paired with vegetables that included a sort of peppery, tactile blend of sundried tomato and artichoke, it was phenomenal. As was the beef short ribs ($20.90), styled after osso buco. A big stick of bone plunged through gently hearty meat, topped with an ignorable patch of green salsa. The beef was tender, stewy, and nourishingly splendid.

The Coho salmon was not nearly as rewarding, but the disc-like risotto dumplings it came with were both miraculously good and odd—dense, nuggety balls of flavor highlighted by the richness of the Parmesan. Another peculiar item on the menu was a "beggar's purse," a quiche-like satchel of mushrooms and dough, with an elusively persuasive if somewhat soggy flavor. The salade frisée au lardon was also good—the first few bites didn't quite work, but it grew in herbal, peppery complexity over the course of the dish, as the poached egg seeped its way into the tangled corners of frisée (like chicory) and lardon (like bacon). Meanwhile, a frothy dessert of hazelnut semifreddo was creamy, light, and just about perfect.

Pinot might be trying to do too much. It can feel hollowly cavernous inside the restaurant, and some dishes fall by the wayside, particularly the seafood. But the heartier the dish, the better, and the highlights are outstanding.

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