THERE'S SOMETHING a little standoffish about North Portland restaurant Pitxi (pronounced "peachy"). While its $18 entrées, defiantly limited menu, and chilly service would be right at home in Portland's more popular dining districts (sorry, Pearl District, we just can't help it), an off-the-track location demands that Pixti rise to the level of "destination restaurant" if it's going to succeed. It's got a ways to go.
You can tell a lot about a restaurant by the way it's designed, and the mixed signals given off by Pitxi's décor accurately foreshadow deeper issues with both the service and the food. Two high-ceilinged rooms get a warehouse-chic treatment, but gaudy touches compromise the aesthetic: IKEA-esque polka dot placemats, napkins secured with plastic clothespins. There's a confusion of vision here, a lack of clarity about what kind of restaurant Pitxi wants to be. This confusion is reflected in the service: A waitress drops off an amuse-bouche with a high-end flourish, but sodas are served with a can and a pint glass of ice. These are little things, sure, but a coherent fine dining experience requires more consistency than Pitxi offers: Warehouse chic or IKEA kitschy? Amuse bouche fancy, or soda-in-a-can casual?
Pitxi's food suffers from similar confusion. Take, for example, their one vegetarian entrée, curry squash dumplings with pumpkin. Obvious attention is paid to the entrée's presentation, a fall color palette of small orange dumplings surrounding a plop of pumpkin puree, adorned with chicken of the woods mushrooms. But an artistic presentational hand can't salvage bland dumplings (the promised "curry" flavor did not materialize) and inedible mushrooms. I've never had this variety of mushroom before, so it's possible that at their peak chicken mushrooms resemble white mushrooms left in a bag in the fridge for too long, but it seems more likely that these dry, flavorless 'shrooms were past their eat-by date.
Meaty entrees fare better: Brussels sprouts, arranged in formation like tiny fighter planes, face off against a fist-sized ramekin of rich lamb stew. Good? Sure. $18 worth of good? Absolutely not. The same goes for the duck medallions, served with an apple-curd stuffed crêpe; the duck is tender and juicy, but the portion is small, and the fruit adorning the plate is artful but otherwise entirely gratuitous.
Perhaps the food's fussy presentation is partially responsible for the sheer length of time it takes to arrive on the table. On one visit, my vegetarian dinner date cobbled together a main course out of potato wedges and green salad—after my appetizer came and went, a full 30 more minutes elapsed before our main courses arrived, during which time he slowly ate his way through half a loaf of bread, doled out a slice at a time by a server with breadbasket and tongs. The service, meanwhile, split the difference between fine-dining diffidence (unobtrusive, impersonal), and just plain inattentive: water glasses sat empty, and no mention was ever made of the lengthy food times.
Pitxi does have a small plates menu, and at $4, a bland garlic shrimp pancake and greasy eggplant beignet are easier to forgive than the entrées. Overall, though, both pricing and portion sizes are completely out of step with Portland's dining climate; only a few dollars more per entree gets you in the door at Le Pigeon, for example. It would be great to see fine dining flourish on Lombard, but success in their location is going to require more focus and rigor than Pitxi currently offers.