BAR DOBRE opened about three months ago on SE Hawthorne, bringing Portland's total number of brick 'n' mortar Polish restaurants to two. The other is the members-only Grandpa's Café in Overlook, so if you want to sit out of the rain with a plate of fresh pierogi and a pint of Zywiec, Bar Dobre is your destination.
Three visits have revealed a friendly and intimate little place, with thorough service and a proud chef/owner who likes to check in personally with his guests when things calm down after the last rush of entrées. It is young and promising like the food, and full of hope and hospitality.
Flavors of caraway, apple, cucumber, and honey rear their heads in the inventive list of 15 house cocktails, one-third of which feature vodka as their base spirit. Generally, vodka may be disdained by cocktail bluenoses, but its presence at a Polish restaurant is as mandatory as air and doorknobs, and Dobre keeps it interesting with both the mythic Zubrowka and a few house-infused versions. Try the Zubrowka in a Connie's Brow ($8, with Becherovka and blackberry brandy), or order the pride of the house, a Dobre toddy ($6, hot), mixed with homemade krupnik (honey liqueur), vodka, Amaro CioCiaro, and cinnamon. Cocktails are generally good, though their alcoholic strength can be slightly inconsistent.
"Poland," "Portland," and "Pizza" are the three divisions of their young menu. Scattered categories normally suggest a lack of confidence and focus, but there are good things in each, so I don't mind the safe play at this stage in their evolution.
Dobre's house-made pierogi ($6) are a good appetizer to share for two or more. The thick potato, onion, mushroom, and cheese dumplings are boiled then gently sautéed in butter with more onion; though the dumplings are flavorful, caramelizing or frying the onion garnish would add a welcome, and not untraditional, dimension. The light, fork-tender golumpki ($10.50, meat or vegetarian) are stuffed cabbage rolls in a mildly spiced tomato sauce, and identical to the versions I enjoyed in Krakow.
The house-made kielbasa is clearly the chef's pride and joy. It's an excellent sausage: juicy and strongly seasoned, with a perfectly cooked casing. Its signature quality is a robust smokiness achieved by smoking the links fresh on site; the abundance of it wonderfully permeates the dishes in which it plays a part.
A plate of the kielbasa with potato pancakes, sauerkraut, and braised greens ($12) is nearly complete, though I'd almost dare to order it with some of the best hand-cut fries in town ($4.50) instead of the potato pancakes, to bring a contrasting texture to the generally soft components.
The kielbasa is also one of many ingredients in the bigos ($11), a "Polish hunter's stew" of beef, browned and braised pork, thick bacon lardons, apple, cabbage, and potato. The roster of meats is nicely balanced by the simple addition of the sweet apple, and the massive serving—which could feed two—is comforting as a winter dish.
Given its quality, I'd like to see the kielbasa featured more prominently on the menu: Why not grilled, on a roll, with the fresh dill tartar sauce or sauerkraut? Sliced cold, on a Polish charcuterie board, with the chicken liver pâté, whitefish spread, smoked pork loin, and pickled onions? I had thin coins of biala kielbasa (white kielbasa) in a zupa grzybowa (traditional mushroom soup) once as a guest at a wedding feast in Warsaw, and despite the pint of Chopin we each had apportioned to us that night, I can clearly recall the tremendous flavor the meat and mushrooms created together.
On the "Portland" half of the menu the stand-out starter is a generous plate of remarkably crisp, buttery, beer-battered cheese curds ($6.50), served with a cool, delicious dill tartar sauce. A salad of roasted beets, warm pancetta cubes, candied walnuts, and pickled onions in a sherry vinaigrette ($7) has all the right flavors, but baby spinach is physically incapable of plating nicely, and the whole would eat more easily if the ingredients were cut more fork-friendly.
Of the three Portland mains, the Do'Burger ($10.50) is the most polished, with a deeply beefy, charred half-pound patty, Gruyère, and caramelized onions on a brioche bun. The Porkstrami Reuben ($11.50) is good, but in the places where the bacon-fig relish is applied most liberally, its mild, house-smoked peppered pork loin tastes best.
Their pizzas ($10.50-12) have a good chew and respectable browning, and are slightly thicker than New York-style, but a generosity with the cheese (and in the case of the Kaminski, an unnecessary mountain of kale-bacon sauté) can quickly lead to a soggy center.
Bar Dobre's initial season shows a solid start, a unique offering, and a sincere attention to hospitality. The ingredients are in place, and now they must work hard to add wow factors of color and texture to the food, because their only competition is themselves.
Parking lot, six-seat bar for solo drinkers and diners, happy-hour food menu after 10 pm.