Pause and Smell the Meatloaf 

Searching for Greatness at Pause Kitchen

Everybody loves the Low Brow Lounge—the smoky, divey little bar in Northwest that provides a welcome escape from the Pearl District's chi-chi bar scene. The forces behind the Low Brow have recently opened another restaurant: North Portland's Pause Kitchen and Bar, a more upscale outpost just off the Interstate MAX line.

Pause is like the Low Brow's sexy older sister: A little more grown-up, but just as appealing in its own right. Maroon walls, a handful of booths, and cute low-hanging light fixtures all combine to set a hip, intimate tone. Casual, but still a little classy, Pause would make an equally good destination for a relaxed date or a night out with the kids (children are welcome, but not necessarily encouraged to express themselves—no temper tantrums here). Prices are reasonable—two people can eat comfortably for $20—and there are a range of options to suit all appetites, from sliders (veggie sliders too, with tiny house-made veggie patties) to a Cuban ham and pork sandwich to pizza with squash and Gorgonzola.

Though vegetarians won't starve here, the menu is definitely skewed toward the carnivore. Hamburger meat is ground in-house and steaks are hand-cut, and meatloaf and house-made sausage links all make an appearance on the menu. I tried the cassoulet, an appealingly hearty stew that showcases Pause's love affair with meat: a generous amount of hot links, duck confit, ham hock, and roast pork cooked with winter greens and white beans, and topped somewhat inexplicably with bread crumbs (they got soggy, fast, and contributed nothing to the dish except making it harder to eat). I loved the ham sandwich, a simple little combo of smoky ham, egg, and cheddar, while the "Everyday Special" is the kind of deal that'll have me coming back: two sliders, fries, and a pint of Flying Dog Pale Ale for $7.

In general, the meat-based options are far more successful than the menu's veggie offerings. They seem a bit of an afterthought, as if the kitchen's real interests lie elsewhere. I'll probably avoid the veggie burger in the future: The homemade veggie patty had an unpleasantly gummy consistency that no number of crisp house-made pickles could disguise, while a warm salad with cremini mushrooms and truffle oil was in the final assessment an unappealing heap of limp, greasy greens. On the other hand, it's hard to resist the creamy, panko-topped baked mac and cheese that comes to the table still bubbling from the oven. The first time I tried the mac it was bland and one-dimensional, but the second time there was a noticeable improvement; some sharp cheese had been added to the sauce, giving it much more flavor. This suggests that the menu is still being tweaked—hopefully other items will continue to improve, because Pause's only real problem at this point is consistency.

My impulse is to give the joint the benefit of the doubt. There are definitely items on the menu that work well, the service is welcoming, the atmosphere comfortable, and the full bar, with its relatively cheap wine list and decent beer selection, make it a great place to drink. (Only, unlike at the Low Brow, you won't smell like cigarettes and chicken strips when you leave.) As long as Pause keeps getting better, there's no reason why it couldn't one day be great.

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