Once home to Laughing Horse Books, the corner of SE 36th and Division has recently been converted to Victory, a stylish, brown-hued wine bar—and if customers are less likely to discuss revolutionary politics here than they were at Laughing Horse, the Victory finds its own progressive place in Portland's ongoing hipster haute-food revolution. Where once the Victory might have stood out for its affordable-yet-highbrow menu, this brand of cuisine has become almost commonplace, as new entrants to the dining scene focus increasingly on artisan meats and cheeses, internationally influenced menus, and meticulously selected wine and beer lists. The Victory does distinguish itself, though, for the thoughtfulness and finesse with which their menu is executed.
Primarily a wine bar, with a list of mostly reds available by the glass or bottle, the Victory also offers a cocktail menu distinguished by unusual mixers and flavors: agave syrup, fresh-grated ginger, pomegranate grenadine, and spicy ginger ale.
Their assertive one-page food menu features a lot of strong, briny flavors like anchovy, a smoked fish of the day, and an array of pickled vegetables. There's no finding fault with the food here: It's consistently well executed, with some unusual and interesting flourishes. The Corona bean soup was outstanding; best eaten with a knife and a fork, this "soup" (for lack of a better term) features a square of pork belly plopped atop brightly colored carrots and brussels sprouts that land just the right side of undercooked, all wading in a shallow broth perfect for the act of dipping bread crusts. A baked spaetzle dish could give the best mac and cheese in town a run for its money, pairing creamy Gruyère with crunchy fried shallots and a side of apple compote that lightens the dish. A plate of anchovies served with marinated onions and olive tartine makes a piquant appetizer, while the charcuterie and cheese plate comes with three cheeses and several cuts of pork. Knowledgeable servers will help you find the right wine, from a diverse and reasonably priced list that caps out at $9 a glass.
The devil is in the details, though, and there are some pesky issues here that distract from the food and drink. On both visits, I ran into trouble with the seemingly trivial issue of bread: Once, when we ordered bread to snack on before our meal, it was served with neither olive oil nor butter (at $1.50 for something that's usually complimentary, the lack of condiment was baffling). The second time, with our charcuterie and cheese plate, we had to order bread separately. After both visits I found myself talking about bread—instead of, say, how good the chocolate pot de crème was, or how the addition of Grand Marnier made the house brandy toddy stand out. Additionally, the space gets surprisingly noisy, and the service ranges from sweet to brusque and inattentive.
To be fair, though, there are details here that charm as well: their happy hour, for example, which on Monday through Thursday offers $2 off glasses of wine from any open bottle after 10 pm, offering a nice chance to try some more expensive pours. The servers, too, are quite knowledgeable about the wine: Don't ask unless you want an earful. There's a lot to love about the Victory—hopefully they'll fix some of the issues that make it hard to feel like an unequivocally positive experience.