THE LAST TIME I was in the space currently occupied by Nel Centro, it was an inner-city motel dive bar. I was visiting from out of town on "business," smoking heavily and stirring up an affair in a naugahyde booth. A man played a tinkling, jazzy melody on a small electric piano. The patrons were drunk, haggard, and old. Nothing was clean.
Many years later—after a thorough scrubbing and fierce remodel—Nel Centro offers almost no clue of the lowbrow watering hole that once welcomed the more colorful denizens of Southwest Portland. The shoddy barfly aesthetic has given way to clean, etherized modernism, à la Crate and Barrel, with contrasting wood grains and various shades of brown in abundance.
From large, street-facing windows, the dining room progresses calmly toward a showy open kitchen. Here diners can glimpse the wood-fired oven and the mesmerizing rotisserie where chickens spin lazily in and out of flames.
Separated from the dining room by a long runway to the host's desk, the rectangular bar offers plenty of seating. Outside, a stunning patio completes the comforting chic. Everything looks mannered and expensive.
This is also true for the food. Nel Centro's hard-working kitchen creates Riviera-inspired cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with menus chockfull of high-end restaurant standards augmented by fresh pasta dishes and wood-fired pizza.
An extended view, from breakfast to dinner, confirms Nel Centro to be above par in most areas. Still, the restaurant does suffer some glitches, not the least of which being a flat, lifeless, house-made focaccia.
Sadly, cheese-stuffed saffron risotto balls (or "Arancini," per the menu) also completely miss the mark, tasting like tinned dishwater. The pool of tomato fondue surrounding the risotto balls is tasty though, with a sweetness and flavor strangely reminiscent of apricots.
A dinner entrée of herb gnocchi and wild boar ragu was easily the best dish I ate at the restaurant—the gnocchi was permeated with the rich, meaty, red-wine-and-garlic tanginess of the ragu. The boar itself (large chunks of it mixed throughout) was very tender, but firm enough to offer contrast to the soft gnocchi.
A braised lamb shank, over root vegetable puree, was just this side of fall-off-the-bone tender, but still lush in texture. The lamb flavor was mellower than one might expect, but the root vegetable puree, with still-crunchy carrot bits, added brighter notes. An accompanying side of greens was all right, but like the entire entrée, could have used more salt.
Some dinner menu items are held over from lunch. A potato, fennel, and leek soup, for instance, is easily slurped at either seating. Rich, creamy, savory; the soup is made even better by stirring in a small floating island of fried leeks.
The lamb burger is a good lunch option, though may be too fatty and muted for some. The burger is prepared perfectly to temp, stacked atop a hunk of sautéed red onion, topped with roasted red pepper and warmed cow's milk feta, and tucked into a homemade brioche bun. The burger, like much of the food at Nel Centro, is very soft, but saved from mushiness by the sturdy red onion.
Breakfast options at Nel Centro are fairly standard bunch-type dishes. I ran into some trouble with what were essentially polenta eggs benedict (though it lacked the title on the menu). The eggs were over-poached, and had a bizarre, flavorless, watery texture. What deliciousness there was in the zesty, buttery hollandaise, fried ham, and (again) soft polenta rounds was completely lost to the miserable eggs. The side of thin, crisped potato rounds, however, was fantastic.
For a better, lighter option, the house-made granola is very good. The mixture of oats, nuts, and raisins is flavored with vanilla and a touch of sugar, and would mix very nicely into a bowl of yogurt.
At first glance, the price tag for some dishes may seem a bit steep, but Nel Centro does not skimp on portions. Also, the service is in line with cost: present, slightly fussy about the details, but allowing diners space to breathe.
I'm happy to report that despite the changes at the corner of 6th and Columbia, Nel Centro may not be able to keep a certain downtown grit at bay. While eating my eggs benedict there on a recent morning, I heard an old woman behind me.
"The good old days!" she said loudly. "The good old days!"
Her server looked at her curiously.
"Oh, I was just looking at a homeless man walking up the street," she said, sipping her coffee. "I used to be there. The good old days! Now I'm 72."
Her server came by the table and very sweetly, without condescension, replied, "Well, I'm glad you're not there anymore."