On the ever-continuing cocktail crawl, aided and abetted by good food to sustain the body, the mind and, yes, the spirit(s), we made it to Radar on N. Mississippi to discover the perfect combination of lovingly created cocktails and an eclectic but inspiring range of foods.
This is a great restaurant, especially for twosomes with its kitchen-bar seating and two-top tables aligning the wall. That’s good, because the small plates/large plates menu encourages a wide range of nibbling, working your way down the list from one delicious creation to another.
A nice touch which eliminates unnecessary fuss and work is the ‘full service placemat’ with the foods listed in the middle, an irresistible list of cocktail specials on one side and the amazingly versatile short list on the other side.
The cuisine style ranges from Spanish to French to Italian to Portugese to Down Home Southern, with every dish executed with flawless precision to showcase each of the ingredients, which you can watch in the open kitchen. There’s no superfluity in this cuisine: each element (and there are some lovely unexpected touches) is there for a particular reason that is immediately obvious to the palate.
We sampled the piquant puffed and powdered garbanzos as we sipped and perused, then cleaned plates, in succession on the tempura-fried cauliflower; pork shoulder on a bed of crispy outside/creamy inside grits (!); salt cod and potato brandade croquettes in a piquillo sauce; one of the finest examples possible of a bluefish paté plate (Radar is very picky about their seafood sources and this shows it; the bluefish reveals all its good characteristics and none of the oily bad ones from mishandling, and the garnish of pickled rhubarb completes the succulent variety of the dish); and a gorgeous and tasty down-home-French plate of grilled asparagus, wafer thin slices of cheese, with Dijon vinaigrette and a perfectly poached egg on the top ready to ooze all over the plate when the fork hit it.
Ah, but what of the beverages? Start with one of the singular best short lists seen lately: Five beers, five ciders, a selection of reds, whites, roses and sparklers that would be chary were it not so nicely balanced. Any wine drinker would be able to find a companionable wine or three from this tiny list.
And the cocktails? Suffice it to say that co-proprietor Lilly, a vivacious, charming hostess with an honest smile, bubbles over with obvious excitement when she discusses her bar program, and her loving whimsy comes through, both in the tidy but intriguing spirits selection, and what she and her staff create from it.
The European Union, with something from the EU major countries joined together in one cocktail, was irresistible, a spirit-forward, pre-Prohibition style that perfectly showcased each of the spirits within. The Strega was a nice touch. Like the menu aesthetic, there’s no frippery and decoration here, with all the elements working together but emerging distinctly.
The Cap & Kid was intriguing, with a superficially strange combination of ingredients. I’m not an overall fan of Akvavit (caraway is okay, but often overwhelming in a spirit, and a little goes a long way in a cocktail) but the combination, especially when Lustau East India Sherry was mentioned, sealed the deal. Again, delicious. Intensely aromatic, with present but subdued Linie Akvavit and all the other ingredients intertwined, leading to a long finish alternately echoing all those ingredients. This is creative cocktail making!
So put Radar on your radar. Go for the foods and discover the amazing cocktails, or go for the cocktails and you’ll definitely enjoy the exquisitely prepared food. And on top of everything else, the price is right (i.e., very affordable, especially considering the quality of both food and drink.)
When you're first seated at Radar restaurant the charming hostess immediately presents you with a cup of delicious not-quite-crunchy but chewy puffed garbanzos rolled in a spicy but not overly hot pepper spice powder. It's perfect for pondering your beverage and food choices from the menu in front of you, which is doubling as your place mat...so you'll always be able to go back to the menu. Which you will do a few times in the course of your eclectic meal.
This is a small plates/large plates menu with a great range of cuisines represented, and you'll want to sample as many of them as you can during the evening.
Radar Cocktail Specials Menu
The entire beverage list for Radar is impressive: it's difficult for a restaurant to pare selections down to only a bare few in each category (five beers, five ciders, a handful of carefully chosen red, white, rose, and sparkling wines), and keep the cocktail program tight as well. But Radar does it as well as I've seen: this could be the very model of an ideal short list beverage menu.
The bar reflects that careful, precise, thoughtful selection process. It's not large but it is well represented. And it is obviously a very personal creation, reflecting the owners and their tastes and the nature of the food.
The European Union cocktail
It's easy to spot this one on the cocktail list, and damn near irresistible for a dedicated cocktail enthusiast. The European Union is a combination of spirits representing several major countries in the EU. Hence the name. England is there with Hayman's Old Tom gin. France is championed by the refined and fruity Busnel Calvados aged apple brandy. Italy is represented by both the too-seldom-seen Strega Liqueur and Italian sweet vermouth. Add in the bitters (Radar is exerting control and now making its own range of bitters) and you have a superb pre-Prohibition, spirit-forward cocktail not afraid to show its individual components in powerful aromas and distinctive flavors, but going one step further and showing an amazing level of harmony with the components. The cocktail comes together seamlessly, without hiding anything, with no superfluous ingredients and the only touch a bare, dark red marinated cherry beckoning from the bottom of the glass, a sweet and pungently tasty dessert crunch after the savory cocktail.
Radar has an interesting and not overly fussy, almost minimalist layout, with the focus on the open kitchen, where you can see the chefs meticulously preparing each dish as ordered. It's a quiet and efficient kitchen, for all of it being publicly visible, and there's a highly trained and efficient crew at work.
Radar is set up primarily to echo the lineal nature of the floor space, with barstools along the kitchen counter and two-top tables running along the walls. It's a casual, relaxed, but subtly refined atmosphere with----important point here, restaurateurs---eclectic music pitched so it can be heard clearly but is not deafening and a conversation-killer.
This is a carefully designed space to highlight a cordial and relaxed (Portland) ambience but with an impressively high level of food and beverage service, remnsicent of L'Atelier du Joel Robuchon. Call it Casual Fine Dining.
Pork shoulder on grits cake
This has rapidly become one of the signature dishes of Radar, and a standard on the menu, both as a large plate and as Happy Hour small plates. Soft, tender, savory and chewy pork shoulder is piled up on a crispy outside-creamy inside grits cake and topped with a delicious unique barbeque sauce, both spicy and sweet. It's the most Downhome Deep South dish on a menu that showcases France and Spain and Italy to perfection.
The saucing at Radar is perfection itself. Each dish was great, but the sauces put the food over the top each time.
Salt cod and potato croquettes
Again, the salt cod and potato croquettes, deep fried, herbed, and served up in a sumptuous piquillo pepper sauce is a triumph of the combination of main food and sauce. Separately, each is great; together it's a plate mopper.
It's difficult to believe you're not somewhere in Spain eating this remarkably good dish.
The Cap & Kid cocktail
One more cocktail was called for. The Cap & Kid intrigued me, and I kept going back to it for its seeming difficulty is harmonizing contrapuntal ingredients. Plus, since I'm not a big fan of akvavit because the caraway is such a dominating spice, I was a bit leery. But when Lilly explained her cocktail creation and mentioned Lustau East Indian Solera Sherry was one of the ingredients, I was a goner. The cocktail was a perfectly balanced savory explosion, and the other ingredients restrained the aged akvavit with ease. A lovely savory cocktail, this.
Bluefish Pate Plate
Bluefish is one of those fishes that has gotten a bad rap over the years, primarily because of the way it is fished or processed. It's in the mackerel family, so tends to be oily and meaty, and if it is not immaculately fresh it can make for an unpleasant dish. But not at Radar: whether it's the careful sourcing or the preparation---I suspect it is both---this bluefish pate is one to linger over for a long time. It's a drink-and-nibble dish par excellence. And the pickled rhubarb was a lovely touch.
Asparagus Vinaigrette with egg
All appetites get sated, and even the most enjoyable evening ends, so we essayed one last course, sort of a green dessert, the asparagus with a dijon mustard seed vinaigrette topped with cheese and a beautiful, huge poached egg. Perfect freshness of ingredients, perfectly cooked and perfectly served up, this was a different, but appropriate, ending for an impressive evening.