The Asian fusion restaurant Smallwares is one of the reasons why Portland is such a delight to explore.
The decor is quintessentially Portland: a mix of DIY craft, as featured in the red netting over the hanging globe lights, rustic charm, with the long wooden table in the back for large parties, and hipster-chic, with simple red ledges tacked to the white wall of the bar.
The restaurant itself is in an area called Fremont, a lesser-known neighborhood of the city. The street is rarely busy, and markets antique knick-knack shops, bars and restaurants.
The menu offers an assortment of Asian-inspired small plates that averaged about $10 for oyster du jour and went up to $17 for oxtail curry. The dishes are about two servings each and are meant to be shared family style.
One Thursday night, my friend and I ordered scallop sashimi, a dashi poached egg appetizer, fried kale, lemongrass pork sandwich and pork belly cabbage wraps, which was more of an entree size than an appetizer. Overall, the dinner was savory and prepared very well. However, each dish was quite salty, and the meal as a whole seemed to beg for something light, sweet or tangy to balance the palate. Perhaps the server could have recommended the kimchi, which has spice, vinegar and cabbage as an option.
The scallop sashimi, cut into thin slices, was fresh, but it was overpowered by too much pepper. The two bold flavors of pink peppercorn and aji amarilllo, a yellow pepper, were harsh on the sashimi's sweet taste and the bit of lychee fruit on top.
The next course, a dashi poached egg, had salmon roe and sprigs of mustard greens. The egg was well poached and the insides were creamy, but the greens, which should have offered a crisp counterbalance to the saltiness of the egg, didn't add anything to the dish. There was too much salmon roe, which, though quite salty, delightfully burst in my mouth like bubbles.
The fried kale was crunchy and crackly, doused in fish sauce. The first two dishes were small servings, but the kale was heaped in a big bowl. Again, very salty, but good texture.
I was curious to see how Smallwares would prepare the lemongrass pork sandwich, a version of the traditional Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi. All the usual ingredients, julienned carrots, daikon and cilantro, were neatly stacked inside two toasted baguette slices. The taste of fresh vegetables was once again crushed by the saltiness of the pork. The meat, to the restaurant's credit, was well-cooked. Very moist and tender. But the lemongrass, which should have been a headlining flavor of the small plate, was hardly there.
Finally, the pork belly small plate came out. The pieces of belly were surprisingly not as salty as the other dishes, and I preferred this dish over the others. The belly was arranged in four corners like bread toast, with daikon, red onion and lettuce leaves. Two sauces were available for dipping.
The meal of four small plates, including a whiskey drink and a gin cocktail, came to $70 for two people. The salty dishes could be improved by offering a counterpart of lighter menu items. The cooking execution, however, was spot-on, and the pleasant ambience, so indicative of Portland, was inviting. It was a treat to see how creative Smallwares could get with Asian cuisine.