|Two new eateries offer stamps, Le Steak and something to smile about.
By Christina Melander
Of course, there's a danger in being too good-looking. People might think you're dumb and unsubstantial At Crowsenberg's Half & Half and Le Happy, one needn't worry that the resoundingly cheerful trappings compensate for a lack of heat in the kitchen. These nosh spots have brains and beauty in spades.
Let's start with Crowsenberg's, a joint that is half breakfast and lunch destination and half a convenience store of the quirkiest kind. The menu of sundries -- from roasted green peas to Pop Rocks -- and food items, which run the gamut from toast with peanut butter and Fluf to the Wild Colonial sandwich consisting of roast pork, mango chutney, Swiss cheese and red onions, perfectly reflects the personalities of the Crowsenberg team, Keith Crowe and Robin Rosenberg. "When Keith and I decided to do this, we came up with our dream store and there were no rules to keep us from selling mouthguards," explains Rosenberg, the foodie side of the partnership. She's talking about some of the unique aspects that puts Half & Half ahead of dime-a-dozen Portland cafes. Like the seafoam-green velveteen kittens that decorate the counter, or the singular O.B. tampons and Trojan-Enz condoms for sale at 50 cents a pop. Or the public service-style posters circa 1978 in the bathroom reminding youngsters to Stay Neat and the homemade granola, heavy on whole almond and green pumpkin seeds, featured in Robin's yogurt and fruit parfaits. Here, God really is in the details.
Detaib such as the grain salad that accompanies sandwiches, the commitment to using organically grown bananas (because the mass-market variety taste mealy) and an eye on fun, exciting snacks and sundries make evident the pair's smarts in creating a place that's different. "I like to order a bunch of stock, not knowing what I'm going to make beforehand, and then experiment. Sort of like raiding the refrigerator," says Rosenberg.
But don't think that the made-from-scratch sandwiches are just thrown together. Indeed, they rival their pre-made cousins at the nearby Pearl Bakery and surpass the ones at Grand Central, where Rosenberg worked off and on for years. This bent for the homemade produces sammies layered with Thai-style eggplant, olive tapenade, chile cream cheese, roasted shallot mayonnaise, tofu salad and Reuben-style tempeh -- not all together, of course. Here, instead of a plain turkey sandwich you can sink your teeth into the William Tell turkey number with Swiss, apple slices amd dijon mustard.
There are more thoughtful and delicious details you should know about: One specialty salad and three sandwiches rotate weekly -- one always vegan -- augmenting the regular menu of grilled cheese and the best-selling tuna melt: the concoctions are hemmed in by Grand Central bread. Due to urgent customer requests, a daily soup is coming soon. This is the only place downtown to get supreme doughnuts, direct from Helen Bernhardt's bakery. And in a city where coffee matters, Crowsenberg's offers one of the best cups around: Stumptown Coffee Roasters, provided by the meticulous purveyor Duane Sorensen. (He took two days to train Crowe and Rosenberg on the brewing process amd stops by regularly to make sure they're doing it right.)
Le Happy is no stranger to the little things that make a big difference, either. John Brodie, who manages Pink Martini and 3 Leg Torso and ran Muu-Muu's during its first year, has artfully transformed the old African Roots space into a vibrantly hued crêperie. The red, gold and flower-splashed eatery is located in the no-man's land between the Pearl District and Northwest 21st Avenue. In order to thrive, Le Happy will need to establish itself as a destination. By giving people something different and a reason to linger, Brodie is attempting to do just that.
There are crêpe stands in Portland, but no crêpe restaurants. "Crêpes are a social food. Six people can go out and order eight crêpes and everyone can try them," says Brodie. Though this newcomer hasn't drawn huge crowds so far, that might be just as well. Brodie is interested in creating an easy environment that fosters a French (read: leisurely) approach to dining. Think of it as French tapas, a meal that is meant to progress casually and be shared. But can Portlanders be convinced that crêpes and a salad constitute a full meal?
"My first experience with crêpes was at Ti-Couz in San Francisco seven or eight years ago. My friends suggested we go there and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding, I'm hungry,'" recalls Brodie. "But it was excellent."
A crêpe and salad may not be enough to sate robust appetites -- and at about $12 for the two, you sort of hope it would be -- but rest assured that what the kitchen does produce is tasty and well-balanced. Brodie recruited John Roos, who ran a crêperie in Ville Franche sur Mer on the French Riviera and was also a pastry chef at Il Piatto and a cook at Muu-Muu's, to man the kitchen and collaborate on the menu. Some items, especially the sweet crêpes -- Suzette, butter and sugar, chocolate and banana -- are traditional French. Other selections such as Le Trash Blanc (cheddar and bacon, throw in a Pabst for a buck) and Demi-Vegan Tofu, which incorporates tofu, black beans, cilantro, cucumber, onion and a peanut/panang sauce and is actually quite good, exhibit a decidedly Yankee flair. The savory crêpes are made with buckwheat flour, upping their heartiness.
Apart from the salads, which are eclectic melanges of shredded zucchini and carrot, or rice cakes and avocado, the less complicated offerings work best. Simple standouts include the Faux Vegan -- spinach, mushrooms, creme fraiche, goat cheese -- and the pommes dessert, as good as Mom's apple pie. A no-nonsense $10 sirloin steak, Le Happy's only entree-like entree, is also commendable.
As is the case at Crowsenberg's, the details jump out and make you take notice at Le Happy. The tea, for example, is without a doubt the best $1 beverage in town. It's Mariage-Freres that Brodie just brought back from Paris. He describes it as the best tea in the world, and it's hard not to agree. The wines are also French, from smaller vineyards that are probably unfamiliar to most diners. No matter, servers are happy to give you a taste till you find one you like.
Half & Half and Le Happy both opened late in October. Both are adorable and very Portland in their eclecticism, but they also fill practical needs. It's too soon to tell whether enough people will discover and embrace these lookers, but so far, their mettle is as tough as their makeup is fresh.