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Pepe Le Moko Grasshopper

One Night in Portland

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

In visits past, I’ve had a full week to dig into over 50 restaurants, food spots and bars around Portland. But this Spring it was a visit to the Willamette Valley with the wonderful SakeOne that brought me up north, meaning it was one night only in Portland, though, in typical fashion, I packed in 3 restaurants, a coffee shop and 2 cocktail bars.

Basement charmer: Pepe Le Moko, the new bar from Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Basement charmer: Pepe Le Moko, the new bar from Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Luc Lac cocktails

Luc Lac cocktails

Let’s just get the bad news out of the way: some of the worst customer service I have ever encountered behind a bar anywhere in the world (out of a few hundred visits per year) – and from the bar manager, no less – happened at Luc Lac Kitchen. Though I must warn against making this a stop, it’s not worth getting into the details of disinterested, distant and cold service from the moment guests walk up to the bar (ask, and I’ll fill you in, however). The biggest disappointment – besides having to pay for such treatment – was wasting a visit on this spot when I had singled out Luc Lac for its unique cocktail menu featuring Asian ingredients from kaffir lime to Thai tea to mung beans. The cocktails were good but the service makes it a big “no” (try Danny Louie’s fantastic Asian-influenced cocktails at Chino in SF… with gracious service).

Bakersfield Picon Punch Royale ($10): Torani Amer Picon, lemon, Oregon brandy, grenadine, sparkling wine

On a happier note, modern day bar legend Jeffrey Morgenthaler‘s Pepe Le Moko, around the corner from his famed Clyde Common bar, was merely a month old when I visited this Spring. Besides a warm welcome at the door, we received engaged service downstairs in the intimate bar that feels akin to spots like the new Nitecap in NYC… but Pepe Le Moko is friendlier. Bar snacks ($3) include cumin roasted pistachio nuts, and there’s also bocadillos ($5) loaded with the likes of sardines and pickled fennel or nutella and Jacobsen sea salt.

What’s fun about the cocktails here is the menu dominates with guilty pleasure favorites like an Amaretto Sour, Grasshopper or a Long Island Iced Tea – yes, elevated but not necessarily always using “artisanal” spirits. In fact, it’s funny seeing mainstream, sweet brands mixed in with smaller brands. Given the cocktail expertise behind the bar, balance is the name of the game and the four I tasted were lovely (and should be, at up to $14 per cocktail).

Pepe Le Moko Amaretto Sour

Pepe Le Moko Amaretto Sour

Morgenthaler’s Amaretto Sour ($14) recipe is a good as I’d heard: nutty, tart, sweet and boozy with amaretto, overproof bourbon, lemon and egg white.

But I couldn’t help it: my favorite is the Grasshopper ($11). While I’ve had (and make at home) gorgeous versions of what was my first favorite cocktail as a girl (ahem!) when Tempus Fugit first came out with their incomparable creme de menthe and creme de cacao in 2011, the Pepe version is more like a boozy-but-light milkshake – made with Bols Crème de menthe, Decaypur crème de cacao, Fernet BrancaMenta, vanilla ice cream and sea salt for balance. An ideal dessert.

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