GRAB A DRINK The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club serves up choice cocktails.
The recent vogue surrounding Scandinavian food is quite possibly a right-wing conspiracy funded by the Koch brothers, or some other devious billionaire. They fear we might learn the obvious lessons from northern Europe: how to maintain a vibrant economy with a generous welfare state, how to improve schools by respecting and compensating teachers, how to run state-sponsored health care without a complicated website. So they inoculate us with harmless doses of less appealing Scandinaviana — like those cruddy Dragon Tattoo books, and their bitter-dour cuisine.
But turnabout is fair play. If chefs make this cuisine appealing enough, perhaps a Scandinavian sensibility will worm its way deeper into our viscera. And if they lower our inhibitions with great drinks, so much the better. These are the strategies taken at the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, which pairs a simple menu of Scandinavian cuisine with a long and imaginative cocktail list.
That cocktail menu, bound in leather, looks handsome on the metal bar, the counter that lines the tall windows, or the communal tables of dark wood. The space is spare, and the most prominent element of décor is the dozens of bottles they put to use, and some antlers here and there. The stools are blockish metal Tolix, and the chairs curving plastic Eames. There is a little wood-paneled room for intimate drinking, which looks a bit like a sauna.
The spare décor is all the better for showing off the great-looking drinks. One of the pleasures of the thoughtful menu is the way the bartenders offer interesting varieties of common themes. In one round you can try three different sours, for example. We loved the Trinidad version — named for a generous dose of Trinidadian angostura bitters, which gave the red frothy drink a sharp bite, along with flavors of almond and licorice. The Saffron Sour showed off the bar’s ability to manipulate not just flavors, but textures — an almost chalky dryness lingered in the froth over the mellower bitterness of the Fernet Branca.
There are plenty of stiff drinks served in lowballs. We liked the Toronto, blending spicy rye whiskey with several bitters, which was all hot-heat and sharp flavor. Other drinks mellow and tug the liquors with fresh juices — like the Ward Eight, which dissipated the whiskey heat with the sweetness of orange and a kick of sharp lemon, or an Italian Greyhound that tasted like a grapefruit sprinkled with salt and sugar.
While sour and bitter are features of the drink menu, they are at the heart of Hunt and Alpine’s food — served on planks and meant for sharing. There is something pickled on every plate, as well as a pickle plate. Open-faced sandwiches come on a terrific dark, dense, seedy German bread. The best combined sweet crab and shrimp with creamy avocado and a touch of lemon sour. On another the bitter of the radish butter got lost under big slices of cheese and apple drizzled in honey, and pickled herring was obscured by egg slices and sharp onion. The egg worked better when served deviled — stuffed with creamy smoked trout, spotted with sharp capers.