ILWACO, Wash. - First it was Pauly's Bistro, then the Port Bistro, even though most of the regulars continued to call the place by its original name.
Now the restaurant fronting Ilwaco's harbor has new owners, and it's anybody's guess which of the two monikers patrons will favor.
No matter. The essence of the Long Beach Peninsula's only true bistro remains intact. It's the ideal neighborhood restaurant. Except there's no neighborhood; instead, the appropriately named Port Bistro sits amid Ilwaco's Harbour Village, an elongated row of art galleries, seafood markets, a book store, a coffee house, a charter fishing operation, a brass store, a bank, a seafood processing operation and two other eateries. Backdropping it all is a marina moored with small craft.
Left for dead little more than a decade ago, the harbor presently pulses with energy. Art walks, a seasonal Saturday Market and other events happen here, yet with all the potential chi-chiness, the area retains a salty vibe found nowhere else on the Peninsula. While you dine at Port Bistro, those folks strolling by your window might just as easily be fishing boat skippers or deckhands as tourists from Seattle, who are rediscovering Ilwaco in droves. The feel is real: This time of year, the aroma of bait and gutted fish can permeate the air, and ducks have been known to hunker around the bistro's back door looking for handouts.
Wisely, the new proprietors, Bay Area expats Larry Piaskowy and Jennifer Williams, who took over in late May, have retained the popular menu selections that were so carefully crafted by former owners Jeff and Geri Marcus and their sous chef Vanessa Mulinix. The last is a rising culinary star who has re-upped as the full-fledged kitchen partner of Piaskowy. Mulinix will be leaving the Port Bistro soon to run her own show at the Inn at Discovery Coast, Piaskowy said. Williams has the hardest job: running the front of the house and tending to pretty much everything beyond the kitchen.
The Marcuses term the Piaskowy-Williams partnership "really positive, upbeat and just plain fun to be around," meaning they're an ideal fit for Port Bistro, a restaurant that follows none of the normal templates, at least in these parts. Interior walls are painted light sea blue and are hung with vibrant paintings. A row of tables fronts the harbor-facing windows, while a copper-faced serving counter affords alternative seating. The restaurant's dining area resonates the excitement and noise of its clientele.
It's a blissfully unpretentious setting and a hoot to eat at, yet the kitchen exhibits the same deft touch you might expect only at higher-end establishments. Mulinix and Piaskowy, who says he plans to source as many Northwest ingredients as possible, team to create the same gastronomic magic that made Port Bistro Coast Weekend's Restaurant of the Year in 2004. The duo's range is all over the culinary map: Burgers and BLTs share menu space with shrimp scampi linguini and daily steak specials that range from steak au poivre and a grilled ribeye sauced with caramelized Walla Walla onions to a bistro cut freshened by a smoky blue cheese butter.
Sesame-crusted oysters, bay beauties covered with a crunchy exterior, are exactly as they were. Which is to say superior, as fine a plate of oysters as you'll find in the Columbia-Pacific region, especially considering the bivalves' stellar sidekicks - garlic-parsley-infused taters and irresistible apple-fennel slaw. Halibut prepared the same way, however appetizing, seems just a glorified version of fish 'n chips.
Not so with the sushi-style napoleon, the real stunner on the menu. Usually a dessert enclosed with crisp puff pastry and layered with delectable fillings, here it's a carefully constructed architectural marvel of lightly seared ahi tuna (or Dungeness crab, or both), avocado, steamed rice, cucumber and sweet chilies, with a side of wasabi.
Pairing hot and cold fixings on the same plate presents a challenge for any kitchen. Port Bistro's entree-in-itself warm seafood salad arrives even less tepid than advertised - a mishmash of crab, prawns and tiny bay scallops mixed with mesclun and coated in a creamy dill dressing. My taste buds bucked a bit; I would have preferred an oil-based dressing to complement, instead of smother, the sundry salty flavors. Many diners might deem this seafood fettuccine-like treatment just right. In any case, I enjoyed the shoestring fries served atop the greens, a playful and tasty touch.
The Bistro salad tossed with the same mesclun blend, plus candied pecans, sliced apples and bits of blue cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette is perfection and ties the house salad at The Depot (in nearby Seaview) for the title of the Peninsula's finest plate of greens. You might match the salad with a bowl of sweet corn chowder or unorthodox wild mushroom minestrone - the term means "big soup" in Italian, and this version is hearty.
From salads to steak specials, all the meals are artfully plated and a pleasure to look at, although a dish, however well-intentioned, might suffer from poor execution. Such was the case with pork tenderloin spread atop a portion of scalloped potatoes. Sliced apples and cranberry chutney added textural and eye-pleasing enhancements, yet a layer of cream rendered those taters a sloshy experience.
Bite-sized tidbits of crusty house bread and a small dipping bowl of herb-infused olive oil accompany every meal. Wine by the glass is served bistro-style in tumblers, which usually means a bigger pour. The wine list has grown to 30 bottles, with more Northwest additions.
For dessert, a Marionberry cobbler is standard stuff, but bread pudding "cake" topped with whipped cream is a fine way to cap a meal. Even more luscious might be the upcoming lineup of house-crafted sorbets and ice creams. Raspberry sorbet is currently offered, but look for, say, a bistro sundae concocted with roasted cherry vanilla ice cream. Now that might be a treat even the harbor ducks would waddle out of their way to savor.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103, phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org