Chef Althea Potter sets a low-slung handmade ceramic bowl on the table, straightens and says in a tone of voice typically reserved for cats, puppies and new babies: “Aren’t those carrots just so adorable?”
And they are. No thicker than a pencil yet perfectly formed, these baby carrots from Groundwork Organics have nothing in common with the sad, woody nubbins sold in plastic bags at the grocery store. Instead, they’re delicious, and especially so plated with a flurry of fleshy sprouts and edible flowers and resting atop a foundation of rich, nutty sunflower butter, then served alongside a glass of Welsh Family Wines’ zippy 2017 Gewürztraminer at Oui! Wine Bar in Portland.
Southeast Wine Collective’s food offerings have always been a notch above the charcuterie-and-baguette wine bar basics, but the opening of Oui! in the same space in December 2017 has given Potter room to showcase some more ambitious fare.
Originally founded in 2012, Southeast Wine Collective is much as it sounds: a custom crush winery in inner Southeast Portland that serves as an incubator for small-scale and startup winemakers. Collective members get to use the winemaking facilities and sell their wines at the swanky attached bar, getting in front of hordes of Division Street merrymakers and saving the expensive equipment purchases for later on. Right now, there are 11 different labels made at the collective, plus founders Kate Norris and Tom Monroe’s own labels, Division Winemaking Co. and Gamine.
With the launch of Oui!, Chef Potter has been upgraded from her previously tiny kitchen – think walk-in closet with an induction burner – to one that is merely small. The equipment is still pared-down (no hood means no fryer, grill or range), but Potter and her crew seem totally unencumbered by their low-key gear. Creativity, as every haiku author knows, often flourishes under constraints.
Oui! Wine Bar now offers drinkers more choices and more variety when it comes to food, including a prix fix chef’s tasting menu for $39 that must rank as one of the great Portland date-night deals. The focus remains on seasonal vegetables, locally sourced and plated in a wine-friendly manner. “I’m influenced by the spirit of what is happening in Parisian food now,” says Potter. “It’s taking those really traditional techniques but adding an embrace of international flavors, and also staying really true to seasonality.”
A recent visit featured dishes like the carrot hummus, a vibrant puddle of bright-orange carrot-tahini puree adorned with chickpeas, green herbs, pickled raisins, crunchy nuts and a drift of crispy puffed rice laced with warm spices. Served with a flaky flatbread for scooping, it’s a lovely accompaniment to a glass of 2016 Cremant de Portland, a sparkling Chenin Blanc from Division Winemaking Co..
Another veg-forward home run was the snap pea salad. Thinly sliced on the bias, the peas provided a juicy contrast to garnishes of soft cheese and like-bacon-but-better crispy sopressata salami. Dishes rotate seasonally, but you can expect vegetable-forward plates with bold texture and bright visual appeal any time of year.
The drinks list at Oui! Wine Bar is, predictably, wine-centric, heavily featuring collective members but also putting the spotlight on hip European regions like Jura and the Loire Valley. Collective wines are surprisingly eclectic, with everything from straightforward Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir to oddities like Blaufränkish and a “Super Cascadian” made from a blend of Petit Verdot and Pinot Noir.
Not every pour is a home run – it’s an incubator, after all, and these winemakers are just getting started in their careers – but the energy and range of the wines on offer make up for the occasional inconsistency. Plus, almost everything is available by the glass, and an extensive flight list and generous bar staff mean you can test the waters before giving your final “oui.”