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Bread & Brew: Bar Vivant's tapas have a touch of Pix whimsy

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Patrons (from right to left) Kristi Waite, Jenny Kuglin and John Tierney enjoy Bar Vivant's style.The cutest food in town can be found at Bar Vivant, the new café-bar from pastry chef and bon vivant Cheryl Wakerhauser. She has closed her two cozy Pix patisseries to open a more spacious spot on East Burnside, with room to offer savories along with her well-known sweets.

The weightless, rainbow-hued macarons are still here, front and center in a wraparound glass case, along with elaborate desserts named for seductresses from Carmen Miranda to the Queen of Sheba. The gilded chocolates and marbled, multifaceted bonbons are so pretty you could wear them as jewelry.

Cheese, meat, peppers and bread are also given the petit four treatment, layered in bite-sized arrangements and displayed in and around a glass case.

Little terra cotta cups hold Marcona almonds, with the waxy fattiness of macadamias, and the more woody maple sweetness of almonds. Other tiny dishes hold dates wrapped in bacon and soaking in their own unctuous syrup.

A round, crisp little cracker supports a pillowy dome of goat cheese — not a dense and chalky chévre, but something fresher and lighter, with a bright red squiggle of sweet pepper pinned to the top with a toothpick. Even more adorable, soft-boiled quail eggs are wrapped in a tissue of ham and rolled in sesame seeds.

Many of the snacks are true Spanish tapas. Tortilla espanola, for one, is a tall wedge of thin-sliced potatoes held together with fluffy eggs. Here it’s served cool and topped with a spicy tomato sauce. Another classic, salt cod croquettes, have a crisp, evenly browned shell from which a rich cheese oozes out like lava. They contain a faint but lingering flavor of salt cod, just enough, without being too salty or fishy.

But there is nothing subtle about the garlic flavor of a chilled Spanish soup called ajo blanco, which is white as milk and thickened with almonds.

Rounds of baguette are pedestals for different kinds of peppers, cheeses and pate. One night, smoked salmon was draped over the bread, with a tangy herbed cheese and a huge caper berry pinned to the top. Delicate bits of lemon peel added an extra wisp of flavor and a message: detail is important.

There were baguette slices topped with brie, butter, lacey European ham and a cornichon. Others were topped with sweet whole pimentos or a mild green pepper wrapped around a smaller, spicier specimen.

It really is a tapas bar, not a tapas restaurant.

The setup can be fun or annoying, depending on your mood and the time of day. You order drinks at the bar, or from a server, and you order your food from someone else, by pointing at dishes in the glass case or else by reading them from a chalkboard. There are no printed food menus, and the drinks list is long and hard to navigate.

Not that a long drinks list is a bad thing. There are cocktails, hard-to-find beers, imported cider, and lots and lots of Champagne. Rows of empty bottles of Champagne line one wall, encouraging newcomers to empty another, and forming part of the Pix personality.

There’s a fantasy being maintained, here, or rather, a series of overlapping fantasies: you’re a kid in a candy store who has just been swept off to Paris by a Champagne-loving Spaniard who dances to '80s new wave pop.

It can be pretty funny to watch phlegmatic Portlanders deal with the whimsy. Diners are supposed to toss their napkins on the floor, as partiers do in the bars of San Sebastian, but so far, I haven’t seen anyone do it.

Bar Vivant, 2 p.m.-2 a.m. daily, 2225 E. Burnside St., 971-271-7166, http://www.pixpatisserie.com

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