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BAY WATCH

For fifty years Dolcamino's held forth in a South University storefront, cooking up big batches of pasta and red sauce for hungry students and other locals.

Then the Coos Bay Bistro moved in--and suddenly the street is flooded with folks from all over town hungry for the restaurant's excellent Italian-based, Pacific Northwest-touched cuisine (an influence echoed in the Oregon-originating name). This sudden success presented Coos Bay's owners with a dilemma that most restaurateurs only wish they could face: Keep the quality and intimacy, or expand to handle the crowds and perhaps lose the very things that brought those people to you?

"You can't please everyone," says co-owner Jane Myers. Nonetheless, Coos Bay pleases so many that it often has to turn people away.

Myers used to own part of Croc's Cafe with her brother, Chris, who's also a co-owner of the LoDo Corral Steakhouse; here she's partners with Brett Davy--a former pastry chef at the Flagstaff House and now Coos Bay's chef--and Bill Rohs, another Flagstaff alumni who takes care of Coos Bay's bar.

That bar, while well stocked with affordable, middle-of-the-road wines and an interesting collection of liquors, adds to Coos Bay's crowd-control problem. The bar juts so far into the packed dining room that it's no fun to sit and have a drink while waiting for a table; every few minutes you have to shuffle out of the way as a member of the waitstaff breezes apologetically by. "We have a debate going about what to do," Davy says. "We've talked about going up on the roof, but that's expensive. We're still negotiating for the space next door, but nothing's definite yet. And while we do have customers who aren't happy about the situation, we also have people who say, `Hey, we like it hectic--it has a lot of energy.'"

And you'd better have a lot of energy if you don't have reservations, because otherwise you'll quickly tire of standing in the tiny foyer and waiting 45 minutes to be seated on a Friday night. After having endured so much to get a table, you can hardly blame diners for taking their time in leaving--particularly when Coos Bay's cozy, noisy atmosphere practically invites lingering.

The lightheartedness stretches from the decorating (sort of a vines-and-twigs theme) to the casual menu, copied from Myers's handwritten list, with that day's fish, tapas, wine and beer specials scrawled on two huge blackboards that nearly cover the off-white walls. Fortunately, we found our waitress--dressed in jeans and hiking boots like the rest of the staff--to be amazingly adept at reciting the day's many offerings without sounding like a robot.

We started with the tapas, even though I'm starting to get irritated with how this label is abused; rarely are the offerings the miniature tidbits they're supposed to be. More often, as at Coos Bay, the so-called tapas are full-scale appetizers, some a little lower-priced and smaller-portioned than others, but none in the original style of those found in Spain. There these hors d'oeuvres sit in mounds at tascas, bars where you can alternate sips of cocktails with bite-sized bits of food. My favorites are the shrimp, served heads and all and adorned with only a shake of spices and a kiss of oil. After you've finished this delicacy, you throw the carcass on the floor, along with your cocktail napkin.

At Coos Bay, we kept our napkins to ourselves, even after trying the goat-cheese crouton plate ($2.75), which came closest to a legitimate tapa. Six toasted French bread rounds had been smeared with not enough goat cheese, then each topped with one slice of roma tomato and chopped fresh basil. A marvelous pesto, one in which the garlic didn't overpower and the nuts didn't get lost, sat in the center of the plate--although it clearly belonged on top of each crouton. The green-lip mussels ($4.75), six tasty mollusks sitting in a tomato liquid watered down by their juices, would also have benefited from a dollop of the thick, chunky tomato concoction that came alongside. But the real hit was the stuffed pepper ($4.75), unlike anything your mother ever made. These two peppers were red, roasted and peeled, then stuffed with a steaming risotto pungent with chicken flavor and crowned with a puree of tomatoes replete with parsley and basil.

Given its nautical name, it's hardly surprising that Coos Bay would do well by seafood. An order of the salmon special du jour ($13.90) brought a perfectly grilled--slightly crispy edges and a satiny-soft interior--piece of fish adorned with a saffron beurre blanc. Saffron is one of those ingredients that looks good on a menu but is too expensive to use in enough quantity to make much of a difference. Even though Coos Bay had skimped on the spice, the sauce itself was beautiful: rich but not nauseatingly buttery, smooth and plentiful enough to cover every last bite of salmon. A crunchy, babyish carrot, yellow wax beans and a pile of spicy snap peas served as the accompaniments. The fresh vegetables promised with the pork tenderloin ($8.90) were not as abundant; we counted four skinny, skinny asparagus spears and a few snippets of tomato. We forgave the kitchen's stinginess, though, after we tasted the basil-laden tomato cream sauce that coated not only a healthy serving of penne pasta but ten chunks of tender pork tenderloin as well.

If Coos Bay can pack in as many diners as it does, we figured we could somehow find room for dessert. A pear tart ($3.50) paired thin slivers of the fruit with a delectable short-crust pastry. A real raspberry coulis (the cheap commercial sludge tastes like it could be strawberry) painted on the plate with a creme anglaise was a great visual but did nothing for the delicate tart; on the other hand, its tangy sweetness was bliss underneath a hazelnut tuille filled with three scoops of chocolate mousse ($4). The mousse's texture was both fluffy and creamy at the same time, and the chocolate was potent, although not so much so that we had to clear our throats after every bite.

Although Davy and Myers work together to come up with most of the entree and appetizer recipes, Davy alone is responsible for the scrumptious desserts. Myers, however, can take all the credit for that powerful pesto, which we sampled again during a visit at lunch--a time slot that's not as popular, although the room remained full during most of our meal.

In a nod to the building's last resident--Dolcamino's left behind its monstrous oven--Coos Bay serves a variety of pizzas. When the place opened earlier this year, Davy and company even offered Dolcamino's killer garlic pizza (which won Westword's Best of Denver award in 1993), but after they found that diners were ordering more of their newer creations, they dropped it (although they'll still make the pie on request). We tried the pesto pizza ($7.80), an individual-sized pizza made with feta, pancetta, mozzarella and, usually, Kalamata olives (we asked the kitchen to hold them). Coos Bay's crust is Italian-style: thin, light and studded with little pockets of air. The pesto proved itself once again, and the pancetta added a welcome saltiness. The seafood pizza ($9.50) wasn't as successful; the garlic had been roasted to oblivion, the artichokes were lacking their usual earthiness and, although the menu offered "grilled shrimp or scallops," the four scallops' worth of slices weren't grilled (for that matter, the shrimp aren't grilled either, says Davy, who doesn't seem to know why the menu was written that way). I might have been better off ordering the marinara sauce (the pizzas come either white or red)--but while the tomatoes might have perked things up, they probably would have overwhelmed the scallops.

The kitchen made a comeback with the Multnomah Falls spinach salad ($6.60). The ingredients were unfailingly fresh and the combination wonderful: Mildly wilted, bright-green spinach leaves had been evenly coated with a warm, pancetta-spotted dressing gussied up with chilled caramelized onions, roasted red bell peppers and jagged pillows of goat cheese. When I got a bite containing a little something of everything, it was as though all of life had suddenly come into focus and Elvis had been spotted at the bar.

I hope not. As it is, it's tough enough getting into Coos Bay.

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