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Colin Howard moved to Portland from the East Coast about nine years ago with an Environmental Science degree under his belt and a passion for winemaking. Unable to take the hours in what he called "a brief, but horrible career in lab science," he transitioned into the wine industry full time. This eventually led to the opening of Oso Market — a stylish bar, restaurant, and retail market nestled in between Dig A Pony and the East Bank Saloon — this past October. After opening with a drink menu limited to beer and wine, on July 1, Howard and the Oso Market team will launch their first cocktail menu: It's a creative list with rich ingredients like Acha Rojo Vermouth, Bodegas Grant Amontillado Sherry, smoked-tea vanilla syrup, and a strawberry brine. (Not to mention the unusual pickle back pairings, like a scorpion Mezcal with a fennel back.)
Eater caught up with Howard to chat about how business has been so far, knowing regulars on a first name basis, the up-and-coming cocktail program, and the wacky things that happen on Grand Ave — guard your toilet paper.
"It was sort of like nerd party." >>
How did you initially transition from Environmental Science to the wine business?
I was loving science, but frustrated with lack the aesthetic or nuance, to a degree, I didn't want to count trees all day long. So I put those two things together — the desire to be creative and that outlet with interesting scientific study. I was really lucky to have a good friend who was in wine buying at the time, so I was coming home with all this interesting growing and production knowledge and he was collecting all these wines from work from all over the world. It was sort of like nerd party. We'd stay up all night drinking expensive bottles of wine, listening to all the music we had, and freaking out about, like "This is amazing how these landscapes are visible in these bottles of wine."
Oso Market is still relatively new, how's business been?
It's still growing. It's a big idea, and it's a big physical space, so in some ways we are still growing into it. For us, it's been about balance with the wine, balance with the food, and leaving space for everything. I think people appreciate the aesthetic where it's like, "Oh, you're taking me to lunch and this place maybe reminds me of my last trip to Europe." That isn't on every corner of this block, so adding that to the mix has been the missing puzzle piece.
What's the clientele been like so far?
Because we are lunch and dinner, we notice a lot of office and design firm employees: a younger, professional, creative mix of people coming in during the day. You want lunch to fill you up, but that doesn't leave you sunk. And I think they appreciate the attention to detail in that way, where it's like, "I know you need to get back, and go do a bunch of other smart things after one o'clock." It's a lot of folks from Roundhouse and Wildfang from down the street. We see a lot of client meetings.
And the nighttime crowd?
We are still so young that one night I'm like, "This is definitely our crowd." And then the next night it's all different.
Do you find yourself mostly behind the bar or filling other roles?
As the owner, I'm anything from emergency vegetable pick-up, to taking out the trash, and beverage buying, all of that. I'm happy enough to employ the skills of very, very solid bartenders. I'm doing more like, "Gather around me," that sort of leadership. I've got a few ideas that I want to throw in, but you guys have decades of experience, so let's get the best minds at the table. They've been really brilliant, doing really fun stuff. And they love using hard liquor, but they've been great working with the lower proof stuff until now.
Have guests been expressing a want for a cocktail list?
Yes, and internally, we wanted to establish as wine and beer, and put that as the keystone. We wanted that be our first foot forward. The history of wine, its relationship to food, and the fact that we seek out interesting wines — it's not just a few of the great stalwarts. We are always trying to find underdogs, unknown regions, and cool offshoots from big wineries. We always intended to do cocktails as well, but we wanted to make sure they are recognizable, but also really interesting. We are right between two places with spirits, so we have taken the time to figure it out.
Can you give us a little taste of what we'll see on the cocktail menu?
We're using a lot of rare-find vermouths, aperitifs, sherries, and madeiras. As great as spirits are, they make a really strong backbone for a drink, but the levels of flavors come from what you pair it with. The "El Guapo" [named for ¡Three Amigos!, "nobody messes with El Guapo"] is a beautiful drink. It's vodka, a little orange liqueur, full rich madeira — which is the darker, sweeter madeira — a little bitters and soda. It has that smoky, caramel, darker flavor to it, but it's very bright with the orange and soda. And it's a beautiful color too, it's got this chocolate-cola-orange, a kind of cream soda going on.
In your time open so far, have you developed a group of regulars yet?
Mike and Mary are the two people that we probably see the most. [Laughs] And they always get a bottle of Canary Island wine and mussels without the chorizo. They are this cute couple: It's sort of like and Abbott and Costello sort of thing. They feed off each other. They come in, grab a seat, throw the pocketbook down, and start a conversation. They are some of the most fun. We've, also, been very privileged to see Glenda Goldwater, one of our more locally recognized regulars. She's usually reading art books with a well-chosen glass of wine and a salad. A wonderful lady.
Any cut-offs or crazies?
We get some people who hang out mostly on the street, you know what I mean, sometimes they get a little wild. I've had people kissing the window, pouring water bottles all over the table, and I've had all my toilet paper stolen. Stuff like that, it really isn't bad, but it's just silly little things that happen. This neighborhood has a funny reputation for that. But not one fistfight, or anything bad. I think sometimes it's just guys trying to put on a show and be silly and we're always accommodating and nice, but we're also not a playground. So we try and find the line.
What is the most important Barkeeper tool?
I think eye contact, smiling, and listening, like with most people. I think a lot of places carry the credo of serving the customer, but it takes, kind of, loving them. And being curious about what they're into. You can taste them on three wines, they can dislike all of them, and then the next one could be their favorite. So it's that curiosity about what they like and where they are coming from. And one thing we always talk about is meeting the guest at their level of enthusiasm or interest. Finding where their spark is — and that starts with eye contact.