On the wall of the new downtown Portland cocktail bar from the restaurant group Sesame Collective, a green and pink, seemingly abstract rug hangs above an olive green tufted banquette. The piece, by artist Tori Wheeler, is actually a portrait of Icarus, the Greek mythological son of Daedelus who fell from the sky due to his own hubris. Wheeler scanned a painted depiction of Icarus to create a thermal heat map, and then adjusted the colors to match the bar, named for the same cocky fictional figure. The piece is bright, kaleidoscopic, silly, with glow-in-the-dark touches for when the lights dim late in the evening. How fitting, for a bar serving cocktails with flashing LED “ice” cubes and pizza-flavored mezcal, thumping Italo disco while couples sip popping boba from under a layer of shave ice.
Icarus — opening Thursday, October 19 in the former Kask space — is Sesame Collective’s opportunity to “let their hair down a little bit,” in the words of co-owner and culinary lead Kasey Mills. The group, known for restaurants like Shalom Y’all and Mediterranean Exploration Company, isn’t exactly strait-laced and stuffy, but as the team prepares to open its first bar, they’ve allowed themselves to take ridiculous risks, in honor of the bar’s namesake. The space itself is stylish, with pops of olive green and dark woods offset by distinctive art pieces: Hanging from the ceiling, a disco ball seems to burst with a stream of silvery swifts, flying as a flock down to the drinkers below. The bathroom feels like something out of Tron, circuit-like squiggles wrapped around the walls and a lit infinity mirror. Andrew Young of Splint Media is responsible for both, and helped execute the redesign of the space with the Sesame Collective team.
While Young focused on the bar’s look, co-owner Jamal Hassan and bar lead Josh Kaleel dove into what the bar would actually serve. The cocktail menu is split into two sections: The “Rise” cocktails are meant to be clean, minimally garnished, polished, and refined, the arête side of things. For example, the Quince Charming is one of Hassan’s cocktails, in which he cooks down quince to concentrate the fruit’s mellow sweetness; he then acidifies the mixture, spikes it with Japanese whisky, and accentuates things with black tea and cardamom bitters. “Quince is just barely coming into season,” Hassan says. “It’s an ingredient I really like to work with in cocktails because it’s so delicate and floral.” Another Rise cocktail similarly leans on produce for inspiration: Behind the Fig Leaf is essentially a clarified Caipirinha made using a fig leaf syrup from the neighboring sibling restaurant, Dolly Olive; the bartenders clarify the drink using yogurt, which compounds the acidity and pop of the citrus.
The “Fall” section, on the other hand, is the atë, when the bartenders commit to the bit too hard and go for something outlandish and goofy. Typically, the silliness comes in the form of garnishes and glassware: The Skeletor Meme — essentially a daiquiri with Hennessy and Plantation pineapple rum infused with frozen boysenberries — arrives in a skull glass with LED cooling cubes. “It’s flashing like a disco,” Hassan says. Kaleel wanted to create a drink mimicking a Vietnamese iced coffee, so the Super Smash Bros combines bourbon, coffee liqueur, Armagnac, and espresso, topped with condensed milk whip and a caramel tuile; the drink arrives with a small hammer, so visitors have to smash the tuile to begin drinking.
Both sides of the menu lean heavily on culinary elements. In something akin to a piña colada, honeydew-infused vodka blends with a grilled pineapple gum syrup and toasted coconut syrup, whipped into shaved ice until it develops “a luscious and smooth texture,” in Hassan’s words. Underneath the shave ice cocktail mixture, a bed of passionfruit popping boba hides. “You get these surprise pops of passionfruit flavor,” Hassan says. And the shot-and-beer combo at the bar infuses mezcal with “a proprietary blend of herbs and spices” to make the agave spirit taste like pizza.
For those who prefer to eat their pizza, Mills has created a menu of Sicilian-esque square pies, made with a 65-percent hydration dough that proofs overnight. The opening menu offers four options: cheese, pepperoni, a vegan option with mushrooms and roasted garlic, and a “wildcard” with butternut squash, Gruyere, caramelized onion, and apple. Those opposed to pizza can opt for a cheesy baked risotto, bar snacks like marinated olives, or a little gem Caesar with capers and rye crisps. “It’s an opportunity for the Sesame Collective to... do something a little funner,” Mills says. “It’s a refresh, explore new things with some excitement.”
For co-owner Laura Amans, that sense of fun comes across in the food and beverage, the space, and the Italo disco, classic disco, and hip hop that plays throughout the night. But also, that sense of fun still has to translate all of the bar’s guests — about 60 percent of the cocktails on the bar menu are available without booze, and service is meant to be warm and approachable. “We always want to make sure that we’re making a space everyone feels welcome in,” she says. “The vibe is fun, it’s playful; you can expect some different art, different elements we don’t play with in our other spaces. ... It’s this opportunity to be a little bit more casual, even more fun than we have been.”
Icarus opens tonight at 1215 SW Alder Street. Take a look inside the space below.