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Bread & Brew: Secret bar lights up the night

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A patron enjoys some silent time at the Modern Man bar, which sits below its namesake barbershop on North Mississippi Avenue.The other night, my research assistant and I set out to explore two new bars with intriguing storylines. The first claimed to provide “light and color therapy,” while the other, I had heard, looks like a train.

At Lightbar, atmosphere is therapy. At some tables, lamps beam 10,000 watts of energy into your eyes, cuing your body to reduce its production of melatonin. The large, barn-shaped space also is equipped with a custom-built system that can drench the room in any color of the spectrum, to provide color-correction for gray Portland winters.

But the light you first notice is a big chandelier whose organically branching wooden arms are covered in tiny lights and hung with sparkly pendants that suggest water droplets. Twisting branches along the walls support additional lights and long swaths of draped gauze.

On a screen high on the back wall, vintage cartoons are playing. DJs, a nightly feature, spin records on a table wrapped in a luminescent blue cloth. There are candles everywhere, too, although we had to use a bike light to read the cocktail menu, which is several pages long.

The dominant color while we were there was red. The whole room — from the rafters down to the groups of tidily dressed young people eating fancy mac and cheese — was bathed in a crimson glow. Apparently, that mood-altering color changes over time. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out, though, because our cocktails were so bad that we couldn’t finish them.

An aged Manhattan in a smoked glass recalled the experience of pouring water on a campfire and having the damp smoke billow in your face.

A drink based on horseradish-infused vodka had no kick or spice. It tasted like plain pear juice, and being chilled, refused to integrate with the powered cinnamon on top.

In a word, we fled.

So we reached the second bar of the night in an unfortunate state of sobriety, but somewhat confused.

Our destination had no sign in front. How could it, when it doesn’t have a name?

You enter through the waiting area of Modern Man, a tonsorial parlor on North Mississippi Avenue. You take a hard left, and a steep, dark staircase comes into view.

It looks like the entrance to an amusement park ride. Rough boards are nailed up haphazardly, and old metal lanterns line the way. At the bottom is a goofy fiberglass grotto with a little waterfall.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Modern Man bar, which sits below its namesake barbershop on North Mississippi Avenue. Visitors will notice its train-themed decor, and enjoy its house specialty, the whiskey sour.Turn another corner, though, and it’s not the Big Timber Log Ride — it’s a vintage train car. Or maybe the waiting room of a Victorian train station. Without being too literal, the long narrow space evokes the feeling of rail travel so well that you may find yourself walking up the carpeted aisle with one hand out, ready in case of a lurch.

The best seats in the house are enclosed booths, outfitted like railway carriages, right down to the vintage luggage on the overhead racks. Where the window would be, a flat screen plays scenes of Oregon filmed from the window of the Amtrak. If you want, you can completely ensconce yourself by closing a pair of semi-transparent curtains — although more passers-by will peer into your booth when the curtains are closed than when they’re open.

There’s a brief bar menu. The crab cake is not worth $14 — and why it has to have a fried egg on top is beyond me. A much better deal, sliced baguette with lox, cream cheese and a hailstorm of capers, is a good drinking snack.

And cute and cozy as it is, the real reason to come here is the drinks.

The house specialty is a whiskey sour, and it’s served up, with a frothy cap of egg white and bitters on top. It tastes faintly of oranges, and it’s strong, smooth and attractive — a really first-class take on a classic cocktail. The sazerac is equally excellent, but without ice, perhaps even a little too potent. And although not period-appropriate, a ginger martini also was bracing and tasty: a powerful hit of candied ginger, served in a martini glass with a sidecar for the overflow from the shaker.

That’s exactly the kind of detail that keeps people coming back. Yes, atmosphere is important, but in the end, people go to bars because they want to have a drink.

Lightbar, Tuesday-Wednesday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight, closed Mondays, 1401 S.E. Morrison St., Suite 117, 971-279-2169, http://www.lightbarpdx.com; Bar at Modern Man, daily noon-11 p.m., 3956 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-522-8470, http://www.themodernmanpdx.com

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