Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Portage

For a couple of years now, a core group of managers from Mrs. Hackknife's department at work and their respective spouses have tried to get together at least annually for a nice dinner out (it was during one of these dinners that I posted about The Publican back in late 2010). Now that word has gotten around the office that I maintain a food blog, the job of picking the restaurant for this group has fallen largely on my shoulders (which I'm happy to do, of course - I relish the rare opportunity to receive positive feedback from adults instead of continually absorbing abuse from my kids like most days). For this go-round, I chose an American bistro named The Portage (3938 N. Central), an option that I've kept in my back pocket for a while. The Portage opened in 2010 in our old neighborhood of Portage Park (hence the name), located only about a mile away from the townhouse on Milwaukee Ct. that we used to call home (they could have had the decency to open up BEFORE we moved away, but I'm not bitter or anything). It's conveniently situated in-between Edison Park and Roscoe Village, which is where the other two couples in the group reside (i.e., no complaints about having to travel to some far-flung locale), has garnered its fair share of positive attention from the local foodie press, and is also featured in our magic $10 off coupon deck, making it a slam dunk for this year's manager dinner (as we call them) this past Friday night.

I'd read in some of the reviews that the place was cramped and I'm here to tell you that they weren't kidding. Somehow, the owners managed to fit (not comfortably, I might add) a host stand, around 10 tables for seating, and a small bar with approximately 6 barstools in a relatively small front room. While waiting for the remainder of our party to arrive, I simultaneously sipped on a Founder's Dirty Bastard Scottish ale (which was quite refreshing) and repeatedly dodged out of the path of oncoming patrons and servers that had little space to maneuver. Once seated at our table, things became a little more comfortable (although I did have to beg my way out of the corner once to desperately use the restroom towards the end of the meal). Since we had a large group, we took advantage of the kitchen's propensity towards small plates and ordered a barrage of them to share. Most of the dishes sounded and looked delicious; sadly, not all of them hit the mark. A scrumptious pile of thick duck fat fries with aioli for dipping were soft and lacked the outer crispiness that I normally crave from fries. The house-made bacon crackers that our server assured us was "the most difficult item for the cooks to make" were oddly bland and grainy. Better were the bacon-wrapped dates with blue cheese sauce and an apple cider gastrique (a vinegar and caramelized sugar sauce). I was also won over by two off-menu specials: a zingy lump crab salad (alas, I only managed to snag about 2 bites) and a house-made gnocchi (ditto). I also bit (so to speak) on our server's sultry description of a pork barley soup featuring 4 different cuts of the pig - the soup consisted of a rich (not greasy) broth, tender barley, and savory chunks of said pig.

While there were many entrees to consider (fried chicken and Idaho brook trout among them), I went for the grilled octopus special with fried fingerling potatoes and cornmeal okra. Unfortunately, I wasn't enthralled with my decision. While the okra was good and the octopus was nicely charred, its tentacles remained very chewy, almost rubbery in some cases (I felt like my jaw got a pretty good workout). The dark and fruity Les Abeilles de Colombo Cotes du Rhone I washed it down with helped ease the situation. The meal also improved during dessert - most of the table went gaga over house-made ice creams featuring flavors like buttered popcorn, bacon, and goat cheese, but I was perfectly happy with my decadent (but small) flourless chocolate cake topped with a scoop of custard-like Maker's Mark ice cream. All told, despite the inconsistencies of the food, the service was solid and attentive, keeping the members of our party from getting thirsty (I think we must have nearly cleaned out their entire allotment of North Coast Scrimshaw Ale) and bringing out complimentary tastes of certain requested items (like that Maker's Mark ice cream). I'd like to give The Portage another shot to win me over at some point, but I will definitely avoid grilled cephalopods for a while...

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