Porthole diners forgive, forget, feast on
PARTY COLORS The Porthole's tastefully unorthodox fish tacos
Though they offer an appealing moral clarity, in practice zero tolerance policies have ruined any number of urban schools, fragile marriages, and card-marred soccer games. Zero tolerance almost ruined Portland a few years back, when restaurant inspector Michele Sturgeon took her job so seriously (failing 83 percent of the restaurants she inspected in 2011) that the city had to buy her off—paying her over $18,000 to resign and “never to disparage or speak ill of the city or any of its products.” The most disparaging thing she ever said was that there were rats in the kitchen of the Porthole. And while the city was hoping to purchase its restaurants a little more tolerance, everyone could agree that rats are not good.
So it’s fortunate that the Porthole found new ownership, renovated the kitchen and the bones of the building, and hired a new chef. But it’s equally welcome that the new Porthole resembles the scrappy old one in many ways. If you are looking for a completely spiffed pier-dining experience, ask the hostess at Boone’s if she can fit you in among their well-dressed crowd. If you want something more relaxed, slip on by and seat yourself at a picnic table on the Porthole’s huge deck, where the atmosphere is palpably relaxed. There sleepy dogs laze in the shade under some tables, and romper-clad women carry the conversation for their big, laconic, sunburned boyfriends in Red Sox shirts and sleeve tattoos. The pleasant server can’t tell you much about the entrees because she always orders the burger. It is pretty great out there.
And the food is not bad either. The chef has done with the menu what the owner did with the place—elevating things without changing them fundamentally. So despite the server’s predilections, it’s worth veering from the burgers and fried fish into the more interesting dishes. The fish tacos, for example, break from common practice by opting for a crunchy blue-corn shell rather than soft tortillas. There are lots of tender, blackened pieces of some whitefish or another. On top sits a pile of crunchy slaw and juicy-sour pico de gallo. The pinkish aioli has a kick of sriracha (a company whose factory was nearly shut down by a zero tolerance policy on noxious odors in Irwindale, California). On their purple plate, the blue goopy tacos look both messy and appealing—sort of in the spirit of the Porthole itself.
A scallop entrée, on the other hand, looks dignified, with an attractive sear on the big juicy mollusks. The scallops themselves were cooked just right—barely through the center. They sat in a buerre blanc sauce that was a touch gloppy, and could have used more lemon. The menu promised fingerling potatoes and baby spinach but instead the potatoes cuddled up to some simple butter-sautéed chopped veggies.
Those same veggies were served with the baked stuffed haddock, this time along with creamy mashed potatoes. In this case the sauce—a tangy lobster sherry cream—was more successful. But the main ingredients really needed no adornment. The big thin piece of haddock had not dried out in baking, and it was wrapped around a huge juicy pile of nicely seasoned crab stuffing. It’s nearly half the price of the comparable dish next door at Boone’s, and while it’s a little less fancy (Boone’s stuffs it with lobster and scallop), it is a really nice entree.