History and hipness — who says you can’t have it all? Not the folks behind the Nat Porter Restaurant.
The place was purchased nearly two years ago by a young couple, Nigel and Jennifer Vincent. He used to be the sous chef at Westport’s Back Eddy, where they met. As a restaurant, the Nathaniel Porter Inn was in the classic mold of historic buildings, with open-beam ceilings and a working fireplace in each of the three downstairs dining rooms crowded with Windsor chairs. The 1795 Colonial was restored after fire damage in the 1980s and turned into a restaurant. The Vincents’ renovation kept things much the same, but the art on the walls brings fresh air into the atmosphere — currently, it’s the work of local fiber artist Lisa Champagne. One dining room is now a rusty red, and another retains an ethereal four-wall mural of watery woodland.
Of course, it is the name change that makes the place younger by several centuries. After all, Nat is to Nathaniel as sautéed rabe and tuna tartar are to steamed broccoli and prime rib. This may still be your grandfather’s restaurant, but only if he orders cosmopolitans instead of whisky sours.
The menu here changes seasonally and reflects concern for regional, fresh products and opportunities of the season, with produce purchased from nearby Four Town Farms. Selections are carefully considered — the bread, served rustically in a brown paper bag, is from Olga’s in Providence, rather than conveniently closer. The wine list is extensive, with more than 50 choices — and, as welcome, descriptive help to decide among them. The 20 bottled beers include not only a German Weiss beer, always welcome, but Hoegaarden, my harder-to-find favorite Belgian wheat beer.
Appetizer opportunities are usually a good indication of the imagination of the kitchen. The obligatory fried calamari ($9) here has slices of linguiça, chilies rather than pepperoncini, and house-smoked tomato sauce. The cod fish cakes ($10), usual enough, are perked up with pickled ginger and an aioli with wasabi and spicy Malaysian sambal. Upon the suggestion of our helpful server Lynn, we chose the pan-seared scallops ($13). The five fat sea scallops were as flavorful as promised. The only off touch was that one of the two “potato steak” slices was very much under-baked, being thicker than its mate. Its accompanying horseradish sauce and plentiful bits of candied bacon, which would overpower the scallops, was appropriately mild but still tasty.
The spring menu has recently begun, leaning nicely toward seafood (as of May 3, the restaurant’s hours will change slightly, with the dining room open Wednesday through Saturday, from 5-10 pm, and on Sunday from 4-9 pm.). Though there are only a dozen offerings, including a couple of specials, most tastes can be satisfied. A not-obvious combination is the grilled chicken with Italian hot sausage ($18), baked with eggplant and little orzo pasta. A similar pairing is the roasted monkfish and sopressata ($20), the firm fish and the dried sausage providing both plain and spicy.