Comme Ci, Comme Ça
The Problem with Portage Is That It's Good
If you were walking down Queen Anne Avenue with $100 bills falling out of your pockets, a disinclination to venture far, and French food on your mind, Portage would be perfect. It is, in many ways, a paragon of a French restaurant: classic preparations, executed with flawless technique, served in a room that's so proto-Parisian, it barely requires description. (The image now in your mind—the striped banquettes, white tablecloths, butter-colored walls, upside-down marbled-dome light fixtures, big mirror, black-and-white photo of the Eiffel Tower, and vintage jazz—is correct. The eye slides right off the only oddity: three small sculptures, Brancusi-esque abstract butterflies with their wings laced together. If they were black, they'd look interestingly S&M; they are not.) Chances are, you'd be able to get a table. Despite glowing reviews—which hang in the bathroom for your reading pleasure, one headline from a year ago plaintively wondering why the place isn't more popular—and only 30 seats, you can still get in the same day. (Meanwhile, How to Cook a Wolf has been mobbed since it opened directly across the street.)
One evening I wanted to dine at Portage, a prix fixe wine dinner was occurring, but the regular menu was still on offer. I ended up at one of the tables in the window—where you may feel a bit like you're for sale—waiting, cringing, with a full plate while a winemaker and the chef told the rest of the (silent) room about the wine and food they'd be enjoying. With additional intermittent speechifying, it was the epitome of awkwardness, like being an uninvited guest stuck in the corner for pity's sake, with everybody (including you) trying to pretend you don't exist.
Setting this unfortunate experience aside, the problem with Portage is, oddly, that it's good: The food is never less than good, but it is rarely great, and it is not inexpensive. Of more than half the items on the 13-dish menu (which changes about every three months), only two of them were excellent; they cost $26 and $28. The first was a super-French, superlative edition of steak and eggs: a shirred duck egg atop a wagyu hanger steak on a deeply mushroom-flavored mattress of potato gratin, all enriched with a traditional sauce périgueux made with Madeira and truffles. The second was a lamb chop, a glistening, burnished near-sphere of meat impaled on its bone, smelling of mustard (house-made) and cumin; it looked about to burst with juiciness, it was beautifully streaked with fat, and it was stuffed with a fluffy-sweet carrot mousse, a companion/contrast nonpareil.
At Portage's prices, food envy should be evaded, but other than these two entrées, nothing generated enthusiasm, making for unhappy, lopsided experiences. Diver scallops ($26) were not overcooked, but not overwhelming, on the plain side of plain-and-simple, their fava-bean-and-pea accompaniment merely fresh and fine. The mainly white meat of the roasted chicken (at $18, the cheapest entrée) had that sponginess that sticks slightly to the teeth; soft-crusted, uncrispy skin; and bacon lardons that commandeered the flavor profile. The sauce, made with oloroso sherry, tasted in the main like stock, wanting salt or spice. The entirety was reminiscent of Wiener schnitzel. (A review in the bathroom glowed about this dish, calling it surprisingly unboring. Any chicken well- prepared in a French style should be damnably fantastic. The chicken on the wall had been made with raisins, olives, and fennel, which I thought wistfully might have helped, but then there was the texture: like something you'd be happy to get in first class on Air France.)
Salads were quite fine: miner's lettuce decorated with almonds and marinated strawberries, with the tang of a Roquefort vinaigrette ($9); spinach with a (rather on the hard side) soft-boiled duck egg atop thin slices of prosciutto-style air-dried duck breast ($11). In an appetizer of two kinds of beets ($9), hand-diced into perfect tiny cubes with a roasted apple vinaigrette and wisps of miner's lettuce, the flavor of a pungent ashed goat cheese bullied all else, making for monotony (an additional element on the plate would've solved the problem). An appetizer special of Puget Sound scallop and prawn, served in the scallop shell with an apricot-colored shellfish nage, was $16. A few bites of lovely seafood in a rich, buttery sauce is never a bad thing, but it just wasn't all that compelling.
Only a couple desserts were tried (on the wine-dinner night, departing as soon as possible was desirable, lacking the option of sinking through the floor). One was a wedge of flourless chocolate cake ($8), as dense and as exciting as a doorstop; the other was a pear tarte tatin ($7) with its pastry crust somehow rendered near-impossibly tough. Rarely has dessert been so laborious to eat. Both were abandoned with sorrow. Of far greater interest: the all-white cow-shaped cream pitcher who came with the coffee ($2.25). She appeared to be blind and, distressingly, dispensed the cream in a stream out of her mouth hole. "We call that our little moo-moo," said the server. Otherwise, service was appropriately restrained, skilled with wine recommendations from the largely French list (with prices skewing low for whites), and generally good. The wine-dinner server was swift, telegraphing empathy. However, another server brought entrées while long-finished appetizer plates still sat—a transition between a $16 dish and a $28 one should not make you feel as if you should be helping.
Portage is a chef-owned business, and skill and care are evident, as is the fact that quality ingredients are in play. But for bulletproof French fine dining at around the same price, there's Campagne; likewise, Crémant offers consistent deliciousness, with the bonus of a witty interior that a contemporary French person would find à la mode. Portage made me think of the homey clatter and plainer favorites of Le Pichet, too. I was much reminded of places I'd rather be.