Wednesday, January 6, 2010

date night: Portage

The prospects for Date Night were not looking good. It was my turn to pick the restaurant, but all of my suggestions were deemed too far away, in the wrong direction, too expensive, etc. I was getting pretty close to "Well FINE then, I don't really want to go out at all!"

Fortunately, the husband salvaged the discussion by poking around on the Internets and discovering Portage, a little jewel-box of a restaurant on top of Queen Anne Hill. Occupying a slender storefront space, the restaurant is what you get when you cross a neighborhood French bistro with a Northwest seasonal menu. Soon after we arrived, our suitably Gallic-looking waiter mixed me a cocktail of sparkling wine, Lillet Rouge, and house-made brandied cherries--a nice twist on a Kir Royale. Okay. The evening's earlier sniping and carping was forgiven.

Portage is not a vegetarian restaurant, but it is extremely vegetarian-friendly: the menu is divided into two columns, "Plats" and "Vegetarien," with a roughly equal number of dishes in each. When we confessed we were having trouble deciding what to order, the waiter suggested we come back sometime and try the tasting menu. Duly noted. (In fact, I suspect the tasting menu--$40 for either vegetarian or non-vegetarian version--might have been a better deal than ordering a la carte, as we did. Though I'm not complaining; any meal that opens my husband's mind to Brussels sprouts is well worth the price, as far as I'm concerned.)

So what did we decide on? A salad of endive and mandarin oranges with caramelized fennel vinaigrette that tasted exactly like January: spare, ascetic, and bracingly astringent.

Next, a plate of Brussels sprouts and soft, pale-yellow sweet potato gnocchi, all tossed with very finely chopped preserved Meyer lemon--I'm telling you, I had no idea that winter vegetables could taste so lively and energetic.

Way over at the other, comfy-and-cozy end of the winter-food spectrum, but equally pleasant, was my husband's dish of thinly sliced root vegetables (I tasted a lot of celeriac, with a slight bitterness that contrasted nicely with the rest of the plate) baked under a blanket of cheese and served over brown lentils speckled with bits of carrot and more of those Brussels sprouts. My husband said he liked the way the Brussels sprouts were just crisp-tender instead of having had the heck cooked out of them. Again, duly noted.

I think his favorite dish, though, was the potato and shallot rosti: shredded potatoes and sweetly caramelized shallots, formed into a neat cake and crisped in a cast-iron pan. Simple, but perfectly executed.

Maybe we were just overstuffed, but dessert didn't seem to live up to the precision or inventiveness of what had come before. The flourless chocolate cake seemed heavy-handed, and the cardamom-vanilla pot de creme contained just a whisper of cardamom (admittedly, I may be biased here; I am part Swedish and like my cardamom fairly shouted from the rooftops).

Still, I'll be back for that tasting menu. And that dinner gave me a few ideas for things to try at home, especially now that Brussels sprouts on the table are now, well, on the table.

2209 Queen Anne Ave. N. Seattle, WA 98109
Open daily, 5 pm

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