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Porters spicy new menu surpasses pub grub

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Porter's

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Three things may surprise you about Porters (1032 Riverside Ave., [410] 332-7345, portersfederalhill.com). The bread is house-made, as are the desserts. Along with regular pub grub like burgers and salads, you’ll find a sprinkling of Mediterranean dishes, such as zucchini fritters and lamb kabobs. And in the dining room, high chairs can proliferate, and not a soul seems to mind. If you think Porters is your ordinary corner bar, you’ve either not visited recently or you live in an extraordinary neighborhood.

Granted, under its previous ownership, Porters was always family friendly. The food was reliable, if not particularly innovative, and it felt equally comfortable to sit on the bar side of the restaurant with a Resurrection and a view of a television as it did to sidle into a dining room booth with a glass of Malbec and a burger. Porters closed in October 2009 and re-opened under new ownership in March, and while there doesn’t seem to be much physical change to the space, the menu has been overhauled to scan more restaurant and less pub. Now, things crop up on the menu that you normally wouldn’t expect, such as shrimp toast, Southwestern chicken risotto, the light-as-air zucchini fritters held together with minimal batter ($6), or a grilled cheese small plate made with nutty sesame bread and a smear of Haloumi cheese ($6).

This doesn’t mean you can’t order a burger or ribs; fries piled high with toppings like bacon, cheddar, and crab; fried calamari; or even a meatloaf sandwich ($10). But what that does mean is that the meatloaf will be richly moist (most likely the result of some pork mixed in with the beef), the bread will be a potato loaf, and if you choose salad over fries, you’ll get a pretty mix of greens and knobs of goat cheese napped with an herbed dressing. Nice.

Porters’ menu allows for a variety of appetites and offers the now nearly standard choices of small plates, sandwiches, and entrées, all pretty reasonably priced. But it’s the entrées that make you think someone is clearly stretching out and having fun in the kitchen. A stuffed pepper special ($15) found two fat peppers stuffed tight with loose sausage and served on a bed of tomato-based risotto, zippier and more flavorful than what Mom used to make. A plate of two Moroccan lamb kabobs ($17), the meat ground and laced with aromatic spices and served alongside a tart cucumber-yogurt sauce, seemed equally as authentic as the puerco cano ($16), slightly dry shredded pork tacos (in handmade tortillas, no less) dotted with guacamole, a slow-burning green chili sauce, and a sweeter sauce of creamy corn. We were equally intrigued by the presence of venison on the menu (as an appetizer or entrée portion, blackened and served over mashed potatoes with rum beurre blanc and Bing cherries) and the introduction of yet another food culture to the menu in the form of Jamaican jerk chicken (served over zucchini banana bread, in what sounds like a nice touch).

If there’s one thing missing from Porters’ menu, it’s a heat warning. Several dishes, including the Thai mussels ($10) and the Southwestern chicken risotto ($16) burned hot and hard, and if you cry easily in the presence of chilis, you will be weeping here. If heat is your thing, the mussels wear their fragrant lemongrass-coconut milk broth well, despite copious amounts of garlic, which seems like overkill, as if someone inadvertently doubled the amount. The chicken risotto, though, needs a strong palate. Although the dish boasts small chunks of Tasso ham and corn as well as slices of blackened chicken, these subtle touches get lost in the burn.

The evening of our visit, Porters offered two desserts: a chocolate and peanut butter mousse ($6) and an apple napoleon ($6) made with layers of crisp phyllo and, oddly enough, peanuts. I never say no to apple anything, but I preferred the mousse, or rather mousses, where the peanut butter and chocolate were served side by side in a single dish, the choice to dip the peanut butter in the chocolate (or vice versa) left entirely to the diner’s whim.

Porters is not a quiet place: Even on a weeknight, all the booths are packed with adults and kids, and every bar stool is taken. Still, with no-nonsense service, kid-friendly dining, baskets of crusty house-made bread you wish you could buy loaves of, and pints hovering around $5 (depending on your choice of draft), it’s just the kind of corner pub you wish was in your neighborhood. Bring the family.

Porters is open for dinner 7 days a week, brunch and lite fare available Saturday and Sunday.

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