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Turning the tables

Buckhead's Portofino a port-o-call worth the modestly priced ticket

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When George Tice took over the restaurant now called Portofino, he found food in the refrigerators and plates on the tables. Dirty plates and stale food, he explained later. The previous tenants in what heretofore has seemed a jinxed, somewhat unsavory Buckhead space, the old Asti location, had had a falling out, he said. They simply walked away from the operation after a short time in business and slammed the door behind them.

Tice and several associates, needless to say, have washed the dishes, restocked the kitchen and polished up the converted bungalow's big front door. They've installed a crew of well-trained cooks and servers, a notable list of offbeat wines and a Mediterranean-go-round menu that mostly works. Word has spread. The curious locals are venturing in.

Tice tweaked and considerably improved his other restaurant, Toulouse, after buying out a partner several years ago. Now comfortably soft-focus American in menu and attitude, the South Buckhead center of wine-and-food pairings began as a sort of fractured-French bistro. It will be interesting to see how Portofino develops.

At the moment, a handful of very good dishes -- at moderate prices -- make this mildly Mediterranean port-of-call worth a trencherman's appetite and a long voyage across town.

Mussels steamed with white wine, garlic, herbs and lemongrass is neither a Mediterranean classic nor strictly fusionary. On two visits -- one lunch, one dinner - big bowls of the bivalves, with their unobtrusive Asian accent, were as entertaining and delicious as can be had anywhere in town ($7). A third order, served at dinner on another visit, was short on lemongrass. It lacked punch but still tasted very good. Butternut squash soup, smooth and substantial, possessed just the right balance of spice and creaminess ($4.50).

Lemon sole fillet poached with wine, lemon and capers, delicate and sweet itself, was ill-served by a side of over-herbed rice pilaf. Ask for something else if the rice has not improved (fish prices vary). Argentine sirloin steak with Asiago-and-truffle macaroni and a red wine reduction sauce was hearty and delectable on a cold night ($15). "Biscuits and Gravy," rounds of pound cake layered with peaches and topped with Amaretto-spiked creme Chantilly, combined tradition and fresh thinking in the same way as the mussels ($6).

My guests and I disagreed as to the merits of a trio of eggplant rolls stuffed with crawfish tails, ricotta and diced red peppers on red-pepper aioli ($7). Although the fried rolls arrived crisp and hot, I thought that the plentiful peppers overpowered the crawfish. My friends replied that I'd think differently if I liked bell peppers as much as most people. Similarly, rigatoni with chicken, spinach and pancetta in roasted garlic cream sauce was tasty, as far as it went ($12). But it went only as far as four wisps of white-meat chicken, mere waves' crests on an ocean of pasta.

A sassy tomato-caper dipping sauce neatly covered the deficiencies of salty, herb-breaded calamari ($6.50). Once freed of their overcoats, the squid did taste like squid, however. Fusilli pasta with an oversweet, mediocre wild mushroom and tomato sauce was worth neither finishing nor taking home for lunch the next day ($11). Veal Milanese -- bland and with the breading falling off in sheets -- was this month's argument against killing innocent calves ($15). Only the accompanying white bean, arugula and celery salad kept the plate from going back to the kitchen after a couple of bites.

Few of the usual suspects appear on Portofino's wine list. There's not a Ravenswood nor a Mondavi in the bunch. Anyone but a wine pro should solicit the staff's advice. Two California reds recommended by Tice grabbed us like Hannibal Lecter chatting up a rookie guard. Villa Mt. Eden 1997 Cabernet from Napa, dry and ascetic, is notably tannic but not harsh ($20 a bottle). Trentadue Old Patch Red, a 1996 blend of Sonoma grapes, stands in nicely as a dessert Port ($8.25 a glass). Wines are sold by the bottle, 6-ounce glass, 2-ounce taste and four-taste flights. Wine dinners are regularly scheduled.

Like a fishing village that grew without a plan, Portofino sprawls from here to there in an undulating series of corners and boxes. Steps up from a small parking lot lead through a glass-enclosed patio, past the host stand and bar, to three dining rooms, with a semi-open kitchen at the far end of the labyrinth. A fireplace, vaulted ceiling and polished, unstained wood columns provide a modern, eclectic setting. Yet hard surfaces -- stone, glass, metal -- make intimate conversation difficult when the restaurant is busy. Curtains may be going out of fashion but they sure dampen noise.

Elliott.mackle@creativeloafing.com

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