Monday, November 7, 2011

Porterhouse Steak and Seafood

I've been on the road with the band a lot lately, and I've learned some interesting things. Shock Top Pumpkin Ale is really good. The Blue Moon pumpkin offering isn't. No good reason for a beer to taste like Circus Peanuts. Come to think, there's no good reason for Circus Peanuts to begin with, but there they still are. I've also learned that, even if you keep weird hours, you can find some wonderful food in very surprising places. If you're in Crookston, hit The Shanty for a burger and a beer, or catch El Metate for fresh Mexican, and some truly wonderful salsa. Do not go to Bemidji if you don't have time to relax at Tutto Bene. And next time you find yourself in Brainerd, don't miss Prairie Bay Grill & Catering. Some wonderful, imaginative cooking going on here.

But no matter how well you're treated, and how well you eat when you're on the road, mostly what you learn is that nothing really beats coming home. After five days, I couldn't wait to see my honey. Date night was definitely in order. Never one to pass up your basic hunk-o-meat, we headed over to Porterhouse in Little Canada.

Steak houses are a puzzling subset of the restaurant world. In terms of class warfare, the traditional, dimly lit chop house is the mess hall for the one percent. There are good reasons for this, I suppose. Mostly, good aged beef is expensive. Professional servers deserve to make a decent wage. Commercial rents are atrocious. And if your meal is going to take two hours or more, the management will seat fewer tables in an evening. None of these things tells the whole story, but it is an inescapable truth that, in the world of restaurants, to some extent, you do get what you pay for. With steak houses (and, oddly, stereo equipment), you're also paying by the pound.

Porterhouse, brought to you by the Chianti Grill folks, does a lot of things right. The room is beautiful. Smaller than you'd expect, and nearly half of it is taken up by the bar. They recommend reservations, and they're not kidding. This place fills up. We stopped by on a lark and managed to get a table, but we were fortunate. The lighting is dim without being ridiculous, the stone is cozy, it's not too loud (a rare blessing nowadays), and the little two-person booths are adorable. The staff was plenty accommodating. Not always polished, but friendly, and like I said, they did find us a place to sit.

The menu is another victory. We are living in the age of "more is more," and it's surprising how often this carries over into the world of fine dining. Porterhouse doesn't play that way. The menu is small. It doesn't feel limited, but it's intuitive, and easy to navigate. Even on a first visit, it only takes a moment to check the options and assemble a meal for yourself.

Beginning at the beginning, we shared a shrimp cocktail and a split of Prosecco. Simple but fresh, reasonable, and enough to whet the appetite. Next came the salads. The spinach salad at Porterhouse is basically porn. I'm not a salad guy as a rule, but the combination of baby spinach, chopped egg, bacon, and warm bacon dressing just about did me in. I think it came with onions, which would, of course, have ruined everything. But as we ordered it, well...I would happily have eaten another one for dessert. For dinner, we both started with a 9-ounce Filet Mignon. I paired mine with a small lobster tail. Miss J, true to form, went for the scallops. The lobster tail was well-cooked and not messed with, just as it should have been. The scallops were also very nice, and generous, but the presentation was puzzling, and a little busy. Half a dozen sea scallops surrounded a small pile of almonds, field greens and blue cheese. Then the whole was drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Now, balsamic reduction and blue cheese are both outstanding, but they are strong flavors, and scallops, well, aren't. The accompaniments, in this case, were more of a distraction than a complement.

For veggies, Miss J had the sautéed root vegetables, which were excellent. I had a baked potato with plenty of butter and bacon. Do I need to tell you how that was? It's worth mentioning that both of these vegetable options, as well as the salads, were included in the entrée price. Right decent of them, if you ask me. We chose a very nice Malbec, also reasonably priced, and felt positively pampered.

The only misstep here was dessert. We shared the dark chocolate layer cake, a la mode. Now I obsess over chocolate cake more than most people, and I get that. But at the end of the day, it's not all that hard to make a good one. If the cake is moist, and there's chocolate butter cream all over it, there's not a lot of nuance that's really required. Here, the cake looked beautiful, and the ice cream was great, because it was ice cream, but the cake was a little dry. Not offensive or anything, just not on par with the rest of the meal.

Our server was attentive and friendly. No stuffiness at all. Although, it is a personal peeve of mine when servers mispronounce wines. This is a simple enough training topic and getting it wrong is not charming. It makes you sound like you don't know what you're doing, and this is not, I expect, the impression that anyone wants to make.

And now, back to that steak house discussion. When I say that Porterhouse is an excellent value, I do not mean to imply that it's cheap. This is date night, and then some. With tip, we got out for under two bills, but only just. But think for a minute what was included here. One app, two salads, two combination entrées (with vegetable), dessert, and two different wines. And everything but the dessert (which was no hardship) was fancy-restaurant good. Will you get a better steak at Manny's? Absolutely. But you'll pay fully twice as much for your evening. Seriously, who can do that? Not I, and not most of the people I hang out with.

When some "nice" restaurants seem priced to keep the riffraff out, a place like Porterhouse gives normal people a chance to go out and have a fancy meal, and I think that's a big deal. Next time we can afford date night, we'll be back, and I can't offer you a better endorsement than that.

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