BY MY COUNT, no fewer than nine restaurants cluster the intersection at Boston Street & Queen Anne Avenue, and on any given evening they’re thrumming with the buzz of families and takeout orders and neighborly revelry.
Now zoom in on one of them, midway up the block on the northwestern side, and see action of another sort. See wine glasses softly clinking, fond toasts quietly raised, cashmere sweaters delicately draped over chairs. The diners in this room have hedge funds and advanced degrees and Gourmet Magazine subscriptions, or at least resemble people who do. The air of cultivation they exude matches the room around them, which is the color of French butter and, at nine tables and three bar stools, likely smaller than the foyers of many of their homes.
This is Portage, the latest addition to Queen Anne’s restaurant row, which brings to the top of the hill a mood it hasn’t had in years: formality. Not the kind of formality that compels you to acquire fork etiquette or dress up, although guests would certainly not feel out of place here in their party clothes.
No, the formality at Portage is the kind that loads a menu with dishes like potato-escargot-mushroom terrine and Roquefort Coulet clafouti. Chef Vuong Loc and his wife Tricia, the owners, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and between them apprenticed at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, Pinot Brasserie and Le Cirque in Las Vegas, and La Folie in San Francisco. Given that trajectory, it’s no surprise they wound up writing a menu that puts quail in the Caesar salad and 25-year-old double solera sherry vinegar on a plate of tomatoes.
Still, it’s a shock to Seattle’s system, as food this unabashedly Continental is rare as rapid transit in this town. Make no mistake, the Michigan-born chef Loc (Portage is his hometown) is obviously swept away by Pacific Northwest bounty; he just applies that bounty to dishes French people invented. His Billi-Bi soup is a good example: a creamy golden puree of mussels and saffron, flecked with chives and garnished with three perfect plump mussels, relieved of their shells, with a jaunty puff pastry rising out of the center of the shallow bowl. Vivid flavor, velvet-napped texture—it was a fine preparation, undone only somewhat by the fact that pastry set adrift in soup gets gummy, and owing more to chef Louis Barthe at Maxim’s in 1925 than to chef Vuong Loc at Portage in 2006.
In a city bubbling over with chefs Expressing Themselves, I found Loc’s classical gestures refreshing, and amply adventurous. The clafouti, a flan dessert typically made with fruit, was crafted here of the buttery Roquefort called Coulet, then drizzled with a sweet-sour Balsamic demi-glace saccharine as caramel. The sweetness won the day, even over the pungent cheese, then crept into the realm of oversweet in an unexpected and not entirely unwelcome way. A cassoulet—here, a loosely bound mélange of flageolet beans, braised rabbit, and two kinds of sausage—was soundly wrought. If the moist rabbit was a slacker in delivering flavor, the beans, entirely suffused with pork, were working overtime.
When he ventured away from dishes with French names, chef Loc defaulted to a rewarding simplicity. (One randomly conceived duck breast special, the whole considerably less than the sum of its parts, excepted.) That’s what happened when he topped sliced heirloom tomatoes with curls of sharp, aged goat cheese and drizzled them with the blue-ribbon vinegar. And when he composed an elegant salad of purslane, mild and succulent, with poached prawns, honeyed bacon lardoons, and Yellow Finn potato chips. And when he shingled white fish with potato slices, then gilded it, plated it with Chioggia beets and white beans, and wrapped it all in the citrus embrace of a lemon-chive vinaigrette. Or when he pan-roasted a chicken to a golden crackle, then royally dappled it with almonds, golden raisins, Niçoise olives, and Oloroso sherry.
Desserts are pastry chef Tricia Loc’s domain, and they plied the same classic terrain. A huckleberry tart was crowned with brisk pistachio ice cream; a dense wedge of flourless chocolate cake came perched on a puddle of caramel anglaise. A pumpkin crême brûlée arrived inside a miniature pumpkin—room-temperature, finding just the right pitch between spicy and sweet. Madeiras and ports and sauternes, heartily promoted by the staff, could prolong the Eur-homage right through to the tip.
A tip that may leave you, truthfully, perplexed. Because by the time you’ve dispatched your madeira, and the cozy room appears to be lit through agates, and your gaze lands contentedly on genteel details like the lemon slice in your water glass—you may well find yourself pining for a server of similar refinement. We had one host who could not have cared less when he had no table to offer us, one server who neither described specials nor requested drink orders, another who kept interjecting inappropriately personal revelations.
What—besides missed opportunities—do such problems signify? Perhaps that the Locs, being chefs, are more interested in the kitchen than the dining room. Too bad. It’s a solid kitchen, and downright original for its deference to the classics. But it’s the intimate and civilized dining room that renders this restaurant a true port(age) in the storm.
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