December 25, 2002 – Wilmington Morning Star News
By Gale Tolan
What started as a dream to open a restaurant in Portland, Ore. and ended as a Wilmington restaurant called Port Land Grille certainly turned out to be a blessing for the Port City. I only hope that proprietors Chef Shawn Wellersdick and Anne Steketee feel the same. The waiting list to get in the restaurant should be indication enough that we are glad they decided to stay. The husband and wife team, originally partners in Under Currant in downtown Wilmington, moved to the location near Wrightsville Beach when Lumina Station expanded and offered them a place in their elegant new development. The muted colors and historical black and white photographs of Wrightsville Beach create a simple and very elegant atmosphere. Wait staff dressed in long-sleeved white jackets, black pants and ties add another dimension of class to the understated décor.
Ms. Steketee has created a very extensive and well thought out American wine list that perfectly complements the American fusion cuisine. There are bottles ranging from moderately priced wines to some very exclusive boutique wines that can be quite pricey. Her expert staff has been well trained to assist with wine selections.
While all details of the dining experience were simply perfect, the crowning jewel of the operation remains the exquisite food the Chef Wellersdick sends out from his kitchen.
On the several occasions that I have dined at Port Land Grille, the food has been impeccable. Last winter when the restaurant opened, I found there to be too many elements on the plate. However, this spring Chef Wellersdick has simplified the elements of his creations, and I found the dishes to work much better. (The palate can only taste four flavors before it becomes saturated.)
For the most part, his ingredients are regional Southern, and all are very fresh and of the finest quality.
Form the Champagne Tasting Menu, I loved the Duck Trap Farm’s Cold Smoked Pastrami Rubbed Salmon (Duck Trap Farm is the finest producer of smoked fishes and meats) with French Green Beans and caramelized Vidalia Onion Salad. Curry Scented Sour Cream was a subtle, lovely complement to the smoky fish.
Shawn’s Chicken, Duck Liver and Cognac Pate, a classic creamy blend of rich meaty flavors only interrupted by the occasional taste of pistachio nut was served traditionally with grain mustard, capers, cornichones and crostinis. I am a great fan of pate and this one was excellent.
The tender Boneless Quail Rubbed with House Made Asian Ten-Spice, grilled on Port Land’s wood burning grill and served on a Thai Chili Soba Noodle Salad with Toasted Almonds and Blackberry and Plum Vinegar Sauce was like the brass section of a symphony, loud with notes that perfectly blended. For a more delicate interplay of flavors, I sampled the Lump Crab Meat, Roasted Vidalia Onion and Baby Spinach Salad with a light Champagne Vinaigrette.
Most of the entrees at Port Land Grille are cooked over their wood-burning grill with white oak and hickory wood.
The Ivory King Salmon (a white salmon that is the rage in Manhattan’s finest restaurants) was especially good with these grill flavors. I found the fish to be milder than the traditional pink salmon and buttery in texture.
Another selection that was grill-enhanced was the Bourbon Marinated Double Cut Pork Chop – a true Southern delight served with a casserole of Mac and Cheese, Collard Greens and a Country Ham and Dijon Mustard Pan Gravy. A Southern combination if ever there was one!
Chilean Sea Bass (grilled, of course) served on top of goat cheese and grilled vegetable ravioli with a chunky tomato, garlic and olive oil Sauce Provencal was the favorite of my guest. Ratatouille Vinaigrette was drizzled over the fish. The combination of flavors was intense but did not overpower the mild sea bass. Chef Wellersdick’s version of Grilled Shrimp and Grits was my least favorite dish that I sampled but it was nonetheless perfectly executed. I simply did not like the smoky grill flavor on the shrimp and the Smoky Grits together.
Service was excellent. Our waiter was very professional: present only when needed, knowledgeable about the menu and the wine list and appropriately friendly.
Plate presentations are beautiful, and portions are plentiful. Pricing definitely tops the Wilmington market.
Therefore, many will consider this a special occasion restaurant, but special it is. I consider this to be Wilmington’s finest overall dining experience.