From The Grille

December 15, 2008 – North Carolina Signature
By John Batchelor

Port Land Grille always appears on my short list of candidates for “best restaurant in North Carolina.” The restaurant occupies a breezy, open space in the tony Lumina Station cluster of shops and offices. An open kitchen and bar separate the two dining rooms, portions of which can be closed off for private parties. Wicker and rattan furniture reinforce the coastal ambience.

Chef-Proprietor Shawn Wellersdick displays brilliant creativity, but he never crosses the line into the precious.

Consider “Shake and Bake” Fries ($5), for example. North Carolina sweet potatoes are sliced and fried crisp French fry style, tossed in truffle oil with a light dusting of Parmesan cheese, served with a roasted red pepper Dijon mustard mayonnaise. Elegant. But homey. North Carolina pork barbecue is beginning to be recognized by serious chefs as the true work of art that it has always been. Port Land Grille’s version is named “Redneck Crostinis” ($6.50)—pulled pork covered with warm, homemade pimiento cheese, topped with a slice of pickled okra, on crisp crostini, surrounding a red cabbage slaw. I’m sure the term was coined in a whimsical mood— several of Port Land’s items carry plays on words. The name nevertheless illustrates the juxtaposition of styles in evidence here. Southern cooking, as executed by master chefs, influenced by Japanese here, Portuguese there, California everywhere.

I have eaten a lot of Calamari ($9), but I have never before encountered such a combination of tenderness and flavor. The small rings and baby squid are dusted with panko bread crumbs and flash fried, then drizzled with sesame aioli, flanked by a mango Thai dipping sauce. Exotic, but accessible. Tuna Tartare ($10) had been assembled in a tower, stacked over a Thai-spiced quinoa (a whole-grain salad). Dabs of wasabi-infused Tobikko caviar added another dimension.

Grilling is executed over a wood fire. Large Diver Scallops ($12) were placed adjacent to thin slices of beets and shaved Myrtlewood cheese, plus candied hazelnuts, arrayed around a small salad of baby organic greens dressed lightly with a vanilla bean citrus splash.

Rabbit Tarte ($10) placed the main ingredient in a blended prosciutto and Parmesan crust, topped with a gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese mousse, surrounded by a roasted red pepper and thyme coulis and a Dijon mustard truffle crème. Although it appears on the menu as a starter, with a salad, it would serve as an outstanding light entree.

The House Salad ($7) mixes baby organic greens with pickled beets, hearts of palm, and toasted sunflower seeds. The dressings chosen around our table were balsamic herb vinaigrette and creamy blue cheese buttermilk.

Parmesan-Crusted Catfish ($21) bore a wonderfully crisp and flavorful crust, the flavor of the fish sharpened by lemon zest, the assembly hosted by Anson Mills grits spiked with smoked cheddar cheese, along with a sweet onion Creole mustard and an ancho chili remoulade. Collard greens and grilled andouille sausage were the vegetables. Grilled Wild Copper River Sockeye Salmon ($24) had been topped with crab meat and smoked shrimp and placed over a succotash of black eyed peas, okra, corn, and bits of smoky bacon, alongside baby spinach. A fennel pollen relish added just a hint of licorice flavor on the aftertaste.

The Pork Rib Chop ($26) was a masterpiece. Thick cut, wood grilled, its inherent flavor was well-complemented by a balsamic and fig barbecue sauce. Collard greens and a unique macaroni with blended cheeses completed the presentation. A Veal Porterhouse Rib Chop ($26) had been rubbed with lemon thyme, then grilled, augmented with a roasted red pepper Madeira wine sauce. A twice baked potato fluffed with Boursin cheese, plus buttered spinach were the accompanying vegetables.

I considered prices at Port Land quite competitive, item by item. When ingredients justify, elevations occur. For its quality, therefore, a Black Angus Beef Tenderloin ($34) represented good value. A chanterelle mushroom port wine sauce enhanced an already deep flavor. Goat cheese mashed potatoes, buttered tiny American beans, and cipollini onions completed a medley of flavors and textures. Pan-Seared Kobe Beef Tenderloin ($65) is expensive by any measure, but unique. I have never tasted anything else like it. Kobe beef is legendary, and on the basis of this sample, I would say the legends are true. Port Land’s kitchen rubbed it with finely ground espresso, which created a masterful interplay of flavors, and placed a dollop of Roquefort cheese butter alongside. Crisp fried oysters, plus a potato, Vidalia onion, salsify, and pancetta hash, joined buttered spinach on the plate.

My party tried two desserts (all $7.50). A slice of Coconut Cake stood— o.k., maybe not a foot tall, but just about, with flavor that reached comparable heights. Tiramisu arrived in a large bowl, surrounded by chocolate sauces. Both exquisite.

Ann Steketee is co-proprietor, floor manager, and wine manager. She has constructed a list that has been repeatedly recognized by Wine Spectator as among the best in the nation. To their praise, I would add compliments for value. You can get the really good stuff here, and pay an appropriate price, but care is evident in the provision of good wines at the lower end of the price scale, and by the glass, as well. Service on this review visit, and on other visits, is exemplary as well: thoroughly knowledgeable, well-paced, and gracious, yet informal and not snooty-stuffy.

The best restaurant in North Carolina? In the Southeast? I will say this, with confidence: If I were to be stranded on a desert island and I could take only one restaurant with me, Port Land Grille would be the one.