From The Grille

March 29, 2001 – Greensboro News & Record
By John Batchelor

About this time last years, I had prepared a column that would have awarded an overall five star rating to a restaurant in Wilmington. Just before I submitted the review, however, I learned that the chef and manager had departed. Of course, they were the reason the restaurant would have become the only establishment on the coast to reach such lofty status. So that review was canceled.

In November 2000, however, these individuals opened their own restaurant. As you might have guessed, they are a team in life as well as in business. Anne Steketee, formerly of Southern Lights, and Shawn Wellersdick, formerly the chef at Noble’s Greensboro property, moved to Wilmington after marriage. They now operate Port Land Grille, which takes its name from their planned relocation to Portland, Ore., a move North Carolinians can be glad never happened.

The restaurant occupies a breezy, open space in the tiny 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.

The wine list is almost exclusively American. It is uniformly excellent, a function of Steketee’s knowledge and devotion. Pick any price, and you will find a good wine. At no point will you find any weak selections.

I found no weaknesses in the food, either. Wellersdick’s imagination is fertile, his and his colleagues’ execution expert. And the menu is lengthy, offering a wide-ranging culinary adventure.

One section of appetizers has been especially conceived to match with Champagne. I passed over the Russian Osetra Caviar ($50) and the Duck Trap Farms Pastrami Rubbed Cold Smoked Salmon ($8) in favor of Connecticut Blue Point Oysters on the Half Shell ($12) with pink peppercorn Champagne mignonette and a Worcestershire-flavored cocktail sauce. I have never had fresher-tasting oysters, and the conception married wonderfully with Champagne (several available by the glass).

Among the more conventional starters, Pan Seared Lump Crab Cake ($9) impressed me for crab flavor, but the accompanying baby lima beans and apple wood-smoked bacon with fennel vinaigrette amazed me, first for their own flavor and second for the way the whole assembly matched the main ingredient. I would make the drive for the lima beans alone!

Big Bowl of Wild Maine Mussels ($8.50) proved to be aptly named. Not only did the portion earn points for abundance, the mussels themselves earned raves from all in my party, based on their fresh, nutty flavor (no hint of muddiness in the taste, a common flaw). They were bathed in a white wine, saffron and tomato broth with mild andouille sausage, along with toasted orzo.

Pepper Seared Yellow Fin Tuna ($9) was served rare, drizzled with Thai mint sauce. An accompaniment of sesame glass noodles, sweet and sour cucumbers and tomato relish completed the Asian theme but carried the execution well beyond anything I have ever experienced in an Asian restaurant (at least outside of Hawaii).

Shawn’s Chicken, Duck Liver, Cognac and Pistachio Pate ($8) is a masterpiece. Robust flavors combined with condimentsÑcapers, diced red onion, cornichons and whole grain mustardÑwhen spread on crostinis.

Crisp Cornmeal Dusted Fried Oyster Salad ($9) delivered the main ingredient fried with precision, over baby organic spinach and roasted sweet peppers, along with warm tasso ham, dressed in black-eyed pea vinaigrette and ancho chili remoulade.

My party also shared a soup of Porcine Mushrooms, Barley, Vegetable and Sausage ($5.50). I found the barley and the mushrooms especially well matched, under girded by the sausage and vegetables. Hearty.

Entrees sustained the stellar level of the first courses. Each main ingredient carries with it a unique vegetable assembly, making every dish a fulfilled conception in itself.

My guests and I tried several entrees grilled on the kitchen’s open-flame, wood-fired grill. Chilean Sea Bass ($25) exuded the effects of the wood fire while retaining the natural texture and delicate flavor of the fish itself. Jasmine rice and butternut squash pilaf with mild curry, plus saut?ed asparagus, as well as toasted pistachio, coconut and basil pesto, were the accompaniments.

Equally beneficial effects blessed Deboned Organic Rabbit ($20). The tender rabbit had been marinated in mild balsamic vinegar and served with a creamy pine nut, leek and Parmesan risotto, plus roasted baby carrots, all drizzled with a chanterelle mushroom, thyme and red wine jus.

I could not imagine a better Veal Tenderloin ($30). In addition to the subtle infusion of oak and hickory wood flavors from the fire, Parmesan cheese blended into the taste of the meat. Artichoke hearts had been whipped into mashed potatoes, creating a subtle, delicious effect. Baby French green beans, saut?ed al dente, was the other vegetable. A sauce of porcine mushrooms, Marsala wine and rosemary masterfully served the potato and veal flavors.

The Beef Tenderloin ($29) at Port Land Grille is USDA aged prime, and both texture and depth of flavor shout the quality. Garlic buttermilk mashed potatoes a confit of sweet onions, plus saut?ed asparagus with Maytag blue cheese, tarragon and aged sherry vinaigrette rounded out this clearly superior dish.

Pork Tenderloin ($18) had been rubbed with the kitchen’s own blend of 10 Asian spices and served with a fresh peach, apple, dried cherry and ginger chutneyÑa masterful combination. North Carolina mashed sweet potatoes scented with vanilla beans, plus balsamic glazed red cabbage provided classic matches for the flavor of the pork.

The kitchen will prepare a platter of desserts, in addition to single servings ($7). My party tried three. Banana Pudding Cr?me Brulee juxtaposed two of my favorite flavors in an original, stellar invention. Warm Oatmeal, Golden Raisin and Brown Sugar Bread Pudding came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, ladled with tangerine orange sauce. Granny Smith Apple and Pecan Crumb Cake had been blessed with warm butterscotch rum sauce and Frangelico ice cream.

It’s good that I have friends who are willing to undergo the rigor of sharing tasting responsibilities for things like these. Otherwise, I would have to consume them all by myself.

Presentations struck an artful chord comparable to the originality and general excellence of the flavors.

One of the criteria I have established for a five-star rating is consistency over time. A restaurant has to have been open for at least a year to be considered for this most exclusive designation. Port Land has not yet met the test of time, but its cuisine already ranks among the top in North Carolina.