It's a Shame You Can't Eat Homey Ambience
Nothing, not even the clam sauce, ever shook loose the positive first impression that Porters made on my dining companions and me. It's a swell-looking place, located on a residential street in Federal Hill. If you closed your eyes and tried to form in your mind a picture of what you would want your Platonic corner joint to look like, it would look a lot like Porters--woody and dark, both warm enough to feel like an extension of home (maybe it was all those enormous TV screens) and glossy enough to remind you that you're out on the town. This much is true especially of the bar proper; the adjoining dining room, handsome enough, lacks the bar's urban snap. Simply dimming the room's lights a couple of notches would have helped a lot. (When I tended bar, my boss used to scream at me, "Dim those lights, it looks like an ice-cream parlor in here.")
We sat for drinks in the bar, perched at a tall table with a view of the slowly filling dining room. When we asked a waitress to secure a table for us, she exclaimed that we were welcome to dine right where we were. Later, we would appreciate this as having been less an invitation than a warning. We did move into the dining room, but after our dinner, which you might as well know now was almost thoroughly disappointing, we walked back through the bar, by then very full and lively, with cozy-looking groups of diners eating pretty much the same food we had just found lacking in the dining room. It's the oddest thing, but I suddenly had an appetite again (OK, maybe it's not that odd). I knew things would just taste better on that side of Porters.
Disappointment arrived constantly and in many forms during our meal, and we eventually established a classification system for the various dishes, as though they were orchids or angels. This we did not to be funny, but to try to sort out what was going wrong with Porters that night. Was it the proverbial bad night in the kitchen, or was it a more systemic problem of conception and design--as a bygone City Paper photo feature used to wonder, "Who's Respondible?"
There were a few items that weren't disappointing at all. Porters makes excellent french fries, the thick kind, served hot, greaseless, and in a big, generous pile--some of the best we've had in a long time. The pear salad ($10), too, was just about perfect. Served with Gorgonzola and walnuts and tossed with a raspberry vinaigrette, this was beautifully produced and thoroughly appetizing.
Then there is a category of items that weren't by any means awful but which wilted under our scrutiny--we thought these things would find more favor over in the bar. The cheese on the French onion soup ($4.50) gave the pleasure you'd expect, but the broth itself was decidedly weak. And, although we thought the crab and artichoke dip ($9) was fatally overcheesed, we did admire the crusty boule it was served in and the toast points that came with it. Conversely, a Caesar salad ($6) featured a decently tangy dressing, but the lettuce and croutons had the quality of packaged products. A couple of sandwiches, a dispiriting Reuben (dubbed the New Yorker on the menu, $6.50) and a powerhouse ($6.50)--overly oily vegetables served in a tortilla wrap--can be added here, too.
The next category was created for those things we thought were possibly the handiwork of an overtaxed, understaffed, or otherwise inefficient kitchen. Chief among these was the linguini and clam sauce ($14), which arrived in a very unappealing state of soupiness and was returned, after only minimal discussion, whence it came. Earlier, I had run into an old Federal Hill acquaintance, whom I told about my impending visit to Porters. He particularly sang the praises of this linguini dish, and specifically mentioned how nice and un-saucy it was. So, maybe it was an off night, which would also help explain the hamburger ($7) that came medium-well when ordered (begged for) rare and the grilled tuna, a $6 addition to the above Caesar salad, that came well-done when ordered rare.
And, finally, how to classify Ed's barbecued meat loaf ($11.50)? What to say about our reaction to this singular entrée, which, according to the menu, is adapted from Ed's mom's West Virginia recipe and is the restaurant's signature dish, except to say--as the menu also declares--that it's "Like no other!"
Where everybody knows your name: Omnivore@citypaper.com.