Dinner At Portside Has Lots Of Ups And Downs, But It’s An Enjoyable Ride
The people behind Dewey Beach, Del.’s popular Starboard restaurant, famous for its 700-ingredient Bloody Mary smorgasbord, have opened a new tavern in Canton, just off the square. With its starched white tablecloths and dark-blue walls, the Portside Tavern (2821 O’Donnell St.,  522-7678) makes the good first impression of a freshly laundered shirt.
Other good omens: a waitress who made us feel relaxed and happy, and a menu smartly conceived to accommodate both frequent midweek patrons and weekend diners in search of more rarified cuisine—sandwiches, soups, and salads, of course, but a few elaborate pasta dishes and enterprising appetizers, too. The signature meal is the Catch of the Day, which asks diners to choose from a handful of fishes, cooking preparations, sauces, and side dishes. Not a revolution in dining, but good to see in a neighborhood joint.
This accumulation of goodwill paid off, because not everything at Portside comes through in equal measure. Sauces kept us perplexed. We wondered more than once whether what we were tasting was a botch of something that’s usually better, or whether the chef here really wanted a particular sauce to be oddly bitter or seriously sour.
The oddly bitter sauce was a Grand Marnier reduction that came with an appetizer order of spring rolls ($8)—had it been reduced too far or had someone dumped in the pith along with the peel? Either way, too bad, because otherwise the fat rolls were tasty and, like everything that arrived at our table, good-looking, too. Stuffed with sautéed shrimp, crabmeat, diced carrots, and onions, and fried to a flaky crispness, they were plated prettily around a mesclun salad and garnished with an edible orchid.
Perfectly seared scallops ($8.50) were nearly undone by the extreme tartness of a white wine-garlic sauce, and we found ourselves dipping the bivalves instead in one of the several much-better sauces—bracing wasabi cream, serious hot pepper, a perky pickled ginger soy sauce—that had been squiggled on the plates of other appetizers: the spring rolls, and a model tuna carpaccio ($10), a generous pile of still-ruby, sesame-encrusted obviously fresh tuna.
If overall panache and presentation (and a half-price Tuesday-night special) helped us cope with some appetizer imperfections, two superb soups elicited nothing but pure appreciation. Try the cream of crab soup ($5.50), luxurious with cream, seasoned smartly with just enough herbs, laced with sherry, and brimming with crabmeat. A thick and liberally seasoned chicken dumpling soup ($4.50), chock-full of carrots and celery, offered the comfort-food pleasure of a chicken pot pie.
Ups and downs continued throughout the meal. A sirloin steak sandwich ($8) was just about flawless. Having the steak cut into strips turned out to be much easier to deal with than the customary slab of beef, and a side of crisp, perky coleslaw was stellar. A side of fries were pleasantly salty but not the shoestrings the menu promised. A freshly toasted roll would have been nice, too.
The problem with a bountiful spinach watercress salad ($7), composed with Gorgonzola, pickled pear, and toasted pine nuts, was the immense amount of watercress that lurked beneath the spinach—more watercress in one place than any of us had ever seen. A harsh, almost burnt-tasting tomato sauce overwhelmed the other ingredients in an order of crab fusille ($19), leaving us to wonder once again, Was it supposed to be this way?
The menu does a good job in describing the four different cooking methods it applies to the Catch of the Day (only the usual suspects here—yellowfin tuna, $19, salmon, $16, swordfish, $18, rockfish, $17, and a combination of scallops and shrimp, $21), but stops short of offering real guidance. Some methods are better than others for certain fishes; pan-searing was perfect for the steaky swordfish, although the too-thin white wine-garlic sauce was not.
I’m almost embarrassed to mention that four of us managed to polish off our dessert—a comically huge, rich, sweet, and gooey serving of bananas Foster ($4.95). We had tried previously to get into Portside on a Saturday night but found the dining rooms booked up, suggesting that other diners are finding more good than bad, or else, like us, they’re choosing to accentuate the positive.