When Porter & Frye opened this past year, it sparked an epic food-critic war. One panned, the other raved. Still others hung back, waiting to see if the restaurant would find a consistent stride past some jittery opening weeks. Once the lot dissected the establishment, they turned their lusty pens on each other.
As a food writer, I can’t deny the shamefully narcissistic allure of a good fire-and-brimstone critique, but in all my forays into local cuisine, I have not yet met a restaurant that fully deserved the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” treatment. The Twin Cities may not have the Michelin clout of New York or Paris, but when an area restaurant caters to our strengths—locally grown, seasonal produce, and meat from family-owned farms and ranches—I believe we hold our own.
With Joan Ida as Executive Chef, Porter & Frye wisely takes full advantage of local products throughout its menu, without an excess of idealism. She also favors doing as much as possible in-house, including bread, desserts, and most of the bar’s syrups and juices.
Our server, Jen Carpenter, was only too happy to showcase the fabulously inventive cocktail menu with El Pelon ($10) and Starlight ($10).
El Pelon is silver tequila given a kick from fresh jalapeño juice—coyly described as a “spicy surprise.” It’s a bit punchy in the first sip, but my palate soon adjusted.
Starlight was a huge hit at our table, because of its absinthe base. I adore the stuff, but it’s rare to see it on a bar menu, and rarer still to find it mixed so successfully. With her gentle, licorice-like buzz, the divine green fairy is not content to sit in the background, drowned in fruity syrups. Mixologists Erikka Jensen and Ben Anderson were wise not to abuse her thus, but instead, support her with St. Germain, a little lime, and ginger.
Either cocktail pairs well with the Charred Ahi Tuna appetizer ($26), which offers a beguiling smokiness. Jensen tells us that returning customers often order it in place of an entrée. When I taste a bit of the accompanying shishito peppers and preserved lemon, I understand why. Many kitchens would order their tuna precut, but Porter & Frye’s staff portion it out themselves. Perhaps it’s a small point, but the thicker-cut pieces retain more of their juices. In a dish that is made or broken on the basis of its freshness, cut, and sear, details reign supreme.
Next was the artful Arugula Salad ($9), lightly dressed in a pear vinaigrette, with fresh parmesan, dehydrated prosciutto, and a bit of grapefruit. I am a fan of the vinaigrette, which does not obscure the peppery arugula, but helps to marry the plate. The salad pairs well with either the Lover, You Should Have Come ($10)—tart raspberry syrup, Effen vodka, lime, and ginger beer—or the Fire Walk with Me ($10)—silver tequila, mint, cilantro, passionfruit, and a bit of jalapeño. Nicknamed the “mojito gone wild,” its jalapeño is less assertive than in the El Pelon, which lends the drink a more subtle shape on the finish.
Arugula is always dandy, but I was feeling in the mood for something a little bolder. The halibut ($24) with gnocchi, tomato, fennel, and micro greens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. The gnocchi was neither chewy nor mushy, and the sweet tomatoes with the flaky fish were pure divinity, bringing out the best in both. If you are the only one at your table ordering the halibut, you will have to guard your plate from wandering forks desiring just one more taste.
Lamb ($32) is perhaps the most classically Midwestern of Porter & Frye’s offerings. Perhaps it’s my ranchland heritage speaking, but nothing can make me wince quite like seeing lamb suffocated in a sticky reduction. My mantra remains when you have such a lovely cut of meat—sometimes, it’s best simply to get out of its way. Ida’s dish is my epicurean philosophy exactly: simple, precise, balanced.
Dinners at Porter & Frye automatically are followed by a selection of little sweets, but if you’re looking for something more substantial, the 7-Layer Chocolate Cake ($9) with salted caramel ice cream is a bit naughty without making a spectacle of itself.
Apparently, Porter and Frye’s service drew occasional criticism from earlier reviewers, but I found the staff to be pleasant and accommodating—not at all intrusive. If there were inconsistencies in the first year, they appear to be smoothed out. And, given the frequently changing and flexible menu, you always have a good reason for a return visit.
Porter & Frye
1115 2nd Ave. S., Mpls.