Porto

Travelling to an unfamiliar place brings with it an almost mind-boggling sense of possibility. We search for experiences that we haven’t had, stimulation we’ve never felt—the untasted, the unheard, the unseen. The senses open, our inhibitions relax, new neurons spark up, and we find it less intimidating to get into the mindset of childlike wonder. This is the state that I strive for when stepping into an unfamiliar culinary landscape. There is nothing I want more than to be moved, to find out what drives people, and to get to the heart of what they’re proud of.

I suppose this serves as Porto’s personal brand, as this benign face was seen in many places here

This is not always an easy thing to achieve. The world is awash with homogenous dining experiences. The bland, corporate landscape of familiarity, consistency, and comfort that offers a security blanket for those who appreciate that sort of thing simultaneously manages to inspire a deep well of sadness for what it represents: a complete and total lack of passion. Seeking out—and finding—that rare and electric moment of pure passion is what drives me.

My partner Nicole and I happened to find ourselves in Chicago for the wedding of dear friends, and most of the time when we travel it is my job to find where we’re going to eat. I like to surprise her and go out of my way to find experiences we can’t easily get at home. Chicago, however, is culturally very close to Detroit, and the things that it is most well-known for (pizza, hot dogs, Italian hot beef, and the like), while worthy and honorable in their own right, were not what I was going for on our one and only night downtown before we headed out to the suburbs for the wedding the next day. I began my normal net-casting in the way that I do: my foodie network on Instagram mixed with a dash of blogs like Eater, some cursory Google Maps searching, a TripAdvisor review or two, and some other sorcery that I managed to perfect over many years of doing this. But then, it occurred to me: this was a golden opportunity that we never quite grasped before; something Detroit lacked entirely. A restaurant with a Michelin star.

Opinions abound about the worth of the coveted Star. Words like “haughty” and “pretentious” get bandied about. I don’t have an educated opinion on the matter. Fine dining is not something I’m deeply familiar with. I never quite understood what Michelin reviewers looked for and how Stars are awarded, so I came into this experience with fresh eyes, a clear heart, and an open mind. My entire goal was “something we can’t get in Detroit” and… well, I nailed it.

Conservas

Porto is an homage and a love letter to the western shores of Portugal and Galician Spain. It is named after the city in Portugal. The menu heavily features something you would not expect to find in a fine dining experience: tinned seafood—conservas (Spanish for ‘preserved’), as they are known. Immediately rid your mind of the thought of canned tuna or sardines that might have popped into your head. This ain’t that.

The conservas that are used at Porto are deliberately chosen for their quality and seasonality; they represent the pride and joy of the coastal producers whose life work is put into those cans. These are not from factories with corporate offices.

I recently came to understand the vital difference between a quality conserva and factory-canned seafood late last summer when I returned from my trip to Alaska. I fell in love with salmon on that trip, and found a company that caught fresh salmon, brought them ashore, then smoked and canned them immediately. I ordered several cans and discovered that the preserved fish was just as good from that can as it was fresh in Alaska at the source. This was my first experience with a true conserva and I was glad I had already known about this when I saw the menu at Porto, because seeing canned seafood on a fine dining menu would have probably made me raise an eyebrow if I hadn’t already known. The true art of conservas is the art of sealing up the flavor of a place and a time. Capturing the essence of that place and holding it in suspension to be brought back to life somewhere else. To transport the one who opens it and give them a glimpse, if even only briefly, of an ephemeral and fleeting moment. An essence.

Transported

I am not the type of person to spend too much energy attempting to appreciate ambience or decor, but stepping into the darkened vestibule of Porto is to step into a portal to another world; much like the fish must feel when being canned and transported and opened up in a wholly new geography, this is how it feels to step out of the windy corridors of the tall glass buildings, find yourself in the small, rounded black tunnel as if being tinned up, and then being reopened and spooned out through the curtains into a rich, warm, and smoky interior that assails the eyes with splendor and the nose and mouth with rich and comforting scents. The warmth and candor and hospitality of the staff becomes instantly apparent.

I felt that if I was going to truly dive into the richness of a new experience, I may as well go all the way. This was why I surprised Nicole with reservations for the chef’s table experience—if this was to be our first-ever Michelin experience, I wanted to absolutely swim in it. The host led us past the main dining room and the wonderful, opulent bar, through yet another dark corridor, and into a smaller dining room where we were seated, essentially, in a kitchen.

The wood-fired kitchen at Porto, a restaurant in Chicago
The view from the chef’s table in the back of Porto

An aside: as a fat person, I often have deep anxiety about seating, particularly in higher-tiered restaurants. The tremendously embarrassing experience of being too big for a particular seat has happened to me more than once and is more likely to happen in “design-forward” spaces like fine dining establishments. You can imagine, then, my trepidation, as this was clearly one of the very nicest restaurants I’ve ever stepped into. I am delighted to say that the seating was very inclusive in this regard. It was spacious and large enough to easily handle my frame and could have easily accommodated a much larger diner than myself. This further cemented the idea that often crosses my mind in my local fine dining restaurants; you can be gorgeous and still be accommodating and inclusive.

We sat down and were immediately attended to by multiple staff; our waiter introduced herself to us, then introduced the chefs and offered us sparkling water while another waiter prepared our utensils and handed us menus. This is when the next wonderful thought crossed my mind and leapt out at me: the entire staff was wonderfully diverse. It is an oft-discussed trope in the Detroit dining scene (and I feel the need to remind you that Detroit is a city that is over 80% Black) that most of the clientele, the servers, and the chefs you see are white, while bussers and dishwashers are sometimes the only Black people you can find. This is sadly a common scene particularly in newer Detroit restaurants. This was absolutely not the case at Porto. Nicole, particularly, was delighted to see a female chef behind the counter as well.

We both opted for the chef’s tasting menu for the evening; Nicole ordered the wine pairings and I decided to try cocktails.

The Crepúsculo at Porto restaurant in Chicago. A cocktail made from Gin, Squid Ink & Wakame Infused Honey, Lemon, Egg White, Sea Salt
This is the Crepúsculo: Spanish Gin, Squid Ink & Wakame Infused Honey, Lemon, Egg White, Sea Salt

I suffer from the fear of missing out in that when I see a menu with so many incredible options that I’ve never tried before, I want to try them all. This presents a particular challenge when each item has the kind of associated costs that you can expect in a restaurant of this caliber—that is to say that “trying” something just to try it could cost you $50 or more. It’s hard to imagine spending that much in any normal circumstances, but this was one of those special occasions that makes spending extravagantly seem like a part of the process. Memories are expensive.

What a long-winded way of saying I ordered some extra dishes on top of the tasting course. There was a fire-roasted oyster dish with house-made XO sauce that I absolutely had to try. There was also something so wild and exotic that it would have been offensive to someone like me to walk away from this experience without being able to add this to my life’s record: Percebes, a “taste of the sea in one bite”, also known as goose barnacles. Rare, dangerous to harvest, and difficult to prepare. How could I not? Where else would I ever have a chance to try this?

And so began our curated journey to the coastal fishing villages of the north Atlantic along the Galician and Portuguese coast, a story narrated purely by the sensual poetry being performed by these sorcerers in a smoky den one wintery Chicago night.

Chef Erwin Mallet expressing his absolute joy for these salty little critters, percebes. Imagine an excited child showing you the finer points of his LEGO collection and you begin to understand the passion at play in this delightful exchange

Lost at sea

The amuse-bouche was served on a fish. I mean that literally in the sense that the plate was a fish. It was a whole dried turbot fish and I mention this because it is in keeping with the theme of the experience: they use everything from the produce they collect. Every bone, every bit of skin, every tiny millimeter of the animal or plant is used in some way here. The fire never goes out. They use fish bones for stock; they simmer essences and potions overnight, to foam and bubble and mutate. I begin to understand what a Michelin reviewer might look for. Effort. Everything in this restaurant requires great effort, and effort must be driven by passion, or it just becomes work, and the feeling you get from the people here is that they are not working. They are creating. This is art.

Art. Essence. Scent, flavor, color, texture, aesthetic. A singular bite ignites more than the tastebuds. Hell, even the imported sparkling water was the best we’d ever had.

I am not culinarily trained, so I won’t do justice to the finer points of the ingredients and presentation, but it is enough to say that my bouche was amused. Actually, not just my mouth. Every aspect of the experience was curated to delight. When this fish was set down in front of us, with two seashells filled with foam, I knew we were in for a ride.

I’ll be frank: when I’ve read about “foams” at restaurants, I’ve rolled my eyes. It is easy to mock something as ephemeral as a bit of foam spooned into one’s mouth and to pay a great sum of money for that experience. Paragraphs have been written in great detail that regale readers with the hilarity of spending dollar amounts in the three figures for the joy of tasting… foam. I am humbled now, and I will say, simply, that I get it now. The experience of putting something formless and massless into your mouth, yet experiencing an explosion of flavor and essence, is hard to describe. It’s more akin to taking a deep whiff of something that smells wonderful, but you are whiffing with your mouth. Nicole and I, both prepared to giggle, instead stared at each other in perfect agreement. It was a new sensation. The seaweed foam opened the sinuses, brightened the tongue, and prepared our minds, a musical experience if the instrument was the sea. It was like tasting the air of the Atlantic coast in Europe. It set the stage and we were ready.

Every detail matters. They use rock salt as a decoration to highlight the fact that they don’t use it in their food, and they don’t need to use it in their food because it is naturally salted by the sea

Over the next hour, our mouths and minds were assailed with new tastes, new scents, and new knowledge as the waitstaff explained the dishes and then the chefs came by to enhance our knowledge, or mention a personal anecdote, or tell us exactly how they achieved some artistry with the food before us. I truly began to understand what sets a restaurant like this apart. I’ve been to many high-end chef’s tasting experiences here in Detroit, but this was a completely different league.

Oysters, fire-roasted with an incredible XO sauce, and touched by smoke

The most important distinction, to me, was the utter and complete lack of pretense. Talking with the chefs and the staff was like talking to excited hobbyists. We weren’t an “audience”, we were participants sharing in the joy of creation, and this, more than anything else, is what elevates an experience like this. It is exactly what I look for in every aspect of my life. Passion. It cannot be faked. It cannot be bought. It can be experienced only with optimism and, dare I say, love in your heart.

Uni toast—La Brújula Uni Conserva, Smoked Cauliflower & São Jorge Cheese Purée, Nori Seaweed & Lemon Gel, Toasted Brioche
Every tiny bit is a different experience, every small piece a new flavor. The art lies in the combination of them all to deliver a feeling.

Getting emotional

We come to the part that I have struggled to put into words for weeks. I will start this off by delivering the payload: I cried during this meal. I don’t mean that to be dramatic or edgy or to convey some sense of performative nonsense. I literally teared up towards the end of this meal, and there’s a good reason for it.

One of the later dishes we experienced was simply called “Morcilla”, which is a blood sausage. The menu describes it as such: “Tuna & Squab Spiced Morcilla, Roasted Apple & Vermouth Purée, Crispy Squab Skin, Tuna & Shio Koji Consommé”. To put it simply, it’s soup.

Let me take a step back in time: I grew up in a Polish American household. Like so many white Americans my age, the culture my great-grandparents brought over with them permeated throughout the generations, slowly diluted with American-ness each step along the way, but retaining some essence of the old country. In my particular household, most of what held on was food traditions, and for the sake of this story, I am talking specifically about a particular sausage called kiszka, which is a blood sausage. My mom loved it, so I loved it. My dad hated it. It was a very smelly thing to cook, and so it became a ‘secret’ thing that my mom and I shared when dad wasn’t around. She would cook up some kiszka and eggs for me, and me being young, I didn’t think about or care that it was made of blood. I just loved it, and I loved those special moments with my mom.

I had a contentious relationship with my mom in her later years, and so those precious memories of a sweeter and more innocent time became quite special to me.

Now you can begin to understand why, when I tasted that first spoonful of soup, tears sprang to my eyes, unbidden. There was something about the seasonings used, the particular flavor that instantly broke through years of locked-away core memories, and suddenly I was seven years old giggling with my mom about eating stinky kiszka before dad got home. I am in no way suggesting that my mom made “tuna and squab spiced morcilla, roasted apple, vermouth puree” and whatever else, no. I am simply telling my truth: The flavor I experienced in that bowl was the flavor of happy childhood memories with my mother. She passed away in 2014, and in the way that all of us who have lost parents or other ancestors, with her went the secrets of the food I grew up with.

Therefore, with tears in my eyes, I felt compelled to share this convoluted memory with the chefs, and they both expressed gratitude and joy that I shared this with them.

Purées, gels, foams, and canned seafood. Who knew how good this could be?

The mindset

If you came into an experience like this without the correct mindset, you may find that you had a wonderful but very expensive meal, and go on about your evening, but I would find this a very sad way to think about a place like Porto. When I was discussing our experience, a friend asked a question that I’ve heard many times before with tasting menus: Did you feel full? Did you leave hungry? Sometimes I think there’s a trope that you experience a series of expensive bites, wash it down with overpriced booze, and then leave unsatisfied and go get a fast-food burger or something to cap off your night. But really, these meals aren’t about that. These aren’t about getting full or walking out bloated and sore. This is about experiencing something you’ve never experienced before. Regardless, the quantity of food was sufficient enough for us to feel full and satisfied when we left. More full than our bellies, however, were our hearts.

Eating at Porto was a life-changing experience for me, one that changed my outlook and raised the bar on what I am seeking when I travel. It helped clarify what drives me when I look for new experiences and introduced me to people whose passion for food matches my own. I often say that I look for “lore” when I look for food, and Porto is a tome of endless tales.

Porto is located at 1600 W. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL

1 comment

  1. What a great birthday present for your father. Dinner at Porto.
    No IO don’t like Kiszka, but I like the Czarnina your Swietna Babcia made

    Like

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