Portsmith is a safe harbor for quality seafood | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Portsmith is a safe harbor for quality seafood

The Fifty/50 Group brings an ocean-focused menu to the Dana Hotel.

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Despite plenty of examples to the contrary, hotel restaurants have a reputation for being stodgy and overpriced, the last resort of business travelers with expense accounts who are too tired to venture out in search of more interesting options. (To be fair, there are also plenty of mediocre or downright bad hotel restaurants.) The Dana Hotel has struggled for the last ten years to figure out what works in its restaurant space, starting with Ajasteak, a steak and sushi spot that was later rebranded as Aja. That was followed by Argent, then by Freestyle Food & Drink, which the hotel managed itself instead of bringing in a restaurant group as it had done for the previous concepts. With Portsmith, the Dana returns to partnering with a restaurant group: the Fifty/50 Group, which first branched out into hotel fine dining last year with Steadfast (in the Kimpton Gray Hotel) after building its brand on its namesake sports bar and the Roots minichain of pizzerias.

The Fifty/50 is also behind Apogee, which in May replaced Vertigo Sky Lounge as the hotel's rooftop bar, and Leviathan, a cocktail bar on the mezzanine level that overlooks Portsmith. That means that Fifty/50 beverage director Benjamin Schiller (the Sixth, the Berkshire Room) created the drink menus, which at both bars are varied and inventive. Portsmith's cocktail list is more traditional and quite brief: a martini, a mojito, and twists on an old-fashioned and a Sea Breeze. The mojito and the old-fashioned (here called the Westin and made with bourbon, Aperol, walnut liqueur, and allspice) are solid renditions of classics—and if it's creativity you're after, Leviathan is just up the stairs. The well-curated wine and beer lists are just a bit longer, and our server was familiar enough with them to guide our beverage choices.

Portsmith, helmed by chef Nate Henssler (Homestead on the Roof), specializes in seafood—another concept that's often maligned, in this case because several hundred miles lie between Chicago and the nearest ocean. The decor references nautical themes without being kitschy or hokey. If you weren't looking for them, you might miss them entirely. A wood design on the mirrors suggests a ship's rigging, abstract art on one wall is evocative of barnacles, and the fabric on the banquettes is a deep sea blue. The space is open and airy, striking a balance between fancy and casual that means neither jeans nor suits look out of place.

Portsmith's website boasts that the restaurant believes in restraint, a "less is more" approach—and, unusually, the menu mostly bears out that claim. A pair of lightly charred jumbo shrimp were so sweet and silky that the horseradish cocktail sauce accompanying them was essentially unnecessary. A bowl of tender marinated and grilled squid, served chilled with nothing more than olive oil, lemon, and pepper, had me puzzling over what the secret ingredient might be. I finally concluded that it was the olive oil adding layers of vegetal flavor to the dish and the warm spice was nothing more than freshly ground black pepper.

Seared halibut was even less adorned, and while it could've used a little more acidity and salt, the simplicity of the preparation let the meaty flavor of the fish shine through. Unfortunately, some of the beans that accompanied the fish were undercooked, leaving them chalky and hard, while the romanesco was slightly bitter and acrid. An equally simple appetizer of raw hamachi was cut into tiny cubes and served with petite pieces of golden beet, an odd pairing in which the earthy root vegetable nearly overwhelmed the fish's delicate, perfect flavor. Bao with king crab (Portsmith's take on a lobster roll) is as delicious as anything drenched in brown butter should be, but the butter and mayo drown the subtleties of the crab.

Other than those minor missteps, however, the rest of the dishes were flawless. The cheeseless cacio e pepe tasted creamy and cheesy thanks to the addition of uni butter, which together with a sprinkle of caviar gave the pasta a slightly briny flavor. Both the scallops with pork belly and ahi tuna with seared foie gras were a study in contrasts, with the fresher and lighter flavor of the fish sparring pleasantly with the richer, fattier meat (or organ meat). The two-inch-thick chunk of tuna, seared on the outside and perfectly raw everywhere else, came with a bordelaise sauce made with Luxardo amaro along with the creamy foie gras. The seared scallops and lightly charred pork belly were served atop a smear of lemongrass-carrot puree that tasted purely (and oddly) of lemon zest, with a refreshing tangle of green papaya that acted like a palate cleanser between bites.

Bread service and dessert is in the capable hands of Chris Teixeira, a Fifty/50 veteran who's served as pastry chef for Homestead on the Roof and Steadfast. Like many new restaurants, Portsmith charges for bread, offering rolls a la carte for $2 apiece. Each comes with a different butter: a fluffy cheddar Parker House roll gets Old Bay butter; crusty sourdough with bonito flakes is accompanied by a mildly funky black garlic butter that goes beautifully with the mildly fishy bonito. Brioche with smoked salmon and caviar is a bigger portion, intended for two people—but you'll have to split it yourself, a slightly messy process that squishes the flaky pastry. It's rich and decadent, filled with cream cheese and topped with gold leaf and edible flowers, and I wish I could eat it for breakfast every morning.

Desserts are where Portsmith strays from its philosophy of restraint. Each is inspired by a country that borders one of the seven seas, and the ones we tried each involved at least a halfdozen elements. They were all beautiful, both in appearance and in their flavor combinations, but after the simplicity of the savory dishes it was a shock to the system to try to appreciate mango bavaroise, coconut ganache, black rice ice cream, pieces of crunchy puffed black rice, little pieces of mango, and mango gel all at the same time. That one's called Philippines, while Greece pairs phyllo cake with ground pistachio and tart frozen yogurt for a dessert that evokes the flavors of baklava without any actual phyllo dough. The desserts for lunch are more traditional—key lime pie, creme brulee—but a chocolate tart filled with gooey caramel was just as fancy as the dinner desserts.

For those who aren't on an expense account, there's likely to be some sticker shock at Portsmith; it's possible to spend a lot of money on very little food. The simplicity of the dishes, though, makes them memorable. I can still almost taste every bite of seafood I had there. If there's a place that can change the bad reputation of hotel restaurants, Portsmith may be it.   v

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