Porter & Frye's highs and lows reflect the hazards of genius

This posh eatery might be the most interesting place to open this year

My subsequent meals at Porter & Frye were entirely the opposite of my first: I liked almost everything I tried. Although the restaurant's focus is "flavors of the heartland," I loved several dishes that drew from the coasts and beyond. A plump shrimp roll, slathered with mayonnaise and Old Bay seasoning, tasted like a trip to the shore. Just as fresh, though much more indulgent, was a sharable half-pound of glistening Alaskan king crab. A pizza with smoked mozzarella and Italian salume was as good as those in Naples, and the French onion soup was as tasty as it was untraditional: a nuanced consommé poured atop bread and onion petals in a bowl smeared with brushstrokes of onion and Gruyère purées.

The salad list gets as much respect as the entrees. Stellar combinations include frisée with cranberry beans, beets, goat cheese, grapefruit, and smoked salmon; and arugula with golden beets and kumquats, the greens stunningly presented bursting from a crisp bread tube. (The serendipitous baking tool—fashioned from a pipe that the oven installers left behind—offers insight into Brown's inventive streak.)

While there are a couple of obligatory steaks on the menu, Brown's lamb entrees are the most intriguing meats. In one, lamb chops are taken off the bone; half the meat is made into a spiced lamb sausage, and then reassembled with the rest of the chop to be hardly noticeable, if the lights are dim. The refashioned chops are served with braised lamb, cooked pistachios, and pickled hen of the woods mushrooms—a whimsical combination and concept, but, perhaps, in the end, not worth the fuss and the $39 price tag. The braised meat was delicious, but I'd have preferred a crunchy pistachio to a bean-y one, and the rubbery, seitan-like texture of the sausage half of the chop made me wonder why one would make real meat taste like the fake stuff?

The other two fish entrees I tried demonstrated the risk of creating new flavor combinations. The arctic char paired with chickpea purée and greens as tasteless as soggy newspaper seemed as mismatched as, well, hummus with fish. But pairing swordfish with salsify, a root vegetable with an oyster-like flavor, was absolutely ingenious. A grilled swordfish steak was served with truffle vinaigrette, salsify (prepared both as tender slices and crisp, decorative curls), in a bowl artfully dotted with sauces of apple butter and celery root. When I could finally bring myself to disturb the gorgeous, white-on-white sculpture, I couldn't eat it fast enough.

I did give the apple cheddar dessert a second chance, but, again, found it worse with every bite. (Can bitterness have a cumulative effect, like the painful backlash from gorging on Sour Patch Kids?) I had much better luck with the chocolate tart and the coconut panna cotta, highlighted by sesame seeds, passion fruit, grapefruit, and lime zest. The latter was so good it made me hesitate: Should I hazard sullying such a perfect finish with another visit?

If your budget allows for special-occasion meals just once a year, I can't yet recommend Porter and Frye. But I'm glad that this venture—one with an institutional business model to draw travelers with worldly tastes and fat wallets—should finally give Brown the chance to really test his creativity. If you can afford to gamble a bit with your dining dollars, there's potential for great rewards. 

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