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

Are you worthy? The VIP table

Are you worthy? The VIP table

1115 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.353.3500 •
appetizers $11-$26; entrées $13-$65

For breakfast one morning at Porter and Frye, I ordered the Reuben eggs Benedict, and it arrived at the table looking like one of those papier-mâché volcanoes that kids make as science projects: A rye bagel was piled with thick slices of pastrami, sautéed cabbage, a poached egg, and Thousand Island-dressing Hollandaise sauce. Now isn't that a match made in heaven, I thought, as I punctured the egg and let its yolk flow down the mountain like thick yellow lava. My first forkful was so rich and tongue-tingling it could have cued the Hallelujah Chorus. Now this was a fricking breakfast. I looked around. Coffee cups sat silently atop neighboring tables; outside, people dropped change in parking meters like nothing had happened. No one had noticed my revelation, nor could they: I was the only customer in the restaurant.

I guess not as many people were anticipating Porter & Frye as much as I was. In case you haven't heard, the posh new eatery (it's in the ultra-swank Ivy Hotel near the Minneapolis Convention Center) might be the most interesting restaurant to open this year. That's largely because the kitchen is run by Steven Brown, one of the Cities' most talented chefs, who has cooked in this town for more than a decade, at now-defunct restaurants including the Loring Café, Rock Star, and Restaurant Levain. From his signature salt-and-pepper mop to his neon green Crocs, Brown has an easy-going nature that's part philosopher and part funnyman, equally ready to talk food politics or recount antics. He has a penchant for the avant-garde, which leads him to constantly experiment with new techniques, equipment, and ingredients. His style isn't as edgy as the edible menus and burning sherbets being served in international molecular gastronomy hotspots—but locally, he is the only guy serving bacon paper.

Until the Ivy's condos are finished and more of its hotel rooms are rented, Porter & Frye's crowds ebb and flow based on what's happening across the street—at lunch during a recent librarians' conference, the reservation-less might have finished War and Peace while waiting for a table. On my visits, the food at Porter & Frye varied as widely as attendance. While some dishes were the best things I've eaten this year, I had one entire meal full of letdowns.

My first impression of Porter & Frye was of walking through the Ivy's sleek white lobby and being greeted so many times I thought I was in an echo chamber. The staff is certainly eager, if not yet completely comfortable delivering five-star service, and, in my experience (including watching a valet graciously park a pickup loaded with hay bales), thankfully unsnooty. Like the whole Ivy complex, the restaurant feels as luxurious as a caviar facial, yet as grounded as its surroundings—it's tucked into the historic Ivy Tower, a tiny, castle-like 1930s landmark that sat vacant for the past three decades. Porter & Frye's floor plan is like that at Chambers Kitchen, with a bar and dining area on the first floor and the main dining room below. There's lots of dark wood, exposed ductwork and concrete, and warm orange upholstery. Downstairs, there are curvy privacy booths, including a VIP table lit by five chandeliers.

My first meal began with a pork terrine, and when the plate arrived, I almost thought I'd been sent the wrong dish. Instead of a rustic meatloaf, there was a small, snow-white block, as smooth as a marzipan-covered princess cake. Curled slices of pale green and pink radishes perched as delicately as resting butterflies: It looked like it belonged in the pages of Martha Stewart. This was, in fact, the terrine, enrobed in potato butter to mimic coating the meat with gelatin or aspic, and while I loved the pork and the accompanying garnishes, I was turned off by the lard-like consistency of its beautiful shell. Next I tried the celery bisque, which was poured from a pitcher over bits of vegetables, pork belly, and deep-fried wild rice. The pale green froth was such a perfect foil to the nutty crunch of the rice and the chewy pork gumdrops that I considered contacting my legislator and proposing it become the new state soup.

But things went downhill from there. An entree from the vegetarian/spa section of the menu sounded like a delicious harvest—three colorful piles of squash, broccoli rabe, and walnuts—but the greens were greasy and the flavors ultimately forgettable. The walleye, too, had sounded interesting, crusted in Parmesan, with lobster risotto, green apple, and chives. But every way I combined the ingredients—fish, cheese, chives, or cheese, apple, chives, and...seafood?, one always seemed the odd man out.

For dessert, my friend and I ordered the cheddar ice cream, served with Granny Smith apple rings, caramelized to an almost-burnt bittersweet, and a thin apple ribbon. I wouldn't eat the ice cream by the pint, but I enjoyed its interesting cheddar-like sharpness. When I combined it with the caramelized apple, though, the overwhelming bitterness caused my tongue to cringe. My friend took a bite and made a sour face. "It's like licking a battery," he said.

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.