Chef Jeff Batt is not going to help you with your New Year’s diet resolutions. In fact, as I sat back in my chair to take a deep breath, half of my deeply decadent mid week lunch at Portly Chef still in front of me, I concluded that Chef Batt’s mission may well be to single-handedly challenge the resolve of all diners, clearly pointing out the privation associated with end of year promises, one butter-lifted dish at a time.
I have not made any resolutions this year and I have to confess I felt smug as I rolled another bite of creamy linguine around the tines of my fork on my recent Portly Chef visit. I used the remains of my annual work vacation allocation to take the entire holiday break off with the kids. Taking advantage of being off on a weekday, I took The Boy for lunch, a meal service I rarely review. Every day of the break up to that point had been marked with rich and calorific fare, as is the convention of the season, so it wasn’t like we were seeking to make up for lost time by ordering some of the most indulgent dishes on the menu, and yet…
It is difficult to pick a dining path from a menu that is filled with tempting sounding dishes that include poutine made with both peppercorn and mornay sauces (as well as pickled onion), beet salad with candied almonds and Bulgarian sheep’s feta, or a daily duo of fish and chips, with oysters and haddock featuring on the day of my visit. The dinner menu expands the thoughtful flavour combinations with dishes like miso marinated sablefish with har gow (a dish I have enjoyed on previous visits), fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits and country gravy, mushroom cap escargot with gruyere potato custard, or AAA beef tenderloin with tiger prawns and béarnaise.
Chef Batt, you see, is a master of big flavours, generous platings, and generally delicious dishes that trade on a stable currency of comfortable approachability. Perhaps not obvious to the casual diner immersed in the Portly Chef’s rewarding dishes is the painstaking lengths Chef Batt pursues to create everything from scratch. You may think that you already know what Carbonara is, for instance, and will likely feel a sense of familiarity as you tuck into Chef Batt’s version, as I did for my lunch main. However, closer scrutiny and enquiry revealed that, in fact, the succulent morsels of meat in the pasta (that would traditionally be guanciale or, more commonly these days, pancetta) are actually house cured, house smoked, and ultimately confited pieces of locally sourced pork belly. As numerous subtle details like this gradually emerge over the course of the meal, one begins to understand that there are a lot of moving parts, tremendous skill and creativity that go into the preparation of this elevated comfort fare that feels so very natural and easy as a diner.
The Boy and I landed on Chili Fried Squid as an appetizer to share, both of us fans of well-integrated spiciness. The menu advertises that the squid is prepared with lemongrass, ginger, lime, jalapeno caps, Sambal and cilantro. All of these elements were indeed present in nicely balanced proportions, but there was so much more on the plate as well. A layer of delicate herbed cream (sour cream, maybe, or yogurt?) provided a foundation for the plating. Rings of pink-hued pickled onion offered some tangy crunch, while four juicy confit cherry tomatoes offered a welcome acidic boost.
The squid, very generously portioned for an appetizer, was perfectly cooked, preserving the moisture in the meat but affording a golden, crispy finish. The jalapeno heat was discernible but not overwhelming, and the fragrant hit of lemongrass took the dish into exotic territory. The restaurant’s website explains that the published menu is just a guide, allowing the kitchen to riff on a theme and keep the dining experience fresh and new.
I struggled with a decision for my main, drawn to the Linguine Carbonara but unsure if my appetite would support it. Portly Chef co-owner and general manager Emily Caulfield was on hand to assist, convincing me that the worst outcome of ordering the Carbonara would be that I wouldn’t finish it and would end up with leftovers for later. As it happens, that was the outcome as I was bested by the dish barely half way through, as was The Boy by his “The Works” Burger, an enormous sandwich with hickory bacon, mushrooms, aged cheddar cheese, and the kitchen’s “triple chin” sauce creation, a rich and creamy secret burger sauce that will need to remain a secret lest it further corrupts my waistline.
The Carbonara was outstanding, rich beyond all reason, and studded with the aforementioned pork belly, green peas, and loads of sharp Grana Padano. A bright orange egg yolk was set atop the dish in a ramekin; the idea is to tip it over the top of the hot pasta and mix it in a la minute to augment the overall creaminess.
I sipped a glass of Burrowing Owl pinot gris with the meal, chosen from a small but well considered by-the-glass list.
I ordered a double espresso to cap off the meal and with it mysteriously arrived a mountainous wedge of white chocolate and peppermint cheesecake with a dark chocolate drizzle and whipped cream.
Speculation might suggest that the cake arrived because I was “made” as a reviewer, or maybe our obviously ambitious appetites were being tested. Whatever the case, the cheesecake had an unctuous roundness lifted by the subtly integrated holiday flavour of peppermint and was a fitting end to a shamelessly indulgent meal.
Lunch, including a premium glass of wine, was $72 before gratuity.
The Portly Chef, 1211 Lonsdale Avenue. Theportlychef.com. 604-971-4377