Open Monday through Thursday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations. AE, MC, V.
Prices: At lunch, sandwiches and salads average $5 to $6; at dinner, appetizers $3.50 to $8, hamburgers $4.50 to $6, main courses $7 to $18, desserts $2.50 to $4.50.
Take a 19th-century firehouse, pour in truckloads of money, whip a little Henry Africa into it, garnish it with a touch of Clyde's, and there you have Portner's, Alexandria's new beauty. It's bound to be love at first sight. It wears thin, however, the second time around. Portner's is right in the mainstream of the New American Restaurants. Its menu hops from Brunswick stew to quesadillas to Parisian-style fish soup to Polish sausage to hamburgers -- and even to the darling of the nouvelle cuisine set, duck salad. There are steaks for the staid, fried potato skins for the snacker, peppered strawberry-cucumber salad for the adventurous. In the new fashion, the hamburger buns are honey-whole wheat. And the scrod is designated not only as fresh, but also as "flown in." A firehouse of the 1880s has been transformed into a culinary bellwether of the 1980s.
Here is what you will love the first time around: The restaurant glorifies appetizers. The deep-fried potato skins are five crispy cups filled either with melted cheddar or sour cream and scallions ($4) or with sour cream and huge dollops of black lumpfish caviar ($5). Your dietitian may not approve, but they make a wonderful supper all by themselves. Steamed clams -- or clams and mussels -- at $6 to $7 are also substantial and delicious, their broth a light cream perfumed with shallots and herbs; after you polish off the sweet and tender clams, there is that wonderful broth to finish. Portner's Brunswick stew is an appetizer at $4.50 or a main course at $9, and it tastes bright and fresh, with big pieces of boneless chicken, chunks of tomato, corn and lima beans in a light-textured broth. Very good, though excessively sweet.
And therein lies an all-American flaw of Portner's. Too much, too sweet. Baked brie, oozing across the plates, is encrusted with brown sugar and pecans. Actually, it tastes good, but as an appetizer (at $6, yet) it is questionable. The fried chicken wings, another appetizer, are served with apricot sauce. Brunswick stew comes with a strawberry salad, which is less sweet than the stew and surprisingly refreshing except for the pool of vinaigrette in the bottom of the plate. But if the preliminary courses are sweet, the desserts are even sweeter, which is to say they are utter frivolity.
Among main dishes, the best I tried was crab cakes, beautiful golden ones that had been pan-fried rather than deepfried, made with lump crab meat; the filler was not discernible. The crab cakes are light and slightly creamy, with a bit of herbal crunch; they looked nice and tasted fine, though the accompanying tartar sauce -- with a San Francisco touch of potato in it -- needs reworking. Still, crab cakes with a green salad, romaine perfectly dressed with feta cheese, cost $14.50. Even the scrod is $13. They may be good food, but they are not necessarily good value.
Portner's slips on both scores with its hamburgers, a major focus of the menu. The hamburgers tempt you with various garnishes, including cheddar and bacon, caviar and Russian dressing, freshly ground mustard seed, ratatouille and chili. Furthermore, Portner's being part of the Hamburger Hamlet clan implies that it should know its burgers. But ours was too well packed, therefore tough and tasteless, though as rare as we requested. Its ratatouille accompaniment was decent, but its french fries were underdone. In all, $6 badly invested.
You can go even more wrong. Oysters Rockefeller have their assets: the spinach topping is well seasoned and highly peppered, good in its own right if you like a heavy dose of pernod. But they tiny oysters under that spinach insulation were overcooked and lost in the seasoning. The kitchen might as well have just stuffed oyster shells with the spinach mixture and dropped the price from $6. And a side dish called "A Bowl of Burgundy Mushrooms" consisted of five mushroom caps overlapped with a dark, saline wine sauce that tasted like bouillon cubes dissolved in red wine. And 50 cents per mushroom cap is gutsy, to say the least.
Then there are the middling dishes: the steak that looks beautiful with a special logo branded into it and sits in a pool of delicious sesame-scented herb butter but lacks the crustiness of high-heat grilling; the duck salad that consists of decent enough greens but is topped with mushy and tasteless duck and surrounded by tomato relish of no character. Maybe the quesadilla is better, but at $7 for just a tortilla with avocado, cheese, sour cream, onions and chiles, one hesitates to investigate.
Portner's has already raised a few of its prices and added a surcharge for its strawberry salad. It has dropped a couple of fried dishes from its menu. One presumes more changes are in the works. And one hopes the wine list -- small, uninformative and routine -- is among them. The waiter announces that there is a choice of house wines, the premium one being La Fleur, which makes one fear for the standard one.
Dessert gets a spotlight at Portner's. A buffet of the day's pastries greets you, and the waiters -- intense, eager, some suave and some awkward -- are obviously proud of the desserts. The hot fudge cake is called the Ultimate; given the price ($4.50) and the size (two wedges of frosted chocolate cake, two scoops of ice cream, a torrent of fudge sauce and whipped cream added until you call a halt), it is certainly meant to be shared, perhaps between two tables. It is indeed good, but should be reserved for a separate visit to Portner's rather than ordered at the end of a dinner. The frozen chocolate tartufi is more modest in scope, just a small cup of frozen fudge sauce with almonds and a cherry. The bread pudding with bourbon sauce is called a specialty, but is chewy, dry and cloying.
Whatever has been said here is but a scratch on the surface of the life of Portner's. To get to the upstairs dining room -- a stunning two-level setting of glowing solid woods, stainedglass skylights, arches and antique furniture -- one squeezes through the bar crowd crammed into the first floor. At the happiest of Portner's hours it hardly seems worth the trouble, and maybe a few potential diners just stay downstairs for the party. But the trip upstairs, via a grand carpeted staircase bordered by a magnificent banister, activates one's anticipation of a grand meal. The brown flowered tablecloths, reaching nearly to the floor and topped with glass and woven mats, establish a lavish informality. The tiny pots of whipped butter sealed with Portner's logo imply all-out effort. But surprisingly, dishes are garnished with nothing more thoughtful than a clump of watercress. In light of the extravagance in setting up Portner's, it is as if the restaurant ran out of steam at the kitchen door.
In the end, Portner's is a sumptuous pub, and its food -- at sumptuous prices -- is pub food.