Given all that’s been written about this waterfront establishment, I understand a certain level of dining hesitation, but in the hopeful spirit of second chances and new starts, Travis and I were hungry on a Sunday afternoon and thought, “Why not try the scrubbed-up, new version of The Porthole?” After The Porthole’s careful (and expensive) kitchen renovations, we, like many local diners, wanted to know three things: Had its decor changed? Was the menu the same? And, most importantly, was the food good?
The answers were not much, not exactly and mostly. Sound ambiguous? That was my experience.
The Custom House Wharf walk itself is very much unchanged. Diners will likely hunt for cramped and uneven parking and pass garbage dumpsters, the oft-photographed Harbor Fish Market, and the now-decrepit former Comedy Connection in an effort to reach The Porthole’s iconic hanging Coca-Cola fountain sign. Not a problem, as this is part of the gritty charm of working waterfront dining.
Inside, the layout is neater now for sure, but the overall vibe is pretty much the same. A long wooden bar with stools that match the weathered aqua green-painted tables and cream-cushioned chairs set a 1970s retro blue-collar tone. Bright lighting and industrial flooring continue this theme. It’s not quite kitsch-level, but there’s an immediate vintage appeal. A massive waterside outdoor patio with a line of high-top tables is terrific for beer on a hot afternoon (or Bloody Marys in the morning), and low-end, tinny, diner cutlery wrapped in paper napkins feels right for the space.
Decor is where nostalgia stops though, and my initial menu scan was a strange experience. A $40 bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse on the same menu card as PBR cans and three flavors of Twisted Tea? Incongruous, but I credited it as another 1970s throwback and ordered an Allagash White on tap, served ice cold in a promotional Bacardi Mason jar with a handle. Trav’s coffee was served in a standard black diner mug, and our water in plastic Shipyard Brewing cups. I am focusing on these presentation aspects in an effort to evaluate a dining experience on what it promises versus what it delivers, and because mismatch is my chief concern with The Porthole.
For instance, initial appetizers included what I would expect at a paper napkin, weathered furniture, beer-promoting, waterfront joint: clam chowder ($4/$7), handcut fries ($3) and jumbo chicken wings (six for $6/12 for $11). However, just below those appetizers were fish tacos with lemon sriracha aoli (two for $6/three for $8.50) and seared crab cakes ($12) with frisee salad and house-made remoulade. All delicious-sounding, but frisee? Remoulade?
To the kitchen’s credit, the two seared crab cakes were well-constructed, loaded with meat and cooked golden-crispy. The tangy remoulade (although there was an awful lot of it) tasted delicious, and the elegant, minimalist, square cafe plate presentation would not have been out of place at any of Portland’s higher end establishments. But, it looked weird against the banged-up table beside the plastic water cup.
From the Flash Fried New England Seafood section (next to the Maine Raw Bar section), fish bites ($8) arrived not in an overflowing casual basket, but as a cluster of dainty, quarter-sized portions arranged, again, on the same artful — this time elongated and rectangular — white porcelain serving dishes. Choice of sauces included cocktail, dill tartar, sweet and sour, and sweet tartar — all house-made. The fish itself was nicely breaded, tender, hot and well-prepared, but next to my promotional Mason jar, I was unsure whether to lament the lack of cloth napkins or whine about the tiny portion.
Lobster rolls are offered in two varieties: The Classic Sandwich “with a toasted New England-style handmade hot dog roll with lettuce and choice of mayo or drawn butter” and alternatively, The Porthole Sandwich, a “handmade brioche hot dog roll with lettuce and a choice of aoli or a lemon butter emulsion.” Both are priced to the market, which on this day was $17, and both were on the small side — full of flavor but light on lobster meat. Trav and I ate one of each, and we discussed the law of diminishing returns. These were decent lobster rolls, but at $17, the value of “decent” gets tricky, and if I’d expected to discuss the subtler points of brioche and butter emulsion, I am not sure The Porthole would have been my first choice.
To be fair, the menu’s sandwich list had burgers, both veggie and beef, as well as a tuna melt and crispy chicken cutlet. All served with fries and a half-sour pickle wedge. It’s just that the sandwiches were above the bouillabaisse with tomato fennel broth and hanger steak with bearnaise and crispy shallots.
And, maybe that’s the genius marketing technique? Bait with the familiar, and then switch to more complex preparations? Or, offer something for everyone? Maybe. I can own that possibility.
Salad offerings were uneven. Trav ordered the Porthole Wedge ($7) with three cool and fat iceberg wedges, cherry tomatoes, and house-made Gorgonzola dressing. Even with bacon lardons (again, not crumbles or bits), its retro sensibility fit The Porthole’s space perfectly.
Sadly, my Smoked Seafood Salad ($12) was a mess of salt and unattractive presentation. Field greens were plopped with a muddle of smoked options — mussels, scallops, shrimp. Nicoise olives and capers, too. I love, love, love briny flavor, but this was too much. Even the mellow fingerling potatoes, hard boiled eggs and cucumber yogurt dressing included in the awkward arrangement did little to temper the experience.
I can tell The Porthole is trying, and fair credit needs to be given. In fact, I gave great thought to this very criticism, thinking “Am I really criticizing a higher quality of food?” And no, that’s not the issue. It’s not the plastic cups, either. My criticism is the disconnection between diner expectation and delivery. If I am going to experience intricately flavored, higher-end food at a more expensive price point served on modern white china, I expect consistency, and at the very least, water from a glass.
I would return to The Porthole. Its massive waterfront deck is near-perfect for drinking. There’s a commitment to live and local music. And, in a vacuum, the food is decent because the kitchen clearly understands technique. I would return, but next time, with expectations managed.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”