One Week in, Port Of Call Shows Polish

A plate of boquerons – vinegar and herb cured local smelt, with garlic, parsley and warm bread. (Credit: CT Examiner)


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MYSTIC – Blindfold me, sit me down at a bar, and serve me a drink, and 10 times out of 10 I guarantee you I can pick out the ones shaken, stirred or built by Port of Call Beverage Director Jade Ayala and Sebastian Guerrero, who heads up the bar program.

Whether I am drinking boozy variations on a Manhattan or Negroni served ‘up,’ or jewel-toned Caribbean-inspired sweet-tart cocktails served on pebble ice, there is nothing loud, slick or perfunctory about the drinks here. The bar shows polish — classic formulas, sensitive subbing in of the oddball spirit or two, helped along by a bit of backroom technology, pectin-dissolving powders and centrifuges. I actually can’t recall a garnish, other than a bit of foam here, a straw there.

And just one week in, the kitchen, headed up and Executive Chef Renée Touponce is already reliably turning out thoughtful, crisply-executed small plates that are easy on the eyes.

A plate of boquerons – vinegar and herb cured local smelt, with garlic, parsley and warm bread was about the prettiest dish I’ve been served this entire year, and set the pace for an evening of understated eating and drinking – a crowd-pleaser, skin and tails and all.

That’s not obvious from the drink menu which shows off an ingredient list that sometimes had me reaching for the internet to recognize Raicilla, a step-sister to tequila, Pianora (a semi-sweet red vermouth) and Justino (an already decade-old technique for extracting flavor and clarity into alcohol from ingredients like banana or ganache).

Jade Ayala serves up a “Safe from Danger” in the upstairs bar (Credit: CT Examiner)

Or obvious from the nautical-themed upstairs – a cushy, wooden saloon for adults – and a boomy, cement-floored downstairs Jules Verne party of a bar, that was playing the B-52s when we walked in.

No doubt Port of Call will bring in the tourists – and it should.

But I don’t usually go for tourist spots and theme restaurants, and I’d come back anytime for the Papas Rellena, a Peruvian-inspired light-as-air puff of fried potato stuffed with beef, raisins and hardboiled egg served with aji verde. Or the Smoking Pinchos — grilled pork skewers, marinated in sazón, sofrito bbq sauce, with fermented parsnip tostones. Or the squid ink empanadas.

The menu certainly doesn’t sound tourist-friendly – except that the dishes are so… polished… again that’s the word, that most any of the dishes, any of the drinks, are things you will like to eat and drink. So forget for a moment that the Port of Call’s Manhattan, the so-called Organic Woodland Matter, is flavored with mushrooms, umami bitters and Pianora, and order it, because it’s as good as any Manhattan you’ll get from here to the Campbell Apartment.

Actually, I felt myself almost craving the rough edge, feeling that the kitchen and bar were playing it safe. And indeed I was told a number of times that this was just the beginning of their ambitions. But who am I kidding? What’s safe about a Kind and Generous — Berkshire Gin, Nixta, Rice Koji Apertivo, Semi Dolce Vermut, Milk Liquor, Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, and Citrus Foam?

Like a backflip on a balance beam this is harder than it looks (and it doesn’t look easy).

Credit Dan Meiser’s 85th Day Food Community for the know-how to make this happen — and seemingly happen so smoothly — in partnership with Jennifer and Bailey Pryor of The Real McCoy Rum.