Review: The Porter

When the Porter opened in Little Five Points last September, I wanted to love it. The space, formerly Grandma Luke's, was transformed into a quirky, personable bar and hangout, exactly what it always should've been. The beer list was to die for. The owners — chef Nick Rutherford and front of house manager Molly Gunn — had a great narrative, part love story (they got married in the midst of opening), part young culinary dream. There was a pedigree — both Gunn and Rutherford had worked at Seeger's, as well as other restaurants beloved by Atlanta foodies.

But at first, the food was consistently disappointing. I remember my first meal there, sitting in a wooden booth at the back of the restaurant poring over the beer list excitedly, surrounded by vintage suitcases and friendly L5P scenesters. My shrimp and grits arrived, and as the shrimp sank sadly into the slushy grits, my heart sank as well. Flavors were off. Service was bad. At least the beer was good!

I tried again a few weeks later and didn't find the core dishes any more appealing. The space, the feel and the concept worked. The food simply didn't live up to its surroundings.

In the months since, I've heard many opinions, but recently the tone has changed. "The fries are better," a trusted fry connoisseur friend told me. "It's worth checking out the specials," someone else said. It was time to give the Porter another shot.

I'm so glad I did. The timing couldn't have been better. Bloated and slightly disgusted by the glut of celebrity-driven, outrageously expensive restaurants I've been covering lately, my soul and belly craved a simple neighborhood meal. The Porter delivered with a cheap, thoughtful and satisfying menu, and beer to match.

The regular menu hasn't changed much since opening, but preparations have. Those shrimp now sit atop hearty, flavorful grits, accompanied by savory crimini mushrooms and a shot of truffle oil. The fries have improved significantly since the restaurant's opening — what were once forgettable are now crispy, garlicky and highly memorable.

Most of the food is designed to please beer drinkers, and the regular menu doesn't get much wackier than the combination of applesauce and the addictive applewood smoked bacon hushpuppies. There's a fantastic burger served with house-made pickes. There's a bratwurst plate served with heaps of tangy, aromatic house-made sauerkraut. The bratwurst itself — made by the local sustainability gurus at Riverview Farms — lacks the right flavor and is too finely ground, making for a somewhat mealy sausage. But I'd order it again just to get a plate full of that sauerkraut.

For more adventurous palates, there's usually something cool to be found on the specials list. Last week, it was "humanely raised" bone marrow, presented simply with the bone sliced lengthwise, and served with grilled bread. The dish's almost austere nature worked — there was nothing to distract from the perfectly cooked, luxuriously wobbly marrow.

A chicken liver pâté, also on the specials menu, was too heavily spiced and port-flavored — to the point where it was hard to taste the livers — but the texture was perfect. Another special of fried goat cheese with honey and black pepper seemed a little leaden, lacking the sharp contrast that makes the same dish work so well at Midtown's Ecco.

For beer lovers, the Porter gives us a world-class list without having to drive to Decatur. The close to 200 beers range from all manner of domestic microbrews to hard-to-find Belgians to $100 bottles from Switzerland. Look to the menu's back page for the vintage section if you're hankering for something really special. That's where I encountered an awesome bottle of Brooklyn Black Ops, a limited production stout the brewery aged in bourbon barrels, producing something that tastes as much like liquor as it does beer. In a good way. In a malty, bourbon-sweetness, low-carbonation delicious way.

Service, unfortunately, is still the Porter's biggest issue. The enthusiastic proprietors are a delight whenever they appear tableside, but the wait staff, while perfectly friendly, is just not on it. I'm not asking for much — I know this is Little Five Points, I don't expect someone to crumb my table or call me madame — but I'd rather not have to get up and go to the bar to place my order after the waitress disappears for 20 minutes. Getting the check is an ordeal. Another beer becomes too wild a hope, and I forget the idea. It wouldn't take much to correct this lackadaisical approach. I hope the Porter focuses on service next, because it's succeeded in turning its other early problems into a story worth savoring.