Even before Richmond Magazine’s list of best new restaurants came out, I’ve always wanted to dine at Portico, Paolo Randazzo’s new venture located at the old Edible Garden.
So last Tuesday, as we winded up old River Road, I asked the “Hungry” hubby if he knew exactly where it was because I get anxious about being late for a dinner reservation and the clock was fast approaching 6pm. As we flitted pass grand houses tucked away behind tall trees and hedges, I thought Paolo did have the right idea of opening a restaurant in this area after all.
When we pulled into Portico, there was only one other car in the parking lot. It was dark but I could see the warmly lit interior beckoning to us like moths to a flame. Did I mention that it was also the first day of winter that the temperature had plunged into the 20’s?
We were greeted courteously by the host and she was about to sit us near the front of the room when we spied Paolo – not in his chef’s jacket – doing some paperwork at the corner table near the door leading to the patio.
Yes, it was strange not seeing Paolo in his kitchen attire. He told us not to take our coats off as he wanted to show us the outside seating … which … was …beautiful!
The patio boasts of heated floors, heat lamps and a gorgeous stone fireplace. He said that the day we went was the first day of winter that they could not use the outside space. I look forward to taking in all its glory during day time.
I wanted to linger but it was so damn cold, so we headed back indoors where Paolo told us that they also grew their own vegetables and herbs – a rising trend with restaurants specially in California. He also said it was hard not to be in the kitchen but he had an executive chef who had worked with him at Franco’s and is so familiar with his style of cooking that minimum training was needed. Besides he is still very much involved in menu development, testing and tasting.
Most importantly, he said he was having so much fun with Portico. He is now able to have face time with customers as well as oversee different facets of the restaurant.
We were seated at a table in the back where we could see the kitchen that was located in an adjacent structure. A portico joins the kitchen and the main building where, I guess, the name originated from.
The menu is divided into simple dishes like burgers, pizza and then pasta (old Franco’s favorites) and some entrees.
Paolo Randazzo’s fried calamari is still the benchmark by which we judge other restaurants’ calamari. Seldom have we tasted any other place that could rival his.
HH ordered the seafood linguine while I went for the braised lamb over risotto. Again, you cannot go wrong with risotto in any of Paolo’s establishments.
When my dish arrived, I could immediately tell that the lamb was going to be good. I’ve experienced being served lamb that was gamey or tasteless or if I’m lucky, spot on. This was spot on. How could I tell? By the aroma. My sister-in-law told me long ago that the fat of a lamb is what makes it taste so good. And a good lamb’s fat has a certain essence when it’s cooked that is unmistakable. I can also tell with the first bite, that this was expertly braised.
Braised lamb shanks have become ubiquitous in many restaurants. I used to be so excited when I see them on menus but I’ve tasted more than my fair share of stringy dry meat. I think the problem with most braises is that the muscle fibers get squeezed out of all moisture before the collagen and connective tissue have the chance to break down and give richness to the braise.
My braised lamb over risotto that night hit all the right notes. Moist meat, a sliver of tasty fat and creamy risotto with just the right bite to it.
For dessert, HH had the tartufo which was italian ice cream encased in a crisp chocolate shell. I went for the sformato. I’ve never heard of such dessert but it was basically a budino on top of a layer of lady fingers and it was incredibly swoon-worthy.
Paolo told us about his deconstructed tiramisu. Now I have since become allergic to ordering tiramisu at any restaurant because it has become such a cliché dessert, but I might just order Portico’s version next time I come for a visit.
The dining room and bar was packed by 7:30 pm on a Tuesday night. Reservations are definitely a must if you want to score a table here. I hear they’ll be open for lunch in two weeks, but call first before heading out.
12506 River Road
* I apologize for the color of the pictures, Iphone and romantic lighting don’t mix.