Port Land Grille (Wilmington, NC)

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(Port Land Grille Dining Room)

Port Land Grille is always mentioned in conversations of Wilmington’s best-regarded restaurants. Although the name would suggest a location in Maine or Oregon, the website explains that it derives from the owners’ favorite vacation spot in Oregon and their dual commitment to land and sea: “we truly love the North Carolina coast where Wilmington is known as the “Port City.” The name “Port-Land” is a play on that as well.” This explanation is so simple as to seem almost tongue-in-cheek—serving food from land and sea doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Still, my brother and I took a chance and made a reservation for a recent Friday evening.

Our reservation was for 6:00, and there were only a couple of tables taken. The space was conservatively decorated, with black and tan tones; it wasn’t out of fashion, but it was also bland to the point that it would never have been in fashion either. The space was huge, and so it was odd that it was filled with more tables than there should have been. I think it’s helpful to “read” the dining room in conjunction with the menu, as the prices are informed by the number of covers; in this case, Port Land Grill would do well to eliminate several tables, even if it necessitates raising their prices.

The menu is one of the more interesting aspects of Port Land Grill—way too large, one can’t help but be overwhelmed with the options. To be fair, while I generally prefer small menus, I do enjoy large ones when they are thematically unified without being redundant. However, not only was this menu repetitive, but the dishes were all over the place, almost as though 2 or 3 restaurants had joined forces and simply kept their preexisting dishes. There were 7 different steaks and about 25 snacks/small plates/salads, not to mention a huge array of main dishes. The main dishes are divided into three sections: “from the port,” “from the land,” and “from the simple grille.” The options from the port and land were creative but had a messy cross-cultural approach with too many ingredients. For example, the pan-seared grouper was served with blue crab meat, English pea, pancetta risotto, butter wilted baby organic spinach, and a roma tomato, saffron, basil, melted sweet onion “fondue sauce.” To be fair, the finished product probably looked much simpler than it sounds and I have had strong meals at places that used lots of ingredients, but I think dishes like the grouper would be more appealing if they used (or at least, listed) fewer ingredients. The effect was overwhelming and I was turned off by much of the menu.

The “Simple Grille” took the opposite approach; the diner chooses from a template of five different protein choices and adds two sides, similar to the approach found at barbecue restaurants. I am not inherently opposed to the Simple Grille, but I can’t understand why a chef committed to using so many ingredients in his other entrees would include a section that is so simple—what he gains in breadth he loses in focus. Also adding to the confusion was that the prices were all over the place—where the simple grille items were $21, the grouper was $36 and most of the other options were over $30 as well. In sum, I have rarely come across a menu that was so impenetrable, reiterating the potential for menu construction to shape a meal.

In the end, I settled on the tomato-root vegetable-pancetta soup and the chicken, while my brother chose blue crab mac-and-cheese and the prime sirloin (from the simple grille.)

The bread service included a hearty whole wheat bread that was quite good, although the butter had an overwhelming lemon flavor.

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My soup was served way too hot, a problem that is all too common. Making matters worse, there were no root vegetables to be found. The two most pronounced flavors were goat cheese and cream, and while I like cream, it feels like a cheap tactic to use it in a dish where it is unneeded. Oddly, when I asked our server about why there were no root vegetables, she stated that they might have been pureed (not likely), an odd explanation that was probably pure speculation.

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The blue crab mac-and-cheese was large enough for four people, and I don’t understand how they make any money off it given its $14 price tag. I didn’t try it, although my brother enjoyed it. Still, this dish should have been an entrée and it was another example of Port Land Grille’s curious menu construction—I can’t imagine a person being able to consume this dish and being hungry for a main course.

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I ordered the chicken because I wanted to try the “pound cake mashed potatoes” that accompanied the bird. This was a complete misnomer as they were just ordinary mashed potatoes. The chicken was well-prepared and the bacon-braised Brussels sprouts were comforting, but it’s always a let-down when the most anticipated component of a dish winds up mediocre.

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After consuming his mac-and-cheese, my brother wasn’t able to finish his steak. I helped him out with it and it was delicious. Broccoli is my favorite vegetable and they were excellent; the other side dish was tator tots—an odd item at an upscale restaurant, but still quite tasty. This dish convinced me that the simple grille is the restaurant’s specialty.

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At this point, my brother was well-past full, but I noticed “Southern Comfort bread pudding” on the menu and so we ordered it to share. The presentation was quite underwhelming, as the copious amounts of powdered sugar made it look as though a young child had prepared it. There was also no discernible taste of Southern Comfort—most likely, they sprinkled a thimbleful of liquor so that they could include it in the menu description. Finally, I can’t understand why one would include whipped cream and ice cream as they were mutually exclusive in this context.

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There is no doubting that Port Land Grille is skilled at cooking protein; in my experience, where they struggle is creating coherent accompaniments, appetizers, and desserts. For this reason, the simple grille makes for the most satisfying experience they offer. This is also a restaurant where one’s experience is contingent on their ability to navigate the menu unscathed. It’s unfortunate that the restaurant doesn’t excel in more areas and I do think they would benefit from eliminating at least half of the menu. Still, provided that one approaches it with tempered expectations and knows what to order, one can easily have an enjoyable meal. I could see myself returning regularly for a nicely prepared protein, an uncomplicated appetizer, and no dessert.

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