The culinary idea of the moment seems to be restraint. Restaurants everywhere are showcasing dishes that highlight one or two excellent ingredients, often from nearby farms, and keeping any additions to a minimum.
This filet mignon was once a cow named Bessie, they say, raised by a family with a small farm in Hartford County. It is accompanied by an ear of corn from the Eastern Shore.
I like this trend as much as anyone, but sometimes it's fun to see a kitchen go a little crazy, combining improbable ingredients and then adding a few more for good measure. Porters of Federal Hill is like that, serving inventive dishes that are hearty, spicy and fun. Somebody here got that memo about restraint and threw it away.
For example: A salad of fresh arugula leaves is dressed with an apple cider citrus vinaigrette that's almost too tart, then topped, improbably, with fat, crispy, salty potato wedges. A risotto should be Italian, but instead goes Southwestern with ingredients that include chili peppers, scallions, cheddar cheese, cubes of tasso ham and slices of chicken coated in a spicy blackening mix.
Porters has a classic Baltimore look, from its painted tin ceiling to its exposed brick walls. Since it is on a corner, it's slightly more spacious than the typical rowhouse, large enough to be divided into two sections, a bar with TVs on one side and a quieter dining area on the other. I like the white tablecloths, the black-and-white A. Aubrey Bodine pictures of old Baltimore and the elaborate wood molding near the ceilings.
An early iteration of Porters closed about a year ago, and Kevin Cooper and his wife, Dawn, purchased the space a few months later. He had been a bartender at Regi's American Bistro and liked the location, he said. They kept the name but spent a few months fixing up the interior and revamping the menu.
Kevin Cooper says the menu will change with the seasons, but will stick to the theme of classic American comfort food that's just a bit more interesting than usual.
Case in point: a fresh-tasting roasted red pepper and tomato soup on special the night we were there. An added jolt of jalapeno took it beyond the ordinary, delivering a fiery counterpoint to the sweetness of the peppers and tomatoes. Also interesting was a dessert our server called an apple Napoleon, which layered warm, cinnamon-tinged slices of fruit with crunchy filo to create a gorgeously messy pile. It was not especially pretty and contained no chocolate, but it was a satisfying end to the meal, both decadent and homey.
During our visit, Porters was busy enough to be fun, but not so crowded and noisy we had to shout. Our waitress was excellent, confidently recommending dishes and offering to open a window to let in the cool night air. She never hovered, yet was always there when we wanted her.
One of her recommendations was a venison dish, available in both appetizer and main-course portions. It featured thin slices of tender, rare meat, arranged over a mound of mashed potatoes and accompanied by warm Bing cherries. The meat was blackened, and a butter-rum sauce was swirled over the plate, steps that were probably unnecessary. In this case, it really would have been OK to spotlight the venison without so many competing flavors.
The risotto, also recommended, worked because the ingredients shared a Southwest theme. But the strips of chicken atop the large mound of risotto were on the dry side, with a commercial-tasting blackening spice. The dish would have been better without them.
Another unusual but successful entree was a turkey gyro, featuring a patty of ground turkey, sort of like a turkey burger. All the extras — the fresh-tasting yogurt sauce, the crispy-thin french fries, the tangy feta cheese and the chopped tomato salad, worked together to elevate a simple dish into one with a winning personality.
In fact, personality is what makes Porters special. It could be just another neighborhood bar and restaurant, playing it safe with a menu of crab dip and burgers. But instead, it's taking chances, and they are paying off.
Porters of Federal Hill
Where: 1032 Riverside Ave.
Hours: Open Monday through Thursday: 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Service: ✭✭✭ 1/2
Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor