It’s got an amazing Puget Sound view. It’s open only three nights a week. And you’ve probably never heard of it.
THE LIGHTING, WHILE not quite operating-room bright, might be more conducive to reading than relaxing or romance. The décor could be described as conference-room chic, without any overkill on the latter. But the deal and the view at Portfolio Restaurant are singular in Seattle.
If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. It’s open only three nights a week. On a recent visit, just one other table had occupants, an appreciative (“Delicious!” “Wonderful!”) multigenerational group of eight. Whole nights go by with no reservations at all (and reservations are required) — those times, the staff cooks anyway, comparing notes and polishing techniques, then self-serves dinner to taste-test the results.
Portfolio is the restaurant at the Art Institute of Seattle, and the staff is made up of the advanced students of the culinary arts program there. (It’s a pretty safe bet the table of eight was a student’s family.) Three nights a week, you may eat their coursework — a starter, an entree and dessert — for $23, a bargain of a prix fixe in a city full of spendy ones.
Address: 2601-A Elliott Ave., fifth floor, Seattle
The view, looking west from the fifth floor of a building down on Elliott Avenue, sweeps from the waterfront’s Ferris wheel almost all the way up to Canada, with the red neon E of the Edgewater looking close enough to touch. The sunsets must be majestic.
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The students spend part of the quarter cooking, and there’s a view of that, too, with windows onto two huge, gleaming kitchens with chef’s toques above intent faces. The group working front-of-house — they switch midway through the term, so everybody does everything — looks dapper in white shirts, black vests and diagonal-striped ties. They’re paying tuition for the privilege of waiting on you, and Portfolio’s service is the opposite of indifferent, endearingly so. Our server was informative, unintrusive and clearly a bit nervous, though his inexperience showed only when he sweetly asked whether we’d prefer “sparkling water or water-water?” (Another charming vagary here: If you order wine or beer — advisable, as dinner is coursed out at a leisurely pace — your server might murmur an explanation, then go get someone with the proper state permit to pour it for you.)
Back in the kitchen, the student-chefs are under the wing of culinary director David Wynne, who has been with the program since 2002 (and, before that, with celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi). He’s “very OCD” about the workspace, he says. “I train them to keep it totally spotless … your life as a chef is easier. It’s a breeze to work in — you don’t have to look for anything.” He also schools them in the value of sourcing seasonally (no wintertime tomatoes here) and locally (within 150 miles as much as possible, given his budget and some institutional vendor contracts, “just like the real world!”). Some of the foodstuffs come from star purveyors such as Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, Willie Green’s Organic Farm in Monroe and Nash’s Organic Produce in Sequim.
Wynne’s system also teaches the students how to teach each other — someone who’s already made a dish mentors the next person carrying it out, which helps ensure the food stays “pretty consistent,” he says.
The food at Portfolio is also prettily presented and, judging by a recent dinner, pretty good. With a half-dozen choices per course, the menu offers both standard-issue, fancy-dinner classics (gravlax, served with a buckwheat waffle) and more current upscale options (roasted cauliflower with pimentón, pine nuts, olives, citrus and za’atar yogurt). In the classics column, buttery sauteed escargot with brioche, sage and wild mushrooms raised the question of why snails have gone so far out of style. Fashionable boquerones made an appearance in a lineup of three crostini on an also-fashionable wooden board. Entrees of hanger-steak tournedos and pan-roasted quail both demonstrated tender, A+ care. Sauces skewed a little sweet, but not terribly so, and if every element of every dish wasn’t absolutely perfect, nothing disappointed — except the chewy pastry of a berry strudel for dessert. (Pastry is hard!)
A.I.S. culinary students have gone on, Wynne says, to work at Lark, Cafe Juanita, Scout, Vendemmia and dozens more big-name local places. These are just their rehearsal dinners.