I’ve encountered Low thrice over the years: at Petite Menu, Portico, and Portico Prime. His experience has served him well; the food at Portico Prime shows a confidence and self-assuredness not seen in his earlier years. The more I eat the food, the clearer I understand his bifurcated philosophy of food. On the one hand, the modern French food with Asian elements may be bold and innovative and interesting, and on the other, it can be down-to-earth, clean, and traditional. These 2 contrasting styles are no clearer seen than in the startling starters and traditional mains.
For instance, the heirloom tomato salad (above) on the starter menu is really a deconstructed version of the classic Parma ham with rock melon, consisting of tomatoes done two ways (macerated with plum dressing and roasted on vine); an ice cream made from honey melon and olive oil ice; jamon done both ways (shaved and dehydrated); shreds of Hijiki seaweed; organic quinoa; and cubes of rock melon. Even on paper, you can see how smart the dish is, of varying textures, using many umami-rich ingredients, such salty ham and sweet tomatoes, to produce a gestalt of wonderful flavors. Even smarter: because the starter is called heirloom tomato salad, it keeps to the theme, focusing on tomatoes, so the classic ham-and-melon flavors lie crouching in the background, beneath the surface, making you scratch your head: hmm… I’ve eaten this before, it’s familiar, but what is it? I like food like this, a reinterpretation of classic, making it more delicious, and more interesting than the original.
Another reinterpretation is the potato and leek soup (above, $22), which is of course the classic French dish, vichyssoise. Traditionally served cold, it’s served hot here, poured in front of the patron for us to take in the aroma. To solve the problem of the grainy texture in the soup, which some may dislike, a piece of brioche is placed in the center of the bowl to soak up all the flavors. In your mouth, the brioche is a buttery sponge; the bread crumbs and grainy texture become indistinguishable. But what is truly interesting is the piece of caramelized smoked eel, almost similar to Japanese style. Such a tiny piece but produces such a bomb of a contrast with the soup, creating fireworks in the mouth.
Following the three bold starters with striking flavors—all of which we enjoy immensely—the mains by comparison appear muted and traditional. All the mains we tried have good clean flavors, made from superior and/or sustainable ingredients; they are better-than-the-average fine dining offering. There is perfectly nothing wrong with them but I wonder if it’s possible to make them as enthralling as the starters, so that the progression from starters to mains would be more congruent, less schizophrenic.
I suggested in the previous paragraph to make the mains more exciting, and I’ll contradict myself here. The exception to the “exciting rule” is because the beef is already exciting on its own. Cooked in a traditional way, the Tochigi ribcap done 2 ways (apple wood smoked and seared, $58 per 100g) allows the superiority of the ingredient to shine. The tender beauty churns out flavorful juices as you masticate.
For desserts, what left an impression was the butterbeer ice cream, inspired by Harry Potter, which tastes like caramel with a long finish of beer. It pairs excellently with Max Felchin 65% dark chocolate fondant ($16). Like the starters, there is an effort to reinvent the chocolate lava cake, popular in early 2000s but boring now, by dressing it up with homemade cashew praline, speculoos crumbs, and barley pops; the reinterpretation of the dessert has transformed a prelude to sex into a sleepover of teenage girls dressed in pink.
“Inspired by Harry Potter” seems an apt description for our experience as a whole. Magic is making the ordinary extraordinary. In a way, Portico Prime is creating magic, making the classics neoclassical, refreshing the old anew. Although there is nothing wrong with traditional dishes at Portico Prime, what works magic here are the exciting dishes; classic dishes sawn into unrecognizable halves, put under lock beneath the surface, submerged under a new sea of flavors, suspended in mid-air, and with a sleigh of hand, pulled out of the hat a new creation right under the hypnotized audience’s noses. If you inspect the deck of ingredients closely, now you see it.
Service: NA (tasting)
Overall rating: 3.583/5
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.
This is a hosted meal.