Outing the undiscovered restaurant

Smith & Porter Restaurant + Bar
Smith & Porter Restaurant + Bar

It was hiding in plain sight.

Yeah, I knew there was a restaurant lurking within the confines of Abiitan, a newish senior living space I regularly passed en route to the nearby Guthrie. Geezer food, I reckoned: canned peaches and Jell-O salad embellishing the meatloaf.

That’s before I received a nudge to go online and scrutinize the actual Smith & Porter menu, created by Chef Kai Phanthavong, who grew up working in his family’s restaurant, Pad Thai, on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue.

No canned peaches. No canned anything, in fact, on this locally sourced list — one that millennial diners could recognize and easily embrace. Said my daughter: “Good food and service, and … it’s quiet here! A place for girls’ night out where we can actually carry on a conversation.”

Smith & Porter Restaurant + Bar

Oh, by the way, there is meatloaf, but it’s not granny’s recipe. But first, as my daughter enjoyed an Oregon Pinot, I sipped a classy Bourbon cocktail while cocooned in a generous booth (or choose banquette or four-top in the pleasant, if not head-turning, design scheme).

We started with her girls’ night essential, French fries, upgraded here to poutine. A mountain of slender, house-cut fries arrived generously mined with pulled pork and (here’s how we improve on Canada’s national addiction) Wisconsin cheese curds. They’re tossed with bits of giardiniera, so watch out for the occasional wheels of jalapeno (wouldn’t find them in Canada, either).

Next, a pair of pillowy, hoisin-brushed steamed buns loaded with house-cured pork belly, whose crispy edges led to a juicy interior, just the way it should be: all garnished with infant sprouts. Or choose a charcuterie board; smoked walleye tots; bar-fave chicken wings ($9-16); or the evening’s special, plantains with roast pork and pickled pineapple salsa.

It shouldn’t be stressful to summon a salad, right? But what do you do when faced with four choices ($10, sized for sharing) that all call your name?

Grilled romaine Caesar with poached egg? Heirloom tomato and burrata on arugula? Frisee and quinoa with roasted squash in green goddess? (And how long since you’ve seen that classy dressing on a menu? Here, it’s a peppier version than Gramps enjoyed.)

Smith & Porter Restaurant + Bar

Our selection: beet salad, showcasing sweet, meaty chunks amid arugula, flavor sparks of feta, a painting of savory walnut puree and pools of deeply flavored beet molasses. Good choice. (Well, I’m betting they all would have been.)

Skipping the sandwiches (for now; I’ll be back for the fried chicken in Japanese mayo, the barbeque pork with bacon and the adult grilled cheese), on to entrees ($21–$31). Pasta lovers, heads up.

Plates of crab ravioli and gnocchi head the list, followed by salmon en papillote, steak with cherry-mustard demi and a scrumptious-sounding Moroccan chicken with couscous, lamb sausage and cumin yogurt. Plus, the night’s special: a mushroom ragu on parsnip-infused polenta, along with poached egg and pesto.

Instead, I went for the scallops and grits. No regrets. The serving featured four plus-sized, juicy and sweet nuggets lounging on a pool of limpid, almost-liquid grits. I’m a grits fanatic, and these were well-sourced and well-made. The plate also included grilled leaves of radicchio rising like a fan, root veggies and a warm bacon vinaigrette.

Our second choice was that meatloaf, with a hearty proportion of duck and lamb joining grandma’s beef, served with a rich porcini gravy, potato tostones and a side of punchy, pickled mustard seeds. The too-huge-for-two serving does boast a pronounced, slightly gamy flavor that takes getting used to (two bites does it).

Smith & Porter Restaurant + Bar

No need for the sides to share ($9) — spuds, veggies — on these well-planned plates.

Dessert’s another story — a tired one, to be honest. Choose cheesecake, chocolate cake, carrot cake, crème brulee or pumpkin pie ($8) and wish for a couple of alternatives as interesting as the rest of the menu.

We split the cheesecake, and I’ve gotta admit that the slice — a rectangle, like a ladyfinger — was a supple-textured, nicely vanilla’d one, joined by a roasted pear and pear puree and, standing in for the customary crust, a tumble of gingersnap crumbles on the side.

Foodies, hail another nice option for Guthrie and MacPhail nights — or to fuel a stroll along the river — in a dining room that marries lack of attitude with food that’s fun to eat.

Smith & Porter Restaurant + Bar

428 S. 2nd St.