FARGO – Porter Creek Hardwood Grill carries the wood and timber nostalgia that its sister restaurant Doolittles is known for, and it duplicates the hardwood fire and rotisserie meats that give both of these restaurants the feel of a refined and comfortable manor house set for dinner after shooting on the highlands.
In this new location, the feeling is less pronounced, because it's much bigger and the intimacy of an evening around the fire gives way to rows of tables in large rooms. It's not unpleasant, but, as is the case with all nostalgia, as the space grows, it gives the impression of a reproduction of intimacy rather than the real thing.
The menu is expansive, thorough and unique enough to set it apart from the duplicate menus of the growing gastropub population in Fargo and Moorhead.
Beginning with the artichoke fondue ($10.50) served in a, yes, admittedly, reproduction tiny cast iron kettle, the commitment to interesting combinations of characteristic flavors taking distinct places in traditional, and not-so-traditional, dishes is pretty clear. Spinach, artichokes and Parmesan, easily lost in what could be melted goo, keep themselves apart, depending not on heavy seasoning, but on the salt inherent in the cheese and the lightly salted flatbread that comes on the side. It's not genius, but it's a promise to make the best of each ingredient.
The rotisserie chicken chowder ($3.95) didn't fare so well – a bit bland and very low on the very chicken that should have brought the smokiness to the broth that the potatoes badly needed.
That said, the steak, as well as the seafood that came afterward, made amends.
For all the cuts of meat that find their way from the cattle to the coals, nothing really beats the basic sirloin. Keep your tenderloin. Let New York have its strip, and leave your porterhouse home. Porter Creek brings this straightforward cut up to the level it was intended to occupy ($21.95). Deeply crusted, uniformly pink, beefy, down-to-earth and supremely satisfying, this rotisserie grilled piece of meat is not to be missed.
It's served with a rather nice tomato relish and a steak sauce, but if you let the meat speak for itself, you may never touch the condiments. Zucchini and carrots add to the prairie winter feel of the dish, and garlic mashed potatoes – stellar but for the odd fact that they were 20 degrees colder than they should have been – rounded out an excellent interpretation of down-home-on-the-ranch Dakota cuisine.
The monkfish ($19.95), the poor man's lobster, lightly seared, well-seasoned and served with asparagus, shallots and spinach, came firm, barely flaky and, for a fish easily prone to drying, moist with a delicate crunch on the crust. The vegetables took nicely to salt. The polenta, somewhere in transit, lost its crust, perhaps to the steam of the vegetables, and so lost a bit of its appeal.
Service was friendly, perhaps too much so, and our server couldn't quite match his enthusiasm with a knowledge of the menu. He found himself returning to our table several time after digging up the correct information on food and wine, and even on the closing time of the bar. It felt like a hurried place and it didn't fit the laid back atmosphere. But food arrived well-timed.
Porter Creek straddles the line between fine dining and larger format restaurants. While a $22 dollar steak isn't cheap, it's certainly value for the money considering the quality.
A more intimate space, something that can't be fixed, and comfortable service, something that can, could turn it into competition for a number of Fargo's finer spots.
Porter Creek Hardwood Grill
Address: 1555 44th St. S., Fargo
Food: 3 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Ambiance: 3 stars
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Phone: (701) 369-3669
Reservations accepted: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.