July 2004

Portabellos, a small restaurant in North Arlington, is a neighborhood hit. The airy dining room is beige with green trim. Arched windows are reflected in mirrors on the opposite wall. Colorful art deco posters, old hand-painted clocks, and whirring ceiling fans provide a nice atmosphere. Service is attentive.

The restaurant is the creation of owner/chef Bill Hamrock, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who has worked at the Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner, the Carlyle Grand Cafe, and Old Angler's Inn. With a small kitchen, Hamrock has put together a modest menu that covers a lot of ground. Prices are not high–main courses average about $16; ingredients are fresh and good.

Many dishes at Portabellos are excellent. Those that miss fail most often because of flawed conception–usually involving a superabundance of ingredients–but on occasion because of flawed execution. Sometimes the chef seems to be trying too hard to be original. Take the appetizers. Successes have included a mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and wild mushroom ravioli stuffed with shiitake and portobello mushrooms with a lobster-ginger sauce.

Not so good were fried calamari accompanied by an unsuccessful sweet and spicy chili sauce; a "classic Caesar salad" that included tomatoes along with the standard romaine lettuce but omitted anchovies, even when requested; and overly breaded fried oysters with an impenetrable cornmeal crust. Chicken tortilla soup and roasted-vegetable soup were fine, but a lobster bisque tasted more of tomato than lobster.

There are several excellent main courses. The grilled filet mignon with whipped potatoes, glazed carrots, and Chianti sauce was superb, the meat flavorful and the sauce a perfect foil. With the exception of so-so creamed spinach, the garnishes were excellent. Hamrock varies his garnishes, and his roasted vegetables are very well prepared.

The jumbo crabcakes, made with first-rate crabmeat, were baked with a light crust and served with jícama slaw and Old Bay remoulade flecked with corn kernels. Shrimp provençal with garlic, tomatoes, artichokes, basil, and white wine was also good. The hamburger, served plain or with cheese or bacon, was loaded with flavor, and the thin pizzas, both the simple Margherita and the more elaborate version with portobello mushrooms, prosciutto, and broccoli rabe, are well worth ordering. The fine bread selection includes olive bread and corn muffins.

Some presentations did not work. A sweet barbecue glaze undermined the potentially fine pan-fried pork chop. A heavy pecan crust was too much for a delicate trout, and the accompanying brown-butter-and-bacon sauce further overwhelmed it. The jambalaya pasta was a closer call, well cooked with good shrimp and chicken but overpowered by andouille sausage.

The restaurant serves Sunday brunch with eggs Benedict, pancakes, smoked salmon hash, and many regular menu items. Most desserts are not made on the premises. The sweet-potato spice cake is imported and good. The house-made vanilla crème brûlée is satisfactory.