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Quay Tao, owner of The Portage, is either the nicest restaurateur in Chicago or the biggest phony. One of the motors behind the recently closed Tizi Melloul, Tao has been busy charming diners since the nineties, when he was manager at Le Colonial, and I’m always suspicious of charming restaurateurs. Then I saw him in action. Rotating from The Portage’s granite-topped bar to the communal wood banquette on the lovely backyard deck, Tao genuinely tries to shake every customer’s hand and learn every customer’s name. He was so insistent that I grab a paperback from the restaurant’s take-one, leave-one library that I left with some Erik Larson historical adventure I’m never going to read. (It’s an ingenious business ploy: I feel obliged to return to The Portage so I can get the damn book off my bedside table.)
Once a Polish stronghold, Portage Park has always been a hidden gem of a neighborhood. Tao, who lives nearby with his wife and two toddlers, charges his mellow new gastropub with the same smooth but sincere vibe that makes Lula Cafe the epicenter of Logan Square. Actually, Tao is after more than neighborhood dominance. “Our goal is to be the dining destination for the Northwest Side,” he says. “Anything north of Logan Square and east of Lincoln Square, we want people to say, ‘OK, let’s go to The Portage.’” Maybe he’s onto something: None of the customers I talked to were from Portage Park. Wherever they come from, though, patrons seem thrilled with their Kobe burgers and boneless fried chicken. Other than the duck fat fries—wonderful skin-on strands with multiple engaging dipping sauces—I’m not sure what makes the place a gastropub. Then again, on my visits the restaurant was still awaiting the city’s green light on the pub part of the equation.
So let’s focus on the gastro. The chef, Jeff Brantley, came over with Tao from Tizi Melloul and has nailed the American-comfort-food thing because he doesn’t try too hard to impress. Mac and cheese, a dish that has gone from silly kid stuff to a two-star plaything and back, here is a straight-up three-cheese pleasure topped with crisp bread crumbs. And where chefs are tripping all over themselves to out-short-rib one another, Brantley simply braises his in beer until the fat has melted into the beef so completely you barely notice the beer reduction on top. He covers his tender pork chop in creamed spinach and lays it in a deep-flavored white wine and Dijon sauce with clouds of wonderful mashed sweet potatoes. This is comfort food I can get behind. And when his kitchen team gets gimmicky with stuff like buttered-popcorn ice cream, which they achieve by steeping buttered popcorn in cream and straining it, they make damn sure it’s amazing.
Like Cumin, The Portage is part of the new breed of kinder, gentler restaurant that blossoms in a downturn economy, where the experience is weighted more toward warmth than polish. It’s exactly the kind of smart, cute neighborhood place that people invariably say they wish was on their street. I don’t care where it is: I’m going back.
1414 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-1414
FYI Vegetarians: Get the Bollywood platter. Carnivores: Create a diversion and sneak some nibbles of it.
TAB $20 to $25 (without alcohol, tax, or tip)
HOURS Lunch Tuesday through Sunday; dinner daily
3938 N. Central Ave.; 773-853-0779
FYI The laid-back Brazilian-wood patio immediately vaults to a place among Chicago’s best. That goes double for the crab cake.
TAB $25 to $30 (without alcohol, tax, or tip)
HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Sunday
Photography: Anna Knott