The East End Bridge is slated to open this weekend, and when it does, Louisville will have more ways to get across the Ohio River than ever: four by car and one on foot or via bicycle.
This is good news, because Southern Indiana has more good places to eat and drink than ever these days, and it would be foolish for hard-core Louisvillians to stay rooted sullenly on the Kentucky side when it’s time for dinner.
Today let’s thank Paul Skulas, past chef at Holy Grale and Gralehaus and now owner and chef of Jeffersonville’s new Portage House, for the latest and one of the most attractive new arrivals on the “Sunny Side.” Portage House opened around Thanksgiving, and the buzz was so positive and fine that Mary, our friend Anne and I couldn’t wait for a sunny bridge-walking day to check it out.
The venue is a large, 1870s-era white frame house on Riverside Drive, situated for excellent bridge and river views. The entire main floor is given over to a welcoming bar that appears to be doing a booming business already. The upstairs dining rooms were filling up when we got there on a Tuesday night, too.
Decor is simple and, in keeping with the well-renovated old house, with shiny hardwood floors, heavy plank tables set with white earthenware and an eclectic collection of framed pictures on pale-beige walls.
I’d call Skulas’ menu Midwestern comfort food with creative-chef touches. Featuring largely Indiana-sourced meats and produce, it offers a half-dozen appetizers ranging in price from $6 (for radishes with butter and salt) to $13 (for a charcuterie plate of duck paté wrapped in country ham). Char-grilled oysters are $3 each; raw on the half shell, they’re $2.50 each, a dollar off on Tuesdays.
Seven entrées range in price from $13 (for a dinner-size grilled-cheese sandwich or a pork chop sandwich) to $21 (for half of a roast chicken or a grilled trout). Price outliers are a $10 raw-veggie salad, perhaps meant as a starter; and a $35 three-quarter-pound Indiana-bred rib eye.
The drinks program under bar manager Dan Mahony features an all-Indiana draft beer list, wines-by-the-glass that top out at $11, an extensive spirits list, and creative cocktails. I enjoyed a wintry, dark glass of Lustau Sherry with Dolin Blanc vermouth ($8), a low-alcohol, sweet potion that went down easily.
For starters, a generous helping of duck paté ($13) was very good, earthy and rich, colorfully plated with a portion of spicy Italian-style pickled giardiniera, a pickled egg and “moutarde a l’ancienne,” a French mustard, along with old-school saltine crackers.
Two grilled oysters and one raw on ice ($1.50 on Tuesday sale) were large and fresh, although there wasn’t much difference; the grilled item was perhaps just kissed by the broiler.
Raw vegetable salad ($10), served as a starter, was a well-made chopped salad with paper-thin slices of cucumber, carrot and radish tossed with chopped lettuce and onions and robust feta cheese in a delicious lemon vinaigrette with garlic, shallots, parsley and mint. A similar vinaigrette elevated a delicious slaw served as an unannounced side on several entrées.
A bone-in, fried pork chop sandwich ($13) was one of the hits of the evening. We had hoped to save some to take home, but it was too good for that to happen. It was thick, about 3/4 inch, white, firm but not tender, not fatty, just excellent pork. Service on a bun seemed odd — we had to disassemble it to eat the knife-and-fork chop — but it was a good golden-brown bun, dressed with fresh arugula in a light dressing and a couple of thin, crisp pickle chips. A side of farro grains and kale greens in a small ramekin ($5) was fine.
Grilled trout ($21) was a whole fish presented on a bed of deliciously stewed lima beans. The trout, unfortunately, was blackened on the grill, prompting Anne to declare it “just plain burned.” It was hard to separate the acrid, burnt bits from the otherwise sweet and tender inner flesh, so it was necessary to suffer a little bitter with the sweet.
There was nothing bitter about the grilled cheese sandwich ($13), a dish that has already become a trademark of Portage House, a hearty dinner sandwich that proves meatless fare need not be abstemious. Two thick slabs of good white bread were sandwiched with a molten blend of mild, Indiana goat cheese and funky Italian Taleggio cheese, grilled, topped with a perfect, runny sunny-side-up egg and, perfectly gilding the lily, drizzled with sweet sorghum.
Dense, rich and deliciously creamy, the butterscotch pudding ($6) was another favorite, a portion sizable enough to give all three of us a good taste. A quenelle of sour cream and chocolate shavings on top made a delicious ending to a quirky meal.
Dinner for three was $103.26 plus a $25 tip for our on-the-spot server, Patrick. Our share for two came to about $65 plus tip.