I’m always happy to have an excuse to stop by Gastown. This time around, a friend’s Al Porto Groupon was about to expire. Alas, it’s nearly impossible to visit Gastown without checking out a bar (or two). Especially if the place where you’re having dinner is, shall we say, mediocre. Hence this disclaimer: I am fully aware that cocktails and desserts are not paleo. So paleo police, avert your eyes.
I wasn’t exactly excited about visiting Al Porto. The main draw for me was visiting The Diamond beforehand. I had only been there once before, but had a fabulous time and had been itching to revisit it.
First, the good. The drinks menu is extensive – there’s lots to choose from. The room is cool – high ceilings (a personal favourite), elegant seating, brick walls. There are yucca fries on the menu (gluten-free!).
Sadly, the “bad” list is much longer. The first words out of the server’s mouth were: “Do you know what you want?” Yikes. She was unfriendly and unhelpful. I had the Holiday Inn (Dark Bermuda Rum, Banana Liqueur, Pineapple, Lime).
My friend had the Bicicletta #2 (Campari, Italian Vermouth, Gerwurtztraminer, Grapefruit Twist). Prices were palatable at $11 and $10 respectively. It seems cocktails under $10 are a thing of the past. They were both okay. But nothing special. And the yucca fries? They tasted fishy. Literally. I don’t know if they were sharing a fryer with fish or what. If you can get over the fishy taste, the texture was great – crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and nice big fries.
I know the chef and menu have changed since the last time I was there. Perhaps there were other changes as well? The difference between my first experience there and this one was night and day. Last time I didn’t want to leave. This time, I was ready to move on (and to Al Porto at that) after one cocktail. I think I’ll have to give it another try before I write it off…
Al Porto Ristorante
Sigh. Let’s just say I’ve become much more selective in what Groupons I buy. There’s usually a reason for a Groupon – like my last experience at Jolly’s (still a little bitter). I knew going in that I wouldn’t be ordering drinks, an app, or a dessert, hence the Diamond beforehand.
My expectations going in were very low. After all, it’s rated 64% on Urbanspoon. I was pleasantly surprised at how busy it was. But it reminded me of an upscale Spaghetti Factory. Lots of kids and families. First sign of trouble: the menu says, “If you find something was not made to your liking, please let us know and we would be happy to fix it for you.” Fair enough, but do things go wrong so often that they had to put that on their menu?
Anyways, we both passed on the apps, which did not look very appetizing (har har). And we each ordered the osso bucco (grain fed veal shank, gremolata, herb butter tagliolini). I always get a good chuckle out of meat being advertised as grain fed. Really, just like 99% of the meat out there? No way… I forgot to ask for no pasta, so I scooped that off my plate when it came. The portion size was decent. The food was blah. The osso bucco was flavourless, all you could really taste was poor quality meat smothered in tomato sauce. It’d be fine if it cost less, but without a Groupon it was priced at $26, which is ridiculous for the mediocre quality. No surprise there.
Service was friendly and helpful. But I didn’t enjoy the constant sales pitch. After declining appetizers, we got a list of them rattled off to us. Ditto with dessert – I guess she was trying to tempt us with the options. But considering we had already said we didn’t want either, the constant upselling seemed pushy.
So that’s that. Groupon used up. Will not be returning. Shocked at how busy it was.
Wanting to finish on a good note, we decided to hop by Pourhouse, which has been on my list for a while. It was packed and happening, so we happily grabbed a couple of stools at the bar. The ambiance was great – busy, and just the right level of loud. We opted for a couple of desserts. I had the only gluten-free dessert on the menu: a crème brulee.
My friend had the rice pudding with roasted pineapple. I was disappointed that they added some sort of crumbs to the top of the rice pudding – otherwise it would’ve been gluten-free (or so I presume). Neither of the desserts were very exciting. The crème brulee looked pretty, but the crème to brulee ratio was way off – way too much sugar, very little custard. And the flavor was just okay. My friend’s rice pudding was rather bland.
But the drinks? Oh my. First of all, the bartender may be the best I’ve ever seen. He was friendly and knowledgeable. He went out of his way to figure out what you might like. Not only that, he encouraged you to try new things. You could tell he loved what he was doing and took pride in his craft. And he tasted every drink before he poured it and then actually adjusted it. That sounds funny – let me clarify that he used a disposable little spoon. And the results? Wow. Definitely some of the best (if not the best) cocktails I’ve tried. Both were off the menu based on his recommendations. My friend and I each had a New World – which was out of this world. And then my friend had a 20th Century – amazing. Perfect cocktail experience – I’ll definitely be back, and might give the menu a try too. It’s the first time I’ve seen Scotch eggs on a menu, and they also had devilled eggs, bone marrow, cauliflower “steak”, broiled mackerel, the list of interesting dishes goes on… Not sure if they’re gluten-free, but I’ll have to do some “research” and report back.