Breaking barriers is a central theme at Porto, first demonstrated by the expansive chef’s island found at the center of the restaurant’s artfully appointed dining room. This unique layout eliminates the wall that normally exists between those who make food and those who consume it. Thus, Executive Chef Marcos Campos and his culinary team can act as guides, presenting each dish directly to diners while explaining the inspiration behind it. These candid conversations between chef and guest might include stories from the recent trips of discovery and research to Spain and Portugal taken by the Porto team.
The Spanish and Portuguese have perfected the art
of capturing the essence of the sea in a can, conservas, a centuries-old preservation technique. These tinned fish and shellfish are treasure chests full of seafood flavor, oftentimes an expression more exquisite than that of their “catch of the day” versions. At Porto, guests can feast on berberechos, navajas, sardinillas, buttery bonito del norte belly, almejas, zamburiñas and more. Campos and Mallet have also evolved their popular conserva dish Mejillones Escabeche made with La Brújula Mussels Conserva, Escabeche-Compressed Watermelon, Ajoblanco, Crispy Chicken Skin and Herb Oil.
Conversations inevitably turn to two purveyors that feature prominently in the restaurant: Spain’s La Brújula and Minerva from Portugal, both family-owned legends in the world of conservas. A variety of fish and seafood from those two companies star in a number of Porto’s small plates, including Uni Toast (Galician uni, cauliflower, Sao Jorge cheese, lemon gel, velvet horn seaweed on brioche) and Navajas (Galician razor clams, white asparagus conserva, codium seaweed “guac”, oyster mayonnaise, caviar).
Traditionally eaten directly out of their tins with little fanfare in Spain and Portugal, Campos has opted instead to present these pristine products in creative ways, while still highlighting their unique and delicate flavors. “We want to do something that’s very different not only for Chicago but for that part of the world, too,” says Campos, a native of Valencia, Spain.
FRESH, WILD CAUGHT
fish imported weekly from Galicia and Portugal travel to Porto’s wood-burning ovens and grills located in two open kitchens for all to see. Open-flame cooking, the most primitive of all culinary techniques, was specifically chosen for its ability to impart a sublime range of flavors, trigger nostalgia and tap into smoke-scented memories. Dishes include Rodaballo (wood oven-roasted whole Spanish wild turbot, fermented garlic, vinho verde, grilled lemon, served with braised collard greens), Caballa Escabeche (charcoal-grilled Spanish mackerel, white escabeche, root vegetables) and Bacalhau Assado (wood oven-roasted, black garlic olive oil, cod tripe and garbanzo stew, seaweed sofrito, piparra pepper).
As on land, seasonality plays an important factor in the sea, limiting the availability of many items to a two- to three-month season. Curing and smoking, with a light hand, are techniques used weekly to ensure that the fresh fish Porto imports can be enjoyed later into the year despite fishing seasons coming to a close, demonstrated by Sardine Tiborna, made with house-cured sardines, smoked Basque piperrada, eggplant mousse and sourdough.
The wood-burning oven stays busy while the restaurant is closed, its embers slowly turning fish bones into a rich stock or helping to enrich the flavors of an over-night ibérico pork cheek stew, cooking it “grandma-style” says Campos. Leftover herbs get a second life as various infusions used in Porto’s cocktails.
Guests may be surprised to learn that fresh seaweed — seven different kinds in fact — play an important role at Porto, as it does in the cuisine of Galicia, adding a natural salinity and distinct flavor to the dishes in which it is used.
For Porto’s Five and Seven Course Weekly Tasting Menus, Campos taps into the close relationships he’s developed with purveyors and producers in Spain and Portugal with a constantly rotating selection of delicacies from the sea. Where Campos’ regular menu incorporates hyper-seasonal ingredients, the tasting menus take this one step further with a number of hard-to-source items, ranging from sardinas, centollos and bogavantes to percebes, a Galician specialty considered one of the most exclusive seafoods in Europe, that arrive weekly via air freight as “care packages” from friends and family in the trade.
Following Campos’ lead, the desserts at Porto from Executive Pastry Chef Shannah Primiano find inspiration in classic Spanish and Portuguese sweet dishes before channeling more contemporary techniques and intriguing ingredient pairings. In her hands, Porto’s desserts find the perfect balance between nostalgia, sweet, savory and adventurous. Her seasonal desserts include Leche Merengada (Crispy Milk, Meringue Ice, Burnt Cinnamon Gelato, Lacto-fermented Plums), Mil Folhas (Banana Peel Bacon, Mushroom Caramel, Rye Cracker, Madeira, Chocolate Wafer) and Seaweed (Nori Ice Cream, Candied Sea Lettuce, Mango Caviar, Squid Ink Rice Puff). For the weekly tasting menu this season, Primiano offers Tarta Requeson (Toasted Barley Frozen Mousse, Estrella Galicia Syrup, Malt Spanish Peanuts, Sour Cherry), an innovative, modern riff on a traditional Spanish ricotta cheesecake that finds inspiration in Spain’s agricultural history with its use of barley, Spanish peanuts, and the roasted malts and hops of Estrella Galicia lager beer.