Carla Meyer

Dining review: The Porch restaurant needs to do more to justify its prices

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

When it opened six months ago, the Porch Restaurant and Bar came out of nowhere to feature Southern cooking – dishes like fried catfish, shrimp and grits, corn bread and fried green tomatoes – with enough West Coast twists for the concept to make sense in midtown Sacramento.

One of those twists, apparently, was the top-notch sourcing of ingredients, listed in detail on the restaurant's website. Sustainable, organic, high-end. It's all very impressive, ambitious and – goodness gracious – expensive.

When the check comes, even if you gladly cleaned your plate, you're likely to get as mad as a mule chewing on bumblebees.

Assessing The Porch and giving it an overall star rating is an exercise in feeling conflicted. There is plenty to like. The restaurant has a lot of potential, a good chef and a menu unlike any other in the city.

But it simply doesn't add up. For what you get, what you expect, what you hoped it would be, The Porch is simply too expensive. Cut the prices by 30 percent, and then let's talk.

This occurred to me after spending $70 (with tip) for a dinner by myself, a meal in which I felt more like a baby sitter or a life coach. My server brought me a glass of wine that wasn't even the right color, a dessert different than what I ordered and gave me a blank look when I asked whether the pretty little flower atop my fish was edible (I ate it anyway and lived).

The math problem came roaring back when I spent – deep breath here – $120 on dinner for two, including a beer I really liked (Anderson Valley Summer Solstice), a decent glass of riesling and – I'm not lyin' – a plate of catfish that cost $26.

I'm trying hard to like The Porch, but I can't. Despite the impressive flavors of the steamed mussels covered in a Cajun cream sauce, despite the aroma of corn bread with fresh rosemary and orange zest still swimming in my head, and notwithstanding the fried chicken that had a crunch and tenderness that will live on in my dreams, I just can't bring myself to love, or even like, The Porch.

California halibut breaded with a mix of panko crumbs and dried Jack cheese and served with asparagus and mashed potatoes? Sounded good, tasted just OK and cost $28.

The food here, at its best, can be entertaining, endearing, delicious, inventive and eclectic, with an appealing mix of folksy and sophisticated. On occasion, when there are lapses in the kitchen, the dishes can be clunky and chaotic, with instances of inexcusable blandness. Mashed potatoes, for instance, are only tasteless for a reason – no one in the kitchen tasted them.

At this price point, that just can't happen. The kitchen staff must be tasting and tweaking and seasoning and re-tasting until the cows come home. Things have to be perfect because, even if that's not why we came here or what we were expecting, that's what we're paying for.

It will surprise many to learn that The Porch is one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. In addition to the eye-popping prices of the cornmeal-crusted catfish and the halibut with those tasteless mashed potatoes, the shrimp and grits are $23, a hamburger is $15 and the mac and cheese costs $14, albeit with lobster.

Lunch is not much of a respite. A tasty hearts of romaine salad with creamy cilantro dressing and the shrimp po' boy sandwich are both $16, fried chicken is $21 and the sturgeon crusted with cornmeal – and a little gritty to chew – is a whopping $27. The service is often slow at lunch, meaning you could be late getting back to work.

The food at The Porch is high-end and at times too ambitious for its own good. The restaurant does a poor job of explaining that it apparently intends to be a culinary force in the mold of Alice Waters.

Dining at The Porch is like going to see Larry the Cable Guy and come to find out he's doing Shakespeare.

The 30-year-old executive chef, Jon Clemons, is a genuine talent. He's not a Southerner, but he doesn't have to be. It's just that regional cuisine needs a sense of purpose to have credibility.

The concept for the food came about on a whim, with Clemons and the owners thinking it would be a worthy follow-up to Celestin's, which closed its doors last year after a long and admirable run showcasing Cajun and Caribbean fare at that location.

That's not a good enough reason for committing to Southern food. Clemons and the co-owners traveled to Charleston, S.C., to delve into Low Country cooking at its best. They came away realizing that Southern cooking could also be refined.

What they may have missed was Charleston itself. The beautiful historic section is full of blue bloods and sophisticates. They can afford lofty prices for gourmet Southern food, but they also know where to get tremendous barbecued pulled pork for $6.

In addition to the incongruity of the expectations and the prices, there is a noticeable disconnect between the kitchen at The Porch and the service.

When I told Clemons by phone that, with one exception, his servers didn't know the food well enough, he conceded that he often bypasses the standard afternoon lineup, a huddle with staff that is mandatory at all top restaurants, especially when the menu changes frequently, as it does here.

You can tell the restaurants that do this. And I didn't need Clemons to tell me he didn't. He said he has been so busy with the myriad challenges facing a new restaurant that he doesn't always have the time. That's like being too busy to put on shoes.

When I asked Clemons why there were no salt and pepper shakers on the tables, he said it had more to do with a back-order problem and nothing to do with a chef's ego. Diners are left to draw their own conclusions. I assumed it meant the kitchen was meticulous about tasting and seasoning. It isn't (see "potatoes, mashed").

I remember reading an amusing anecdote involving Thomas Keller and the French Laundry about the tremor felt in the kitchen when a waiter reported that a customer asked for salt. With a concerned Keller play-calling like a quarterback, they had to hunt down the appropriate salt and find the proper cup.

The Porch is not a Michelin three-star restaurant. If it wants to succeed, and if it hopes to have repeat customers, it either has to start acting more like one or, better yet, less.

For now, it is neither. It's languishing in restaurant purgatory, without enough going for it to warrant the prices.

The Porch Restaurant and Bar

1815 K St., Sacramento

(916) 444-2423

Hours: Lunch 11-3 daily; dinner starts at 5 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Full bar? Yes.

Vegetarian friendly? No.

Takeout? Yes.

Overall 1/2 (promising)

With its lively vibe, renovated dining room and unique menu featuring Southern cooking, this is a potentially great addition to midtown. But the high prices kept us from liking it as much as we had hoped.

Food (good)

Catfish, sturgeon, corn bread, a big burger, mussels and a po' boy sandwich, and the menu changes often. Maybe too much fried food, but there's plenty of good cooking and surprising sophistication here, with just a few misses. The corn bread has changed dramatically from the macho, bacon-centric offering when they opened six months ago. Now it has floral notes, orange zest and rosemary – but no meat. How about two versions? Creative bar drinks, but the wine list is a tad simplistic and limited compared with the cooking.

Service (fair)

If this were not such an expensive restaurant, the casual and occasionally slow service wouldn't be such a big deal. But we're getting Capitol Garage service at Firehouse prices.

Ambience (good)

They've opened up the room from when it was Celestin's, put in a new floor and other nice touches. On weeknights, the place can be lively and fun, with a good bar scene and crowded dining room. The small porch out front is appealing.

Value 1/2 (subpar)

The prices are simply too high. 'Nuff said.