Portsmith is permanently closed
photo credit: Sandy Noto
Let’s get this out of the way: Portsmith is a hotel restaurant, and it feels like one. It’s right near Michigan Ave. in River North, and it’s surrounded by tourists, as well as stores that tourists visit. You can expect to see people coming and going with their shopping bags, travel pillows, and/or luggage throughout your meal. But if you can get past that, the seafood-heavy menu here here is good enough that Chingy and Ludacris could perform Holidae In during your dinner, and you wouldn’t even notice.
Portsmith has the kind of globally inspired menu where the only obvious connection between all the dishes is the fact that they’re printed on the same page. And that a bunch of them have fish. You’ll find an eclectic mix: for example, foie gras served with a donut, cacio e pepe with uni butter, a mushroom pot pie, and fish and chips. But even though it all seems a little scattered, everything is really good. The best approach is to treat the menu like you’re at a buffet: If something sounds interesting, try it.
If you need a little more guidance than that, though, here’s what we recommend. Your first order of business should be getting something from the “raw and lightly cooked” section, like the fried oysters breaded in a squid-ink panko. From there, move on to the appetizer section and try the oxtail - also breaded and fried, with Russian dressing and a tomato-based curry sauce. It tastes like an Indian-inspired deconstructed reuben, and is delicious. Then, most of the entrees are straight-up seafood with some kind of twist. For example, the “fish and chips” is actually a piece of seared halibut with crispy potato chips fried right on the filet, like scales. It’s perfectly cooked, and the potatoes are a creative alternative to beer batter or breading. With a malt vinegar jus poured over it tableside, this dish really seems special in addition to tasting very, very good.
But while the food here is consistently delicious, the space is undeniably awkward. The tables are small (if you’re sitting at one of the two-tops, expect to play dish Tetris), and the entire room is very narrow. You’ll also see a steady stream of people walking back and forth, since the staircase leading to the hotel’s bar, Leviathan (a sea monster-themed cocktail spot), is in the middle of the restaurant. And the elevator leading to the hotel lobby has an unmissable glowing blue light, which kind of gives the whole experience a “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” feel - if the sea floor were populated by people wearing overpriced “Chicago” sweatshirts instead of scuba suits. Overall, definitely not our favorite restaurant setup in Chicago.
It would be a shame to miss out on the creative and well-executed menu just because of that, though. Portsmith has great food and service - the only thing holding it back is the uncomfortable space. So we think it’s worth embracing the whole experience. Hit up the Disney Store and play tourist for the day - then come by and order anything that sounds interesting to you. Just remember to go home at the end of the night, not to the airport. Unless you are an actual tourist, in which case we apologize for all the tourist jokes.
Whoever is in charge of the baking at this restaurant is a hero. You should get at least one each of the nori ciabatta, bonito flake sourdough, and Old Bay Parker House rolls. They’re $2 each, and all amazing.
These are also priced individually (at $4 a piece), so you can try one without committing to a large order. And you definitely should - it’s a fun bite, and the squid ink panko and basil aioli go really well with the oyster’s saltiness.
Charred Shrimp Cocktail
If you’re looking for a light starter, try this. You get two huge, very tasty shrimp with each order.
This is the only salad on the menu, and luckily it’s solid. It’s a basic caesar, except it also has sauteed squid. So order this if you like salads. And squid.
Foie Gras And Donut
If you don’t like salads or squid, maybe you’ll like this. A piece of foie gras is seared and served with a donut and some strawberry jam. It’s rich, fatty, and sweet.
This an interesting dish. It’s breaded and fried, and served with Russian dressing and a curry-flavored tomato sauce. It pretty much tastes like the inside of an Indian rueben, and we’re fans.
Cacio E Pepe
Uni butter replaces the cheese in this pasta. It’s tasty and a good pasta option, but there are bolder flavors on the menu here that are more interesting.
An octopus tentacle that’s rolled in puffed grains that look like Rice Krispies and taste like Honey Smacks. We’ve never thought about putting octopus in our cereal, but this dish makes a compelling case. The puffed grain gives it texture, the chili sauce gives it some heat, and a citrus mayo adds some sweet and sour-ness.
New England Mussels
These mussels taste like something an old lighthouse keeper wearing one of those fishermen’s raincoats would eat during a Nor’easter. They’re served in an excellent clam chowder broth, and we suggest keeping a Parker House roll on hand for soaking purposes.
Potatoes Au Gratin With Crab Butter
One of the sections of the menu is called “Middle of the Table,” and it has dishes you’re meant to share alongside your entrees. These potatoes are in that section. They’re tasty, but be warned that the crab flavor is very strong. It’s more of a crab butter dish with potato.
Wild Mushroom Pie
There are two things to know about this mushroom pie. One, it is one of the best things on the entire menu - the pastry is outstanding, the mushrooms are rich, and the sauce poured over it is incredible. Two, it’s inexplicably in the “middle of the table” section, when it’s clearly something you should hoard for yourself.
Halibut “Fish And Chips”
Unlike a traditional fish and chips, where the fish is battered and fried, this halibut is cooked in butter, with the “chips” being potatoes layered on the top and seared along with the filet. The fish is moist and the malt vinegar jus poured on the top takes it to another level.