The Porch: Cheesy grits, y’all
Sacramento, CA 95814
Cajun to colonial, brooding to bright, Cuba Libre to low country. Such is the transformation of the long-serving Celestin’s Caribbean Restaurant on K Street in Midtown into its latest incarnation, The Porch.
Where Celestin’s interior felt almost cavelike, The Porch is light and white with faux windows looking out over two-dimensional vistas of stately magnolias and verdant weeping willows. The vibe suggests the airy sweep of an antebellum Charleston eatery. Almost a pity the hostess isn’t required to greet guests with a hearty, “Hi, y’all.”
One can only envy the extensive, on-site research conducted by chef Jon Clemens and business partners John Lopez and Jerry Mitchell, creators of Capitol Garage. This work required the restaurateurs to bring the food of six or seven sea-fronting countries in southern South Carolina to the drawl-less denizens of Sacramento. Catfish and oysters and crab cakes. Purloo and parsnips. All kissin’ cousins to Creole and Cajun.
What their research has yielded is sundry Southern selections such as shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken and green tomatoes. The menu cuts a broader swath than simply the low country: After all, can the BBQ Pork Quesadilla—served with slabs of avocado, a drizzle of sour cream and a spattering of corn and tomato salsa—really be considered a Carolinian creation?
The menu has undergone some revision since The Porch opened its doors in mid-December. The no-shortage-of-crab She Crab Soup, with its splash of sherry and a sunburst of roe at its center providing crunchy texture to each spoonful, has given way, most recently, to a creamy broccoli and Swiss-cheese puree that cries out for a bowl instead of merely a cup. Also in the rotation is sweet-potato bisque that is a welcome replacement for the frogmore stew, which, like the She Crab Soup, comes straight out of the low-country playbook.
Nevertheless, it seems like the latter concoction should have been more appropriately named “frogless,” since that is about the only green thing seemingly not present in its leaf-strewn, reedy depths.
In the main, the most enjoyable selections are salads or seafood sandwiches or entrees. Slaw on the barbecue pork sandwich elevates its status, and its pickled vegetables are sweet and tart, adding an additional dimension. The shrimp and grits dish, while laden with cheddar and gravy, is a synergistic mélange—perhaps The Porch’s trademark dish. Also in the running is the purloo, the low country’s version of jambalaya, with andouille, crunchy crawfish appendages, and the same sautéed bell peppers and onions that also appear in the grits.
The sandwiches don’t hold together so well. The shrimp po’ boy quickly becomes a knife-and-fork affair.
Pal H.D. Palmer, who has spent some time on the East Coast and knows his soft-shell crab, offers these thoughts on The Porch’s version:
“The crust of the soft-shell makes the flavor. The problem with [The Porch’s] sandwich is twofold. First, it rapidly becomes a deconstructed soft-shell sandwich due to massive structural failure by the bread. But second, and more important, the longer it bathes in remoulade, the sooner the crust that was there dissipates and becomes more of a papery coating.”
Although the mix of flavors in the salad of chicken salad is eye opening, of everything sampled over the past three month, the seafood Cobb grabs the gold. Four boiled egg quarters at the compass points of a mound of mixed greens topped with four, beefy battered shrimps, a frond of dill rising majestically from the summit. Avocado slices draped along the salad’s slopes. The eye-catching presentation almost causes one to overlook the sundried tomatoes, bacon and crabmeat buried within. There is just enough dressing to meld the flavors, but not overpower. The complimentary muffaletta is a classy touch.
Overall: Good points trump demerits.