The first things that catch your eye at Portia's in Oakland Park are a pig doll dressed as a Southern belle and a foot-and-a-half tall porcelain pig chef holding various vegetables. The porcine greeters – a tribute to a family pet named Portia – set the tone for this highly stylized, vintage Southern restaurant owned by chef Greg Bainbridge, Ken Kelley and Lloyd Pagels. (Kelley and Pagels also own the nearby bars Scandals Saloon and the Stable.)
The eye-catching decor also features copper-colored ceiling tiles and colorful, low-hanging Tiffany lamps that give the restaurant the right amount of glow. These beautiful lamps even hang over the urinals in the men's restroom. To the east behind a full-length window is a small annex with ornate faux flowers, a wooden lattice and a stone bench, a repurposed reminder of the Wine Cellar, an Eastern European restaurant that occupied this location until Portia's opened this past October. In a cozy party room to the west, an intricate chandelier with vibrant, violet lampshades hangs in the center, while stained-glass window hangings and painted portraits of finely dressed Southern ladies line the walls.
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We started with a complimentary bowl of crackling, small bits of hard pork rind fried to make the skin produce tiny, crunchy bubbles. We asked for seconds, even as our place-mat pigs grinned ironically.
At Portia's, double down on the fried appetizers, diet be damned. Potato rolls ($7.95 for four) are paired with a dipping cheese and wrapped in a flaky, phyllolike crust filled with a finely grained mashed potato and bits of bacon. Marble-size fried okra ($5.95) were fun to pop in our mouths and crunch. Fried cubes of macaroni and cheese ($5.95) were tightly packed, and included white cheeses that gave the dish a subdued flavor. Meanwhile, earthy, powerful flavors of ham dominate the white-lima-bean and split-pea soups ($2.95 for a cup, $4.95 for a bowl).
Don't miss out on the highly touted fried chicken ($10.95 for two pieces, $12.95 for three, with two side dishes), which is marinated for 24 hours, breaded twice and served hot. The chicken here is juicy, not greasy, and the batter crumbles a bit when you bite into it yet remains mostly intact – just as it should be. The batter at Portia's is not too salty or peppery. Instead, it complements the meat, instead of masking it.
Portia's large fried shrimp ($15.95) are coated in cornmeal and fried at a high temperature to turn the coating crispy yet keep the shrimp fresh-tasting. Bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($11.95) didn't particularly impress nor offend, with the taste of carrot rising through the powerful bacon flavor. Shepherd's pie ($10.95), which is simmered in a beer broth, featured an impressive presentation with combed, singed mashed potatoes on top, but we wouldn't order it again.
The chicken and dumplings ($10.95), however, had us raving over a punchy, soupy sauce that allowed us to really taste the delicious chicken.
While the entrees arrived hot, the kitchen had trouble managing the temperature of the accompanying bread and sides, which detracted from some otherwise nice side dishes ($3 each when ordered individually). Sweet potato fries are hand-cut thin, giving them an enjoyable crispiness. Crunchy, homemade chips are lightly salted and pair well with the chicken. Macaroni and cheese was creamy, with a semi-crunchy layer of yellow cheese on top. Sweet potato casserole had an alluring sweetness without going overboard. Cream-style corn was not of the typically sweet variety, yet we enjoyed the flavor and texture. Biscuits tasted mediocre at room temperature, but when we sent them back for hot ones, we received completely different, delicious bread.
For dessert, we ordered a lovely, bready peach cobbler ($4.95), in which most of the sweetness comes from the large slices of peaches. Pecan pie ($4.95) is loaded with richness, is served cold and goes great with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($1). Coconut cream pie offers a thick, cheesecakelike texture with bits of coconut blended throughout.
While many of Portia's Southern dishes are prepared in a more subtle way than usual, the food and ambience make for a memorable night out at the right price.
199 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Oakland Park
Hours: Dinner 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 4-9 p.m. Sunday. Brunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. New lunch service will begin Feb. 28.
Bar: Wine and beer
Sound level: Quiet
For kids: High chairs, no kids menu
Outside smoking: Yes