What is Portland Variety? Is it a bakery? A café? Or maybe a restaurant? Or a bar? Well, as the name suggests, it’s actually all of the above. The idea is that the place transforms throughout the day, changing food and function to fit the needs of the neighbourhood and its people. In the day, it’s a bakery and café, and a breakfast and lunch spot. By evening, it’s a happening tapas restaurant and bar. Is it possible for one place to be all of these things and still be great? On July 8th, we found out that it most definitely can.
The front of Portland Variety serves as a standing-room-only space, with its high, polished marble countertops. I can easily see myself dropping in before work, sipping a nice latté and eating some baked goods, while reading the morning news. For fans of Le Gourmand, owner Milton Nunes‘ well-known other venture, Portland Variety has the same sumptuous baked goods, like the famous Nookie Cookie and Chocolate Bomb. The coffee is made using the ModBar expresso system; coffee aficionados should definitely stop by to see the impressive setup, and sample the coffee sourced from local roasters.
In the evening, I can just as easily picture myself with friends, enjoying a glass of wine, while munching on some pintxos. Pintxos are small, Spanish-style, bite-sized snacks. Notable were the candied pork rinds (I do love sweet and savoury food), and Jamon Serrano with tomato puree and padron pepper. Spanish cured meats and charred vegetables are some of my favourites, so this was a winning combination for me. I chose a Moscatto wine from their selection to go with my pintxos.
Heading to the back of Portland Variety, you pass the open kitchen and the bar before entering the 150-seat restaurant space. The decor is modern, yet very casual and welcoming, with lots of natural light. Adjacent to this space is a covered patio, if you want to dine outdoors. While waiting for dinner to begin, we had the chance to taste a few of the specialty cocktails. The presentations of some of these cocktails were some of the most stunning and unique that I’ve seen. The Royal Garden for example is served over an ice sphere that has a wild flower frozen within. The Tequila Bong is literally smoking as it’s poured into your glass at your table. The Smoking Gun was my favourite cocktail of the night with its strong whiskey and smokey flavour, and a hint of sweetness from the maple; the drink got better with every sip. Talented molecular mixologist and bar manager, Kris Bahamondes, who also works La Colette at the Thomson Hotel, is responsible for these spectacular drinks.
While the drinks were memorable, the food was even more so. The plates we tried were all tapas style, meant for sharing. The seafood offerings were quite amazing, starting with the chilled seafood platter. This included lobster, shrimp, smoked trout, and a brown butter sauce. The shrimp pil pil with chill garlic aoili was delicious with just the right amount of heat. The grilled octopus was a showstopper both in presentation and taste. It was soft and tender, and perfectly complemented by the iberico chorizo, smoked tomato, olive oil, and lemon. The vegetable dishes were also great – including the chickpeas with harissa, sweet potato, and zucchini, and the baby eggplant, with byaldi confit. The light and crispy cassava frites were served alongside the 22 oz Canadian AAA porcini rubbed blackened rib eye, with caramelized onions. The steak was well seasoned and cooked to the right temperature.
Dessert came next – the first was doughnuts with a chocolate dipping sauce. I’ve tasted a lot of beignets, and this has to be one of my favourites. Firstly, it’s awesome that they’re served in bite-sized pieces. Coating each piece with chocolate and having it burst with vanilla cream was just heaven. The dark chocolate praline mousse dessert was eye-catching – it was in the shape of a dome, placed inside a tall glass topped with a crispy nougatine “lid”, which you’re supposed to break and eat with the mousse. The mousse was smooth and velvety, with the nougatine providing a nice texture and flavour contrast. Finally, there was the lemongrass granita with local cherries. The strawberry consommé is poured over the ice at the table. It was a refreshing palate cleanser and a wonderful note to end the evening.
The evening we spent at Portland Variety demonstrated exactly what this establishment aims to achieve: making the guest feel like a “local”. It’s a place where you can stop by any time of day, perhaps even multiple times in the same day. Drop by for a morning coffee. Stop in during the day for a quick bite to eat. Hang out in the evening sampling pintxos, and sipping masterful cocktails that rival the best in King West. Stay for dinner for a European-inspired, neighbourhood dining experience, savouring Chef Jo Castrinos‘ creations, which are delicious, simple yet sophisticated – just the kind you want to share with your friends.
Portland Variety is a surely standout destination amongst the many impressive dining choices in King West, and a place where you’d want to come back again and again. Be sure to visit at 587 King St. West, at the corner of King St. West and Portland St.
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Photos by John Tan