West Town’s Porto draws inspiration from the fishing villages and farmsteads along the Atlantic Coast of Galicia and Portugal. Showcasing regional wine, seafood and conservas (gourmet tinned seafood), the newest creation from Chicago’s thoughtfully expanding Bonhomme Hospitality Group honors the purveyors, culture and history of this delicious corner of the world, and, in the process, has become their most ambitious culinary and personal project.
“At Porto, we want to share our love for the history, culture, food and, ultimately, people of Galicia and Portugal,” says Bonhomme’s co-founder and managing partner, Daniel Alonso, who, having grown up between the Midwest and his parent’s hometowns in Galicia, has a personal, heartfelt connection to this part of the world and the purveyors who call it home.
For Alonso, research for Porto has been ongoing since childhood, instilling a passion for and relationship with the area that few can claim. During more recent trips, Alonso was accompanied by his partners—brothers Nader, Fadi and Rafid Hindo—and Bonhomme Executive Chef and fellow Spaniard, Marcos Campos. There were stops in Baiona and Ribeira, the Galician cities Alonso has considered his second homes since birth, as well as Vigo, home of the largest fishing port in Europe. The group sat down with the fishmongers, winemakers and farmers who will be at the heart of Porto’s menu on their travels to small villages along the coast, including Azenhas do Mar, Cambados, Combarro, O Grove, Corrubedo, Porto and Viana do Castelo.
Breaking barriers is a central theme at Porto, first demonstrated by the expansive 26-seat chef’s island found at the center of the restaurant’s artfully appointed dining room. This unique layout eliminates the wall that normally exists between those who make food and those who consume it. Thus, Executive Chef Marcos Campos and his culinary team can act as guides, presenting each dish directly to diners while explaining the inspiration behind it.
Conversations will inevitably include details on two purveyors that feature prominently in the restaurant: Spain’s La Brújula and Minerva from Portugal, both family-owned legends in the world of conservas, a centuries-old preservation technique. A variety of fish and seafood from those two companies will star in a number of Porto’s small plates, including Uni Toast (Galician uni, cauliflower, Sao Jorge cheese, lemon gel, velvet horn seaweed on brioche) and Navajas (Galician razor clams, white asparagus conserva, codium seaweed “guac”, oyster mayonnaise, caviar).
Traditionally eaten directly out of their tins with little fanfare in Spain and Portugal, Campos has opted instead to present these pristine products in creative ways, while still highlighting their unique and delicate flavors. “We want to do something that’s very different not only for Chicago but for that part of the world, too,” says Campos, a native of Spain.
Fresh, wild caught fish imported weekly from Galicia and Portugal will travel to Porto’s wood-burning ovens and grills located in two open kitchens. Open-flame cooking was specifically chosen for its ability to impart a sublime range of flavors, trigger nostalgia and tap into smoke-scented memories. Dishes will include Rodaballo (wood oven-roasted whole Spanish wild turbot, fermented garlic, vinho verde, grilled lemon, served with braised collard greens), Caballa Escabeche (charcoal-grilled Spanish mackerel, white escabeche, root vegetables) and Bacalhau Assado (wood oven-roasted, black garlic olive oil, cod tripe and garbanzo stew, seaweed sofrito, piparra pepper).
As on land, seasonality plays an important factor in the sea, limiting availability of many items to a two- to three-month season. Curing and smoking, with a light hand, will be used to ensure the fresh fish Porto imports can be enjoyed later into the year despite fishing seasons coming to a close, demonstrated by the Sardine Tiborna made with house-cured sardines, smoked Basque piperrada, eggplant mousse, sourdough.
The wood-burning oven will also be busy when the restaurant is closed, its embers slowly turning fish bones into a rich stock or helping to enrich the flavors of an over-night Ibérico pork cheeks stew, cooking it “grandma-style” says Campos. Leftover herbs will get a second life as various infusions to be used in Porto’s cocktails.
Fresh seaweed—seven different kinds in fact—plays an important role at Porto, as it does in the cuisine of Galicia, adding a natural salinity and distinct flavor to the dishes in which it is used.
Two Tasting Menus offer a choice of 5 or 10 courses, allowing guests to both have a curated experience and try dishes not available on the dinner menu. Some of these experiences will include Pasta Do Mar (Galician seaweed “spaghetti”, mussel “carbonara”, caviar), Carabinero (wild deep-sea cardinal prawn tartar, codium seaweed, hazelnut, citrus gel, Asian pear), Caballa (citrus-cured Spanish mackerel, dashi-glazed potatoes, pickled tomato, caper mayonnaise) and San Martiño (wild Galician John Dory, wood-roasted squash, mustard, jamón Ibérico espuma).
Every year for more than a decade, members of Bonhomme’s culinary and beverage teams travel to Spain and Portugal to discover new farms, wineries and winemakers, with the goal of bringing back that magical ‘sense of place’ to Chicago. The time spent in their vineyards and seated at their tables, getting priceless perspective, heartfelt anecdotes and access to rare vintages, provides privileged gifts they are proud to share with guests.
“We want to take our guests on a journey through the Iberian Peninsula and the Islands of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, sharing our own experiences and the tales of the passionate winemakers that we have befriended on our travels throughout these beautiful areas,” says Alonso.
Inside Porto’s leather-bound wine book those treasures are distinctly organized. One of the best ways to experience those will be via the six different tasting flights, which provide an opportunity to explore these unique Iberian Peninsula wines via expertly curated groupings. Three rare white wines from Portugal will be featured next to related varietals from Spain with a similar scenario with reds. Small production wines will be offered in a flight format too. A winemaker battle tasting will pit legendary producers from each country against each other. (Although in this contest everyone’s a winner.) In addition, a rotating flight of featured winemakers will allow the staff the opportunity to geek out on some of their favorites and share their first-hand knowledge and insight with guests. Tasting flights are offered in six pours and 10 for the grand tasting.
At the heart of Porto’s wine program is a focus on natural wines that comes, well, naturally. “Porto is honored to showcase winemakers who are descendants of a farming tradition that reclaims the history of their lands to produce wine from their own vineyards, as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did so before them with respect for their heritage and the environment,” explains Alonso. While natural and organic wines may be trendy right now that’s been business as usual for years at a number of vineyards in Portugal and Galicia, many of which are well represented on Porto’s wine list.
Additional sections will feature Porto’s more than 70 selections of limited-production wines, which will change frequently. The extensive selection of sherries, ports and madeiras, the largest in the city, has earned a prominent spot in the book too. Of course, there’s a wine-by-the-glass section with some 25 on offer, as well as pages dedicated to the 300 or so bottles, organized alphabetically by wine regions, offering one of the more definitive collections of Spanish and Portuguese wines in the United States. In the near future, look for wine dinners and informal tastings with the winemakers themselves that will be both educational and provide a glimpse into the wonderful stories the Bonhomme team has experienced over the years.
An edited list of cocktails includes Spanish Gintonics, Porto tónicos and aperitifs, all topped with Vichy Catalán water. Also on the beverage list is a Galician showstopper – Queimada –a fiery drink with roots dating back to the Celts that involves a clay pot, aguardiente de orujo (pomace brandy), coffee, fruit peels, sugar and magic.
Designed by Maison Bonhomme, Porto’s interiors create a heightened intimacy between guests, food, wine and the stories that connect them.
Porto’s chefs island, the centerpiece of the restaurant, is an 80-foot-long oblong counter built with repurposed wood from fishing vessels and 20 slabs of brushed granite. Above it, custom blackened-steel and wood shelves evoke the frame of a fishing vessel’s hull. From this intimate perch, guests, seated in plush velvet counter stools, are able to interact with Porto’s culinary and beverage teams while watching the scene unfold in front of them.
Woven harmoniously throughout every surface of Porto are artistic elements drawn from Europe’s visual arts legacy and physical elements that romanticize the sea and the little villages dotting the coastlines of Galicia and Portugal.
Upon entering Porto, the scene is set with custom-designed wall coverings in four one-of-a-kind motifs by acclaimed local artist and regular Maison Bonhomme collaborator Erik DeBat, which envelop the room with evocative prints that recall the beauty of graphic design and lithographic printing of the 19th Century. Their work’s cultural resonance also extends to all table service items, which have been sourced from Sargadelos, a 200-year-old maker of fine ceramics from Galicia.
Intense attention to detail as well as a passion for reinventing vintage pieces and giving historical pieces new life, signatures of Maison Bonhomme, appear throughout Porto. Fourteen early-20th century American composition light fixtures adorned with an acanthus leaf pattern and their original chain and canopy that once hung in the lobby of the historic Continental Bank on LaSalle Street. Six brass chandeliers that formerly called the dining hall of the United Center home further the ‘everything old is new again’ theme. Wine storage is anything but ordinary with a beautiful repurposed 19th century 20’x12’ Belgian library bookcase. And a cast-iron balcony, circa 1872, one of two from the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum, was rebuilt by ironworkers and wraps around and frames the interior walls facing Ashland and Chicago avenues.
Flanking either side of Porto’s entrance are two cozy nooks, each appointed with plush velvet armchairs and stunning Lucite-and-brass 8-top dining tables, perfect for small gatherings. On one side, a monumental Murano crystal chandelier designed by Maison Bonhomme in collaboration with the Venetian masters hangs underneath a 20-foot-high skylight.
Porto’s solarium, located off the main dining room, channels the feeling of an impromptu gathering at a local winery, with the crackling sound of wood burning in a nearby wheel grill filling the room and further stirring the senses. Large granite communal tables provide seating for large groups, while an antique 20th century French truck panel table offers guests a place to comfortably gather and socialize with a glass of wine in hand. When the warmer weather arrives, the solarium’s retractable roof and sliding windows will allow the space to become indoor-outdoor.