Chef Leaves Las Vegas, Brings Food With Flair

Las Vegas is not a town I ever expected would become famous for its restaurants. Last time I was there, years ago, I went into a drugstore to buy some postcards to send home. They included pictures of mushroom clouds with a greeting underneath that read: “Welcome to Nevada, the Atomic State!” I haven’t been back since.

But that was before celebrity chefs started heading down there and opening places bearing their names in the big hotels. So when I received a press release about a new restaurant in Chelsea that not only had a garden but also had, in its kitchen, the former executive chef from the Mansion at the MGM Grand, I was intrigued.

I showed up for dinner on a balmy night hoping to be seated outside in the garden. It wasn’t finished yet. Instead, we were shown to a table in the dining room where the decor, complete with buttresses and paneling, looked like a greatest hits compilation from the lobbies of several hotel chains.

“Welcome to the Porters,” said a young man whose pink Brooks Brothers shirt and bow tie belied his Eastern European accent. He gave us his name and told us he would be our waiter. A busboy appeared with a selection of breads.

“What kind is that?” I asked, pointing to a slice on the tray.

“Regular.”

We weren’t off to a very good start. But first impressions can be misleading.

Porters New York is owned and managed by Mirso Lekic, who also has Il Valentino in Sutton Place. In the front there is a long bar, topped with Murano glass and French windows that can be opened onto the sidewalk. The walls are covered with lacquered wood and hung with cylindrical sconces that cast a soft light over the room. The undulating ceiling absorbs noise well, but there is also boisterous pop music on the sound system. Is the restaurant named after Cole Porter? It all looks vaguely 40’s and there is even a shoe-polishing machine in the men’s bathroom. Certainly, this was not the sort of restaurant I expected to find around the corner from the Chelsea Hotel.

“Tonight our soup of the day is the carrot soup,” said our waiter, who turned out to be both charming and efficient. He enthusiastically recommended it, and he was right. It was delicious, given another dimension with fennel and a generous lacing of truffle oil. (Is there anything that doesn’t benefit from a splash of truffle oil?) The foie gras was good, too: thin, buttery slices glazed with Calvados and served with apple-cranberry compote.

I am not a great fan of crabcakes, the staple starter of every steakhouse, but the ones served at Porters made a convert of me. They were crisp on the outside, filled with snowy chunks of crabmeat, and came with a salsa made with papaya and coriander. I also loved the salmon tartare, another ubiquitous dish that’s given a new twist at Porters. It was wrapped in smoked salmon and surrounded by a scarlet coulis that had an intense, deep-roasted beet flavor. Even the spinach salad was spiffed up, tossed with slivers of prosciutto and toasted pine nuts in a mustardy vinaigrette. The only first course that wasn’t on the same level was the oysters, served warm on spinach with truffle sabayon. They didn’t have much taste.

But most of chef Mo Ousti’s food, which he characterizes as “contemporary international,” is very good–light, original and interesting without trying to show off. He is originally from Morocco, so some of his native dishes have found their way onto the menu, such as cumin chicken strips with pita and baba ghanouj, and chicken breast with saffron couscous, olives and lemon comfit. His cooking is ambitious but not overdone, and there is an air of dependability about it. There are steaks: a hearty ribeye with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and, of course, a porterhouse, with a pinot noir sauce. A veal chop is roasted and served pink and juicy with a truffley mushroom ragout and polenta. Meaty, rare slices of duck breast come with a port and pomegranate glaze.

But Chelsea is a neighborhood that commands lighter dishes too, such as pasta and fish. So there is linguine with Gulf prawns in a spicy cilantro and jalapeno broth. Ravioli is stuffed with Dungeness crab in a brandy cream sauce that is much lighter and more subtle than it sounds. Diver scallops are fresh and juicy, served on a sweet-pea-and-mushroom risotto loaded with truffle oil.

There is a small selection of desserts that includes a soufflé of the day (an excellent one with rum and custard), a dark chocolate mousse cake with Jack Daniels syrup and a gooey Bavarian cream cake with custard sauce. The Riesling poached pear tartlet has a light, flaky pastry and a rich caramel sauce.

This week Porters New York is slated to open its backyard garden, complete with terra cotta tiles, stone walls and waterfalls–but call first. Chef Ousti plans to serve a prix fixe five-course menu at $65 per person. In September a retractable glass ceiling will be installed so the garden can be used during the winter as well. Meanwhile, you can eat very well in Porters’ hotel lobby of a dining room. And if you want to see what this neighborhood has to offer in terms of hotel lobbies, just walk around after dinner to the Chelsea Hotel. And while you’re there, have a drink at Serena’s in the basement. Who needs Las Vegas?

Porters New York

* *

216 Seventh Avenue

(Between 22nd and 23rd streets)

229-2878

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Reasonable

Wine list: Well chosen and wide-ranging, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses, lunch $14 to $22, dinner $16 to $28

Lunch and dinner: Noon to 11 p.m. Sunday to Friday, to midnight Saturday; Brunch: 11 a.m. To 3 p.m. Sunday

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Chef Leaves Las Vegas, Brings Food With Flair