- Richard Foss
By Richard Foss, Dining and Cuisine Columnist
There is something noble and honorable about calmly accomplishing a vital task when all around you is chaos. There is something well beyond that when you not only do that job, but convey a general sense that at that very moment, there’s no place else you would rather be.
All regular readers of this publication know by now about the perilous situation at Ports O’ Call and the stubborn determination of the namesake restaurant to remain in business. I had visited infrequently over the years but always enjoyed the experience, so I decided to stop in for brunch while I still can. I hesitated for a while out of fear it might feel like a wake, but decided that even if it did, I’d still have a chance to say goodbye to the place.
Driving past the fenced spots where tacky but lively souvenir shops and amusement halls once stood was a melancholy experience. I wondered if any meal could lighten my mood and why was I going to an all-you-can-eat brunch in the first place, when I’m not generally a big eater in the morning and don’t generally like buffets. I remembered enjoying the experience the most recent time, but couldn’t remember why.
Then I got there, and I did. Time had stopped and the restaurant looked like it always had, a bit worn around the edges but still offering charm and the view of the water. The smiles from hosts and servers seemed genuine, even though every one of them had to know that this week, or next week, or next month a legal decision somewhere could send them scrambling for a new job. They were pros, and soldiering on is what pros do.
We opted for an outdoor table among birthday and graduation parties, received glasses of sparkling wine, and headed into reconnoiter the buffet. As is usually the case they balance ready-to-eat items with those that can be customized to diners’ tastes, in this case with stations where the staff makes omelets, tacos and pastas. There are also servers at the cold seafood bar and the carved meat station, who make sure you get exactly what you want from each and cheerfully answer any questions. You can go back as many times as you like, so you will be able to have your fill of the high-dollar proteins. A nice touch here is the station where flour tortillas are handmade to order, which enticed me to consider ordering a breakfast burrito.
I didn’t, because those are filling and I was interested in sampling as many things as possible. Instead, I grazed the sushi, cooked and cold seafood options, the rows of chafing dishes and then headed out to a shady table with a view of the harbor. The view wasn’t the kind that usually graces postcards and tourist posters, but it was peaceful to watch the occasional commercial vessel progress deliberately past sightseeing boats and pleasure craft. There’s an element of romance to a working port: who knows where that Greek-flagged tanker across the water has been or where it will go, or whether it will face storms or sunshine along the way?
Our musings on the vagaries of world trade were punctuated by appreciating the items on our plates, which were generally of high quality. I also indulged in a little of the kind of experimenting that you can only do at a buffet, such as topping a breakfast waffle with the seafood Newburg. Doing this at home would involve making two labor-intensive items from scratch and getting it at a regular restaurant would require convincing my server that I really did want something from the dinner menu on top of a breakfast item. Buffets are non-judgmental, so I was free to try it just to see what happened. (I recommend the combination, by the way.) Making a fish taco using the fried tilapia, salad and salsa works too, and may be the best thing to do with it because the bland tilapia had a nice crispy breading. It’s good enough that I ate two pieces of tilapia, and that’s unusual because I don’t particularly like that fish. The fried chicken was good too. It still had a bit of crunch in the crust even though storage in a chafing dish had started to steam it.
I made a second trip for the prime rib, some “Korean beef,” nibbles of more seafood and to peruse the Mexican section. The carver at the meat station offered a second slice, so they’re not keeping a wary eyeball on portion control, but I was more interested in variety than quantity. I opted instead to try a tamale, chilaquiles and a taco, the latter made with their seasoned ground meat because the person manning the station said that had more flavor than the carnitas. It did, but not as much as the chilaquiles, which had a considerable red pepper tang. This will be too spicy for some people, like my wife who tried a bite and immediately offered me her portion. I was happy to have it, because the zingy sauce was exactly the kind of thing I like to start the day with. Whoever made the chilaquiles should have shared the attitude with the person who made the “Korean” short ribs, because those tasted more of teriyaki than garlic and pepper. The pork tamale had decent flavor but the masa was a bit heavy, so I had a few bites and set that aside. I considered topping it with some beef bourguignon to see what happened, but decided to just enjoy that on its own.
On my way back to my table I took a different route, in the process discovering a salad bar around the corner. Either our server hadn’t mentioned this or I was distracted when she did, but I seriously considered being virtuous and having greens instead of dessert. That lasted about a millisecond, so we went back to peruse the flan, selection of cakes and sweet Danishes. The cheesecake had a good filling but was served on a sweet crust, so I enjoyed a taste of the filling and left the rest for my wife to devour. I preferred the rich and eggy flan, but the surprise hit was a German chocolate cake that was delicately but not overbearingly sweet. The chocolate was in harmony with the coconut and chopped nuts rather than a dominant flavor, which is often a surprise to people who are misled by the name. (Fun fact: besides not being a particularly chocolatey cake, it isn’t German either. It was invented in 1852 by a baker named Sam German.)
To lazily enjoy a large and varied meal with a view of the water gave us the feeling of being on a cruise ship and as we left my wife and I joked about going to our cabin for a post-prandial nap. It had been a serene, pampered morning, and though it was a bit pricey at $50 per person, it was worth it. We hope the owners win their fight to stay in business so we may return soon, but if this was a goodbye it was one that will leave us with good memories. If you’re considering going for brunch or dinner, all I can say is, “Do it now!” It will support an embattled member of the community and help keep a tradition alive. In the process you’ll enjoy a one of a kind experience.