My experiences with the Chicago-based company have been less than stellar over the years. They all but ran Fulton’s Crab House aground, and when they took over ownership of his café, Wolfgang Puck came close to demanding they take his name off of it.
So I didn’t have high hopes when I visited Levy’s newly revamped Portobello, which did drop the words “Yacht Club” from its name, though not because of a maritime complaint.
You may recall -- and if you do, boy, are you old! -- that when Pleasure Island first opened, everything had a theme and a story behind it. The island was the project, so the cockamamie tale went, of Merriweather Adam Pleasure who built the warehouse district for his own enjoyment, or, if you will, pleasure.
The structure that is the restaurant we speak of today was supposedly originally the home of Pleasure and his wife, Isabella. Disney, we were led to understand back in 1989 (I told you you were old!), along with Levy Restaurants had restored the old home into a yacht club. Never mind that there were no boats about, other than the faux paddlewheeler that was then called the Empress Lily, which is now home to Fulton’s Crab House. The restaurant featured Italian cuisine because of Mrs. Pleasure’s heritage and all the recipes were her own. (You may roll your eyes here, if you like.)
Portobello Yacht Club was quite good, as was Fulton’s when it first opened. The Fireworks Factory -- Merriweather fancied himself a fireworks fiend -- also run by Levy, was modestly OK. (The Fireworks Factory, which had the most un-Disneylike men’s room you could imagine, eventually became a country western bar and then was torn down for other projects I've forgotten about because I'm older than you.)
But then something happened, presumably in the ranks of Levy. Fulton’s, which once had been the best seafood restaurant in town, suddenly was only mediocre at best. And Portobello Yacht Club’s quality flagged too. I’ve already mentioned Wolfgang Puck’s reaction to the way they handled his namesake restaurant.
But the restaurant I found at Downtown Disney recently was very different from the old place. The food was top-notch – creative interpretations of Italian dishes that were flavorful and filling. And I suddenly find myself able to once again recommend it as a destination. What a treat to have a restaurant to suggest for before or after a La Nouba performance.
My companion and I put ourselves in the hands of chef Steven Richard for the evening. Richard developed the menu in concert with Tony Mantuano, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Levy’s Chicago restaurant Spiaggia.
We started with an array of antipasti, including bresaola, capicolla, lentil salad, roasted beets, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and crostini with ricotta and honey. All were good, though the cheeses might have been better if they hadn’t been so cold.
The restaurant is pushing its sambuca shrimp appetizer as a signature item, even presenting a recipe card upon seating. It featured four large shrimp on a layer of paper-thin sliced potatoes in a small iron skillet doused with liqueur and flambéed. Good, though I don’t quite understand the push to sell them (other than the price -- $13.95 – fetches nearly $3.75 per shrimp!).
Our pasta course featured ravioli gigante, distinctive in their size, which was comparable to a cocktail napkin, the creamy ricotta and spinach filling and the tangy tomato sauce.
The main course was a massive porterhouse steak, presented sliced in a skillet, the strip side sufficiently steaky in texture and the tenderloin side creamy tender. We also sampled the grilled lobster, presented split, sweet meat with a smoky note. There was, however, a preponderance of rosemary – and this from someone who adores rosemary.
Dessert brought a chunky tiramisu and a smooth crème brulee, though the server preferred to call it something else because creme brulee isn’t Italian.
The atmosphere is a little more bustling and informal than when it was the Portobello Yacht Club. The restaurant is sectioned into separate dining areas but each is open to the other, so there is an expansive feel. The decor gives more of a Tuscan steakhouse sort of feel. It’s a little less formal, though white tablecloths keep it from sinking into too casual a mood.
Speaking of sinking, the reason the restaurant is now known simply as Portobello is that when Disney closed Pleasure Island there was no reason to keep up with the whole legend from the past. Taking Yacht Club off the name removed any need to keep explaining the absence of yachts.
Our server was capable and knowledgeable, able to answer questions with authority. I was also impressed with the manager, who did more than just stand around and watch (I actually saw him wiping down countertops in the restroom!).
It’s that kind of dedication that makes a restaurant work.
I can’t wait to see if they’re working that hard at Fulton’s and Puck’s.