It wasn’t the décor. Portrait House’s red, speckled walls and eclectic collection of flea market portraits are a significant departure from the former occupant’s white walls and minimal artwork.
It wasn’t the pizza oven, either, though it features almost as prominently at Portrait House as it did at BlowToad.
It could have been the fact that both Portrait House’s fries and specialty dipping sauces, such as bourbon-maple mustard and habanero ketchup, are served at additional charges, a la Burger Bach, the popular burger joint at the other end of Cary Street.
I’m pretty sure my déjà vu stemmed from my experiences at Don’t Look Back, the so-so taco shop and older sibling to Portrait House located on the same block. The same group owns both restaurants, as well as New York Deli across the street.
My take on niche eateries has always been this: If you’re going to serve limited options, the specialization you choose should shine. Unfortunately, like Don’t Look Back’s short list of tacos and tequila, Portrait House’s menu of burgers and pizzas is merely average.
For many, there is nothing wrong with ordinary. But when neighboring competitors are doing the same fare better — Mary Angela’s Pizzeria and Carytown Burgers & Fries are just up the street — why would I settle for simply OK?
If you’re a beer lover, perhaps a visit here makes more sense. Portrait House serves 24 beers on tap, including 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon, Apocalypse Ale Works Hopocalypse and Schneider Aventinus. Its wine list isn’t too shabby, either.
Still, food is most important in my book, and our meal didn’t leave much of an impression. However, the smell of sizzling ground beef coming from the open kitchen and engulfing the dining room stuck with us for the rest of the night.
Burgers (alone, $7-$9; with a side, $2 extra) are available with no frills or topped with everything from barbecue sauce and jalapeños to blackening spices and melted Gorgonzola.
Our server informed us that the kitchen was out of Gorgonzola, so we opted for the Van Gogh burger ($9) with Gruyere, sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions. We added house-cut fries as our side along with creamy Gorgonzola sauce, which, oddly enough, was available.
While the cheese and mushrooms were appealingly savory additions, the 8-ounce patty needed some sort of seasoning — salt, pepper, anything — to make it stand out. The house-made bun was a nice touch, but the fries were tasteless. Not even the large bowl of pungent Gorgonzola sauce could elevate them beyond mediocre.
I started to order the chicken teriyaki pizza ($11) but decided to ask the server for a recommendation. She suggested the veggie pizza ($11), which I’m glad I chose.
A gooey layer of mozzarella topped the fresh medley of spinach, Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives, onions, mushrooms and approximately 15 cloves of roasted garlic. Enhanced by a tangy red sauce, the thin crust’s crispy texture withstood the weight of the toppings.
Sliders and salads are the only other menu options, so we threw in a Caprese salad ($8) to add some diversity to our meal. The simplicity of the fanned stack of thickly sliced mozzarella, juicy tomatoes and basil leaves acted as a refreshing counterpoint to the heaviness of the rest of the menu, but I wish there’d been more starter options.
Even though our waitress was friendly and accommodating, I have trouble finding another reason to rush back to a place where one of the two menu categories didn’t really do it for me.
Based on the bumping bar and filled patio, it seems as if there’s an audience for Portrait House. I’m just not it.
Freelance writer and graphic designer Dana Craig has been reviewing restaurants for The Times-Dispatch since 2004. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals on her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/danacraigrtd.