Enter the Doors of Porta Blu
Driving Highway 101 on the Peninsula, you cannot miss the swank new Hotel Nia. Its 11 stories of gleaming glass make quite the statement.
Step inside the just opened hotel, and you are sure to get whiplash. That’s because the upscale yet whimsical decor by Colum McCartan of New York’s McCartan, Inc. will have you looking every which way. Everywhere you turn, there are eye-catching, fun touches such as a cart full of luggage turned into a planter and rakes leaning against doorways that are actually light fixtures. Just when you think you’ve spotted every surprise, you discover yet another one.
The property somehow manages to feel secluded, even if it is right off always-jammed 101, and has Facebook as a neighbor.
Enter the restaurant, Porta Blu, and the unique artfulness continues. The backs of the bar stools look as if they sport an abstract squiggle design. But start at them a little longer to discover it’s actually a silhouette of two faces kissing.
There are actual blue doors (from which the restaurant takes its name) hung on the ceiling horizontally in one area; in another, blue and white rolls of tapestry appearing as if they will unfurl from the ceiling.
The large, handsome dining area is divided into several spaces. There’s even one that sports dramatic curtained booths, sort of like cabanas but indoor ones.
Just shortly after its opening, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. The kitchen is overseen by Executive Chef Eric Cousin, who worked at New York’s Essex House and Plaza Hotel, and by Chef de Cuisine Michael Riddell, a Bay Area native formerly of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.
Mediterranean cuisine is the name of the game here, with leanings especially toward Morocco.
The cocktails are divided into descriptive categories: “On the Lighter Side,” “Big & Bold,” “Cool & Refreshing,” and “Nia-Scape Cocktails.” The “Abigail” ($17) under “Big & Bold,” was a vivid blend of vodka, homemade limoncello, Aperol, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, and simple syrup. It’s citrusy with a punch from the limoncello, but not so brash that you’ll be left staggering.
An amuse of tuna tartare mounded with almonds and dates was a perfect way to get into the Mediterranean spirit.
Nearly every table around us ordered the mezze plate ($14), which is understandable since it’s a perfect shareable appetizer. Warm pita triangles arrive in the center of a big platter brimming with hummus, muhammara, baba ghanouj, marinated feta, carrot salad, and pickled vegetables.
I have to admit that when it comes to hummus and baba ghanouj, I measure all others against my standard, which can be found at Oren’s Hummus. The hummus was thinner in texture than Oren’s, and also lacked Oren’s rich tahini-sesame flavor. The baba ghanouj here also paled to Oren’s, which possesses an uncanny smokiness found in few other renditions of this eggplant dip. The carrot salad was pretty basic. But I did love the muhammara, a vibrant red pepper dip enlivened with walnuts and pepper flakes. It was bold in flavor and just the right amount of spiciness.
Portuguese crab cakes ($17) are fluffy and full of the sweet crustacean meat. The piri piri aioli was a nice touch that offered something different than the usual tartar sauce.
The chef brought out a taste of chilled corn soup, which will debut on the pool menu. Unlike most corn soups that have a creamy, rather velvety texture, this was rather thin as if it had been made with only the corn “milk” (or juice scraped from the cobs) rather than the starchy kernels themselves. I’m not sure if a bowl of this would satisfy in the dining room. But if you were lazing out by the pool on a scorching afternoon, it would do the job to cool things off.
The grilled salmon ($28) arrived with perfectly crisp skin after being cooked in grape leaves. The ample fillet was set atop a bed of rice pilaf with tomatoes, pine nuts and raisins for a sweet-tangy accent.
Tagines, four different types, are a signature here. They arrive with a flourish with the traditional ceramic conical top whisked off the plate at the table by the server to reveal what’s underneath. In my case, my choice of lamb ($38), a large shank cooked until fork-tender. Raisins, almonds, and pomegranate seeds garnished the dish.
For dessert, we shared the citrus and olive oil cake ($10). It was like a tres leches cake in texture, with the syrup from the mandarin compote on top soaking into the sponge. Light and just barely sweet with a scoop of refreshing minty pistachio ice cream, it’s a good option if you want to end dinner on a not-so-heavy note. The last little bites are dark chocolate caramels presented on a silver tray.
After all, you still have to get up from your chair to explore more of the property, which beckons irresistibly almost like a scavenger hunt.