Posts Tagged ‘Jeffersonville’

Portage House crafts riverside heartland cuisine

Portage House in Jeffersonville, IN

Chef Paul Skulas may not hail from Southern Indiana, but he grew up close enough in northwest Ohio. Post-Marine Corps, he honed his Southern chops by training at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina, and working with “Big Bad Chef” John Currence in Oxford, Mississippi.

Paul Skulas of Portage HouseFurther stints in Louisville led him to join restaurateur Alex Tinker in launching Portage House (117 East Riverside Drive, Jeffersonville, IN, 812-725-0435, eatportagehouse.com). We don’t usually pry so much into a chef’s background, but Skulas has a palate and an approach to Midwestern fare that seems very much his own. Southern Indiana and north central Kentucky both have rich farm country, so it’s not surprising that so many restaurants in the area draw on local sources for their provender. Portage House is no exception. About 80 percent of the beef, lamb, chicken, and pork comes from Hensley’s Homegrown. (The Broadbent country hams come from Lyon County in western Kentucky.) While oysters and some other fish have to be shipped in, Skulas also works with regionally farmed catfish.

Big Four Bridge in distance from Portage HouseThe building now occupied by Portage House was a private residence until two years ago, and it’s a safe bet that the occupants loved to sit on their front porch and watch the boats on the Ohio. The spot is literally within walking distance of the Big Four Bridge, as seen in the background of the photo at left. The location is wont to give diners of a philosophical bent thoughts, as Thomas Wolfe called it, “of time and the river.” Surrounded by the country bounty of Southern Indiana and the urban bourbon across in Louisville, the view from the patio of the Portage House is truly epic.

Ratcheting up Midwestern cuisine

watermelon and cauliflower at Portage House

It’s probably a good idea to arrive hungry for dinner at Portage since the portions are generous and the entrée prices are mostly under $20. (Steaks can push that envelope a bit.) Seasonality changes the menu often, of course, but our timing (just before Labor Day) was perfect to get the end of the lush part of summer and the first long-ripening crops of fall. Two starters prove that point. The tangy salad of cubed watermelon, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and a herb vinaigrette spoke of the summer heat in the fields. The roasted cauliflower with a lemon caper vinaigrette and chili flakes teased up with the promise of autumnal brassicas. The just-picked cauliflower was crisp and sweet—entirely devoid of the skunky quality it picks up in storage.

Trout at Portage HouseOne of the lighter entrees on the menu—amid the bratwurst, pastrami-cured duck leg, bbq chicken thighs, and ribeye steak—was a whole roasted trout, shown here. What so delighted us about the dish was the exuberant arugula, cucumber, and red onion salad that covered the fish. The crisp and piquant vegetables made a perfect counterpoint to the slight crunch of the trout’s breaded skin and soft, sweet flesh. Moreover, the fish was adeptly boned without disturbing its symmetry.

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11 2017

Tastes from two banks of the mighty Ohio

Riverboat approaches Abraham Lincoln bridge over the Ohio River.

Long-time readers of HungryTravelers already know that we have a soft spot for the state of Kentucky. (David was born there and Pat’s a Kentucky Colonel.) On our recent visit to Louisville, though, we ventured across the Ohio River to explore the newfound hipster cachet of the southern Indiana communities that go by the catchy rubric of SoIN—as in SoIN to food, SoIN to you, SoIN to music, and so on. It was a tasty journey.

Sorry, folks: some history


Louisville entertainment districtGeography is destiny. The Falls of the Ohio made Louisville possible—and necessary. The 26-foot drop in the Ohio River meant river traffic from the east had to unload at Louisville. Goods were then transported overland and reloaded downriver to make the journey to Cairo, Illinois, and south on the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. Founded in 1778 by George Rogers Clark, Louisville quickly became a great warehouse city and a manufacturing center for goods to sell downriver. (That’s bourbon, but more about that in other posts in this series.) The photo above right shows Louisville’s neon-lit entertainment district.

Downtown New Albany, IndianaAcross the Ohio from Louisville, the small Indiana towns of Jeffersonville and New Albany were both carved out of a land grant to Louisville founder and Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. Shipyards and railroads made them prosper. As the first free soil north of the Ohio, they were also powerful magnets on the Underground Railroad while Louisville still held one of the largest slave markets north of New Orleans. (The photo at right is New Albany, Indiana’s more laidback downtown.) For nearly a century, the two banks of the Ohio that had so much in common were divided by the political issues that led to the Civil War. Now they look, sound, and taste more like each other all the time. Together they represent the intersection of the South and the Midwest. They are the land of bourbon and biscuits, of blues and bluegrass, of people south and north steeped in their history but not held hostage by it.

Hands across the water


Big Four Bridge pedestrian crossing of Ohio RiverA bridge is a powerful metaphor, and no fewer than eight of them link Louisville and SoIN. The one at top is the Abraham Lincoln Bridge, carrying I-65 north, but our favorite is the pedestrian Big Four Bridge (at right). It once carried the tracks of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway line, hence the name. From the Louisville side, the ramp to the bridge is part of Louisville Waterfront Park. The landscaping is less dramatic on the Jeffersonville, Indiana, side, but access is easy—even for wheelchair users. The span is a little under a half mile (2,525 feet), and a casual stroll takes about 20 minutes. (Most of that time is spent climbing up and climbing down at the two ends.) It’s been open at both ends since May 2014, and is patrolled 24 hours a day to ensure safe passage for walkers, runners, rollers, and cyclists.

Art on the rise


Dawn Spyker of Jeffersonville with art quilt projectAcross the bridge from the bright lights of Louisville, look for a colorfully painted water tower. Just as the church towers of southern Indiana were beacons to seekers of freedom, the tower is a beacon to artists. It serves as a marker for a new arts and cultural district where galleries, shops, and artists’ studios are springing up. At right, public arts administrator Dawn Spyker shows a quilt made as a high school group art project to celebrate the Ohio, the great stream that unites as well as divides.

In our explorations of SoIN and Louisville, we found another kind of artistry at work. Not only are the chefs plating up beautiful servings of Southern-inspired cuisine, the bartenders are working the local spirits hard to nice effect. And one of the things we enjoy about the bars in these parts—the folks creating drinks usually go by the handle of “bartender.” It’s a reminder that “mixologists” mostly live east of the Allegheny.

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10 2017