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.
Further 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.
The 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
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.
One 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.