Although it's only August, 2015 has already been an impressive year for new restaurant openings. While high-profile new arrivals from big names like Clark/Cooper Concepts' SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and Randy Rucker's Bramble have certainly made a splash this summer, a restaurant that opened in January may wind up being the year's best addition.
That restaurant is Oporto Fooding House & Wine, the latest concept from chef/owners Shiva and Rick Di Virgilio (Oporto Cafe, The Queen Vic).
So far, the concept has earned raves from diners and critics alike.
An evolution of the popular Greenway Plaza tapas bar that expands upon the original location's mix of Portuguese-inspired small plates with more diverse fare, the new Oporto has been among the vanguard of concepts transforming Midtown into a neighborhood that's known as much for dining as drinking. So far, the concept has earned raves from diners and critics alike, including a selection as May's "Pat's Pick" by Texas Monthly critic Patricia Sharpe.
"It’s going very well," Rick Di Virgilio tells CultureMap of his first six-plus months in business. "Steadily increasing, and the numbers are very good. We have a ton of regulars already. The neighborhood has really embraced us."
New beverage director
When Oporto's opening sommelier Farah Khairi returned to France, Di Virgilio initially intended to run the beverage program himself, at least for awhile. "Unless something comes along that is very special," he says. "A few months later something special came along, and I took it."
That something, or perhaps someone, is Samantha Porter, who Di Virgilio has hired to be Rishi Hospitality's beverage director. After stints at both Coppa Ristorante and 13 Celsius, Porter rose to prominence in 2013 for her innovative, Italian-oriented list at Osteria Mazzantini.
"Rick and I talked about it; once you get it in your blood, working in a restaurant, it’s hard to get rid of."
Since leaving Mazzantini in 2014, she has been working for wine distributor Dionysus Imports and expanded her knowledge of cocktails with a brief stint behind the bar at Beaver's. As beverage director, Porter will have a hand in shaping the beer, wine and cocktail offerings of all three Rishi establishments.
Di Virgilio says that he wasn't very familiar with Porter when she sat down for an interview, but they quickly established a rapport once he detected the energy she could bring to his restaurants.
"We had the same standards. We had the same kind of vision, so to speak," he says. "(Beverage director) is a position we’ve never had before. It’s a new experience for us . . . I want to invest in young people to take our program and build on it and make it stronger as we grow."
Porter says she appreciated her time on the distribution side because it afforded her the opportunity both to travel abroad and to see wine lists from across the city, but she's happy to be back in restaurants.
"Rick and I talked about it; once you get it in your blood, working in a restaurant, it’s hard to get rid of. The high-energy, working with people and having the pleasure of interacting with customers face to face to serve that product. Having your staff succeed with a program that you helped put together is really rewarding, and it’s something I missed."
The Queen's fifth anniversary
For now, diners can find Porter at The Queen Vic, which is preparing to celebrate its five year anniversary in September with a series of specials. "Being in business for five years is something I’m pretty proud of," Di Virgilio says. "People who haven’t been in awhile, we want to get them back in the door and show them we’re still working hard."
Porter plans to add well-regarded ciders from Eric Bordelet to pair with the restaurant's Friday night piri-piri fried chicken special.
Porter will contribute by updating the restaurant's cocktail menu, helping to train the staff and introducing new options that enhance its reputation as a destination for craft beer and cocktails. For example, Porter plans to add well-regarded ciders from Eric Bordelet to pair with the restaurant's Friday night piri-piri fried chicken special.
"At Queen Vic, it’s not a place a lot of people go to for wine. Putting together a really small, precise list that’s eclectic and unique and really pairs with the food is kind of our goal," she says. "I think having a focused list will draw a crowd, just because of the unique selections and the staff training that will go along with that to aid the guests in finding the perfect wine for their food."
Asked for any final thoughts, Di Virgilio expresses his enthusiasm for Porter's potential.
"She’s restored my faith in people and managers. To have someone come in here and have that work ethic, it’s really refreshing. It’s not easy to find. With so many restaurants, staffing is always a struggle."