In Portsmouth, wandering off the beaten path

is rewarded at Still, where tapas are served

with a 1920s twist.

By Tamzin B. Smith, May 2011

Finding a good restaurant within walking distance of the water is hardly a challenge in Virginia’s Tidewater area, and the city of Portsmouth is no exception. But when my old friend and gastronomic scout Steve Johnson told me I must try Still restaurant, I knew I was in for a treat. I was in the area with another friend on a very cold day in early December--the kind of day where you want to hole up somewhere cozy and warm your insides with comfort food. Still’s tag line, “Worldly Eclectic Tapas,” doesn’t exactly say comfort food, but the food was as comforting as the digs were cozy.

Located in the basement of an 18th-century brick building on Court Street, Still can easily be overlooked if you aren’t looking for it. Intended to mimic a 1920s speakeasy, the entrance is on the side of the building, marked only by a dark awning bearing Still’s logo. The heavy wood door even has a small window with a sliding wood panel--though no secret password is needed. Step in and down a few steps, and you pass into a romantically dim, low-ceiling space, divided into several intimate areas, including a bar, two casual dining/gathering areas, and three more formal dining rooms--all decorated in warm, earthy spice tones and wood.

After ordering cocktails, we were seated in the main dining area and left to peruse the menu, which is divided into four main sections: Foreshots, Middle Cuts, Feints and Angel’s Share (terms borrowed from the process of distilling spirits--hence the name “Still”). The first two sections are basically tapas, but only in the sense that they are “small plates;” the third is mostly vegetable sides; the last is desserts. We ordered four items from each of the first two sections and three desserts, in some cases taking our waitress’s suggestions, in others venturing off on our own.

Of the Foreshots, the 60-minute onion was our favorite. Stuffed with gruyere and Surry sausage, and accompanied by French bread toast, the combination of sweet-nutty-smoky was pure comfort--and it was an unfairly long yardstick against which to measure the other three dishes. The recommended bacon-wrapped tater tots with chili ketchup were a nice twist on a childhood favorite, and also satisfying. The mac and cheese--always my go-to comfort food--was overpowered by the smoky tomato sauce, but the Oysters Bingo was quite nice, with a pleasingly crispy crust and tangy sauce.

We fared a bit better in the Middle Cuts, with two dishes really shining. The sautéed gnocchi was outstanding, with caramelized onions and roasted butternut squash tossed with sage demi glace. The pork tenderloin was also a crowd-pleaser, glazed with a bourbon-cherry-barbecue and served over goat cheese polenta. The cardamom seared duck breast was perfectly cooked, but we thought the accompanying sauce could have been less sweet--a dash of salt set it right. And our bronzed sea scallops were also expertly cooked--succulent with a golden seared crust.

On to desserts! I’m a huge fan of bread pudding, and though I was warned that Still’s was a bit unconventional, I was not deterred. Rather than cubes of bread baked in custard, the bread was blended smooth and scooped like mashed potatoes, then baked. The classic flavors and sauce were all there and the presentation was stunning. I cleaned my plate, but I admit I didn’t love the texture. The coffee and doughnuts were really fun--doughnut balls with a thick, dark crust and a creamy interior, classically combined with a small cup of espresso for dipping. A small scoop of hazelnut gelato was a final treat, washed down with excellent coffee.

The young chef, Mike Farrell, certainly has a flare for the eclectic, an eye for presentation, and loads of talent, all coming together to offer a dining experience I’ll not soon forget. Maybe Steve would like a house guest this weekend. . . I could use some comfort food.

Still is located at 450 Court Street in Portsmouth, Va., just a few blocks from the ferry landings. It is open daily for lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch. Small plates $4–$12. 757-332-7222;

[5.11 issue]