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It's nearing the end of the semester at The Art Institute of Seattle , so the art department's whisked away the student works which previously

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Portfolio Offers Downtown's Best Dining Deal

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It's nearing the end of the semester at The Art Institute of Seattle, so the art department's whisked away the student works which previously lined the walls of Portfolio, the culinary school's student-run restaurant. And there wasn't any music playing at a recent wine dinner, because a broken CD player can't be replaced until next semester's budget kicks in. But there was no excuse for the empty seats, which really ought to filled by discerning diners every Friday night.

I was invited to Portfolio because we're collaborating with Art Institute students to weekly publish a recipe inspired by Top Chef's winning dishes. So while I paid my own way, I wasn't anonymous: Even if I wasn't a guest, I suspect anonymity would have been tough in a room with only four tables taken.

Portfolio's been in business for 11 years, so - despite the holiday slump I witnessed -- plenty of local diners are hip to the incredible deal it offers. A three-course dinner is $23, and tips aren't accepted. Even better, the fifth-floor restaurant on Alaskan Way overlooks Elliott Bay, which means diners get a tremendous view, trendy dishes and a white tablecloth for just $2 more than nearby Aqua by El Gaucho charges for its crab cocktail appetizer. That's a figure which jives with most working folks' eating-out budgets. One of the nicest things about dining at Portfolio was sharing the room with eaters who represented a very different demographic than I see represented at most Belltown restaurants.

It's not unusual for culinary schools to open restaurants where their senior students can apply their newly-gained cooking skills and learn how to handle the front of the house, but many such restaurants only open for lunch. Despite the slightly institutional carpeting and chairs, Portfolio is a significantly more elegant operation.

"They do onion soup and sandwiches," general manager and sommelier Dieter Schafer says of schools which content themselves with daytime cafes. "It's good we do it the proper way."

Schafer joined the Art Institute faculty in 1996, after serving as maitre d'hotel at The Rainier Club, a position he later held at Mistral. Schafer shares responsibility for Portfolio with chef instructor Lauren Thompson, who worked at Lark and Cafe Juanita before taking the Art Institute job last year.

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Portfolio's menu changes with the seasons, but items on Friday's a la carte menu included roasted sunchokes with winter greens, crispy speck and pecorino; grilled quail with house bacon and braised lamb ravioli. My preset wine dinner menu included an appealingly smoky sable crostini; a hearty mushroom risotto that was an excellent antidote to the evening's rainy weather and a tender milk-braised pork shoulder with flat-out terrific duck fat potatoes. Schafer was pouring a pair of reds from Willis Hall and a Syrah from Covington Cellars, which gave us an excuse to discuss whether there's a distinctive style associated with veterans of the Boeing Wine Club.

Schafer was a great conversation partner, and his reverence for the guest experience clearly informs his lessons: The student servers, while obviously new to the role, were attentive and polite. Schafer offers a $15 themed wine tasting session with hors d'oeurves on select Fridays from 5 p.m.-6 p.m; I bet it's a brilliant alternative to the standard happy hour.

This is the final week of service before Portfolio takes a holiday vacation, but the restaurant returns to its Wed.-Fri., 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m. schedule for another nine-week stand starting in January. Since there's only one seating, Schafer strongly recommends making reservations - and thinking carefully about the right dinner date.

"Come early," he says, referring to the equipment breakdowns that sometimes occur toward the end of the term. ""Of course, the disadvantage is if you come too early, the students don't know how to cook yet."

So time your visit accordingly. But don't miss dinner.

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