Fancy on the cheap

The decor's nothing special, but the food's fine and the price's right.

PORTFOLIO RESTAURANT 2600 Alaskan Way, WATERFRONT/BELLTOWN 206-239-2363 lunch 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; dinner 6-7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri.

Portfolio Restaurant, run by students at the Art Institute’s culinary school, isn’t the most polished fine-dining experience you’ll ever have. Nor is it the most memorable, atmospherically speaking. In fact, this little-known dining room, hidden (literally) in an unmarked fifth-floor room at the Art Institute of Seattle’s gray stone bunker on Alaskan Way, is unabashedly charmless. There is so much mauve—walls, chairs, filmy lighting—you almost feel like you wandered into a Holiday Inn lobby circa 1987. But the view of Elliott Bay is gorgeous, and the dining area is quiet and low-key. Until the waiter arrives.

Student waiters are impeccably mannered. They’re also rather nervous—wouldn’t you be?—and eager to please. Ours was, in fact, almost obsequious in his attentiveness to our every need, apologizing repeatedly (for what I still don’t know) and fluttering around our table like a dragonfly.

Choosing what to eat was, thankfully, simple: six starters, four entr饳, and a very moderately priced list of mostly West Coast wines. The food, all lovely in appearance (as befits students at a design school), ranged from serviceable to sublime. Somewhere in the middle was a somewhat crunchy mulligatawny soup ($3), which came topped with an artsy swirl of spicy yogurt but bare of the promised curried apple chips. The plainly titled butter lettuce salad ($4) was a delicate head of baby lettuce, drizzled with a thin coating of richly sweet honey-truffle dressing, toasted almonds, and thumb-sized lumps of ch趲e with the texture of butter-cream frosting. The pork loin ($18), that night’s special, came topped with a just-sweet pile of braised red cabbage and still-crisp baked apple that far outclassed the overcooked, underspiced meat. But the pan-roasted steelhead trout ($19) was a stunner: Served on a bed of spinach and a ragout of (again somewhat crunchy) white beans, the fish was nicely medium rare and glazed with a tangy fennel sauce. An otherwise fine dessert of delicately poached pears, figs, and quinces (with more of the same sweet ch趲e on the side) lacked figs due to a shortage in the kitchen, which may be why the plate seemed a bit empty for a $5 dessert.

The best part? Portfolio is, by fancy restaurant standards, an astonishingly cheap date. A bottle of Oregon pinot noir, soup, salad, two entr饳 and dessert set us back just over $60. The secret: No tipping allowed. And, since they’re students, you don’t have to feel bad. It’s educational.