Classic Italian meets a burst of diversity at the great kills standout, portobello Cafe.
With its eclectic cuisine, abundant plates of stuffed pork mignon, pan-seared pistachio-crusted tuna and wild mushroom strudel appetizers, Portobello Cafe’s detailed menu breaks almost every rule of culinary etiquette—even before patrons can turn to page two.
“It should only take about 30 seconds to read a menu, front to back,” noted Adam Lener, CEO and executive chef of the Great Kills establishment which specializes in a range of Italian, French, Asian, and American fare.
“But we have 44 entrees on our menu,” Lener continued. “So I guess you can say we break those rules a bit. I’ve seen customers struggle for almost 30 minutes because they’re absolutely stumped about what to order.”
But stumping the customer isn’t what Lener is after. Instead, his diverse, all-over-the-map type of cookery is inspired by a desire to satisfy every type of craving imaginable while completely reinventing whatever “traditional” is supposed to be.
“Trendy hotspots come and go,” Lener said. “And while we strive to offer our customers that ‘hotspot’ type of atmosphere, we always make sure that our focus is on quantity, quality, and affordability.” All are important factors for Lener, who is a self-described “neighborhood player.”
“I’m a neighborhood guy, so I know what my demographic is,” Lener said. “Staten Island is made up of predominantly teachers, firefighters, cops, and other median-income families. I’m not chasing the 20- and 30-year-olds with expendable incomes. We’re more about stability. If we can offer great food at a great price, customers will return. And that’s our role on the Staten Island restaurant landscape—providing a range of quality, extremely fresh dishes at an affordable price.”
That’s why much of Portobello’s focus and popularity is based around specials: The restaurant offers a buy-one-get-one deal Monday through Thursday and a weekend chef’s tasting menu every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, in which $74.95 buys dinner for two (appetizers, wine, coffee, and dessert). And when it comes to the special, prix fixe menu, there’s no chintzing on portions, Lener said. Appetizer specials are slightly smaller than the full menu fare, but entrees are always full size.
“It’s very important to me that customers walk away stuffed, with food to go,” Lener said. “When you go out to eat, who wants to throw $200 down and walk away hungry or unsatisfied? Other restaurant owners don’t want to offer big specials to their customers because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re offering a discounted product. But in my mind, if you take pride in what you do and consistently offer a quality meal at a great price, customers will appreciate that.”
And Lener should know. The Canarsie native grew up on welfare before earning his keep in the kitchens of some of the city’s finest Italian eateries and eventually carving a name for himself on Staten Island’s restaurant scene. He started working in the industry more than 20 years ago, washing pots in an Eltingville pizzeria called Miami Slice. After years of laboring, learning, and training in all kinds of restaurant positions, he attended the Culinary Institute of America and graduated in 1995. He officially became a true food entrepreneur more than 14 years ago when he opened a brick-oven pizzeria called John-John’s in his current location.
“When we first opened, I would literally take the orders, go in the back, make the pies and then hop in my car to deliver,” Lener said. “There was a lot of hustling involved to get to the position where we are today.”
And once Portobello Café made its debut, years of trial and error commenced.
“In the restaurant business, you constantly need to reinvent yourself,” Lener said. “You have to overhaul your menu, renovate the restaurant’s décor and constantly make changes every few years. We recently revamped our outdoor garden, are consistently changing our artwork in the dining room, and always make new additions to the menu whenever we can.”
And with a nine-man brigade manning the kitchen and restaurant floor, Lener no longer has to cook the food and personally make the deliveries for his off-premise catering company, Cremini Caterers…but he does.
“I’m still driving the delivery truck,” he said. “Not all the time, but because I believe in personal attention, I think people appreciate it when the chef shows up at their affair.”
Lener also spends a good portion of his time donating food and assistance to local charities: Each year he cooks food for the Light the Night leukemia walk, several area Muscular Dystrophy and Heart Association events and the Great Kills Memorial Day parade.
But the restaurant owner is most definitely focused on bringing a mix of offbeat food (including four varieties of calamari, chicken fingers breaded in Captain Crunch cereal, and an unrivaled white clam sauce) to Staten Island’s South Shore.
“Our signature dish might simply be our basic chicken parm,” Lener concluded. “It’s basic, but made with very fresh, quality ingredients, so it’s a big seller. But customers also love our roasted chicken stuffed with smoked mozzarella and andouille sausage, served over risotto in a saffron cream sauce. And the Thai martini shrimp served with a sweet chili sauce is by far one of our most popular appetizers. But that’s the great thing about our menu. There’s definitely something for everyone.”
Even if it does break all the rules.Portobello Cafe 4221 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10309 718.356.2233