The Yellow Porch
734 Thompson Ln. 386-0260
Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Walking across the parking lot of The Yellow Porch restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice a woman standing alone in a fenced-in area adjacent to the small patio. As I got closer, I could see that she was in a small garden. Flowers lined the exterior of the fence; tomato and pepper plants were still in early stages of growth, but rosemary, basil, thyme, chives, cilantro, mint, and oregano were ready for snipping. And that is just what she was doing as I walked in the door.
The Yellow Porch’s little garden is the most obvious sign of the restaurant’s commitment to fresh ingredients, but not the only one. As I later discovered, the woman picking the herbs was Katie Nelson, who, with her husband, Gep, owns The Yellow Porch. The couple also owns Wild Iris, a gem of a restaurant in Brentwood. Until recently, Gep Nelson also owned a business that delivered organically grown produce to homes and commercial customers.
Late last year, I heard that Katie Nelson had lured Martha Stamps out of semi-retirement to head the Wild Iris kitchen. Stamps is well-known within food circles for her many years in the kitchen of Corner Market, as well as her 1997 New Southern Basics cookbook and two others in a series called The Southern Seasons. (Stamps has also written food columns for the Scene.) Stamps left Corner Market a year ago to work at a local advertising agency, an arrangement that she now sayswith a self-deprecating laughwas not a good fit.
These factors gave The Yellow Porch sound culinary credibility even before it opened a month ago. Located in the building across from 100 Oaks Mall that was formerly occupied by Cafe Bambino, Stamps says Katie first took her to see the space in January; at the time, Stamps had just found out she was pregnant with her second child. Maybe it was the raging hormones, but Stamps found herself agreeing to do a menu and get the kitchen running when the restaurant opened.
The closing of Cafe Bambino in 1998 was particularly mourned by parents of small children. After all, the restaurant’s identity was as a kid-friendly space with good food for grown-ups and toddlers alike. The site of the little playground is now the location of the garden; the chalkboard and Legos area has been given over to two tables. As far as the menu itself, unless your children have very sophisticated tastes, they will not find much to their liking at The Yellow Porch.
On the other hand, if you have to wait for a table, you can now do so with a beer or a glass of wine at the bar; alcoholic beverages were not available at Cafe Bambino. The lights are a little dimmer in the evening; linen napkins have replaced paper ones; and food is served on eclectic pieces of china.
Both in her cookbooks and in her conversation, Stamps reveals a commitment to season and region, and her food is an unabashed expression of her joy of cooking. She allows flavors to assert their individuality and resists overloading the plate and the palate with too much fuss.
The Yellow Porch menu is more adventuresome than Brentwood’s Wild Iris, and no doubt seeks to attract more adventuresome diners. “These are my favorite foods,” Stamps says. “I didn’t intentionally set out to do Asian, though there’s a lot of that on the menu, along with some Mediterranean. I think that’s more a reflection of the season, though, and will change when the weather changes.”
The salad roll, served with a pile of peanut noodles, is large enough for two to share as a dinner appetizer, or it makes a nice lunch for one. Rice paper is wrapped around crisp stalks of asparagus, carrot, cucumber, cellophane noodles, cilantro, and basil leaves. Another starter presents several of the same vegetables, marinated and fanned around a mound of saffron-steamed couscous, studded with slivered almonds and dried fruits.
For a pizza appetizer, a crisp flatbread is smeared with fresh pesto, then topped with several seared jumbo shrimp and kalamata olives. A plate of baby spinach makes a refreshing salad with melon balls and feta cheese. Iceberg lettuce seems to be making a comeback in local restaurants; here the chilled wedge is Fauconized with bacon bits and hard-boiled egg. The Tuscan white bean spread accompanied by toasted bread rounds was a little bland.
The menu lists just seven entrees, but daily specials posted on the board increase your options. Of the former, standouts were the two spicy stir-fried noodle dishesone with pork, black beans, and Japanese eggplant, and the other with shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, and cubed tofu. Another favorite was the succulent curried shrimp served in a creamy sauce over split-pea cakessplit green peas mashed with cumin and cilantro. A handful of barely-blanched green peas strewn on the plate lent a nice textural balance.
A huge phyllo turnover can be filled with either ratatouille or curried ground lamb and peas; for just $1 more, I’d choose the lamb every time. Creamy polenta triangles are smothered in a fresh marinara and artichoke sauce. A fat Reuben sandwich is served with new potato salad. Disappointing on two different trials was the spiced roast chicken, which was overcooked and under-seasoned.
Stamps seems to love beets, garnishing nearly every plate with large rounds of the root vegetable. I am not normally turned off by opposing food groups coming in close personal contact with one anotherwith the exception of beets. If you share my aversion, ask your server to hold the beets.
Desserts made in-house are available, and the restaurant offers a small but serviceable wine list, along with domestic, imported, and boutique beers. Prices at The Yellow Porch are surprisingly moderate, with dinner entrees ranging from $7.95 to $13.95.
There was an error in last week's "Food" story. The Indian food counter in the Arcade is in fact owned and operated by 4th Avenue Deli, though it uses the kitchen facilities of Taj Mahal Restaurant.