Sometimes the things right under our noses are the ones we most often overlook: the steadfast adoration of the boy next door, the beauty of sunset from the backyard, or the exceptional flavors offered by the restaurant we’ve passed a million times in our own neighborhood.
The last time I crossed the threshold at 11 Main Street in Harwich, it was for a Big Beef Cheeseburger and a Happy Endings (sundae that is). Although the exterior may evoke memories of the previous tenant, the iconic New England chain Friendly’s, new ones are now firmly entrenched. Get rid of all your preconceived notions and walk through Viera’s door. What now exists in this space is as far removed from the chain restaurant mentality as you can imagine. Chef/owner Ben Porter’s emphasis is on using fresh ingredients to create memorable meals in a fully-scratch kitchen. Nowadays, everyone claims to be “farm-to-table” but Porter has fully embraced the concept with his commitment to the local farming and fishing communities.
Porter and his wife Angela (DaLuze) are what my mother would label “blades of grass.” Both were born and raised in Harwich where they first met in kindergarten. Although they had mutual classes throughout school, their relationship was more peripheral. After graduating from Harwich High in 1995, both left for college out of state. Porter enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI, where he majored in Hospitality and Management, and surprisingly, he never took a single culinary course. Angela attended East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. Post-college, Ben was hired by the Hyatt Hotel Corporation in California and then worked for some smaller, independent restaurants on the West Coast. He found himself gravitating to the culture of the kitchen, socializing more with the guys in the back of the house and being drawn into what was happening there.
The idea for a culinary career and a developing passion for food really didn’t take hold until later. He dabbled briefly in a career at the boatyard to satisfy his love for being on the water, and then in his late twenties, he was offered a job doing food prep at The Port in Harwichport. Ben accepted with the realization that his future lay in working in a professional kitchen. Thus began his rapid trajectory up the kitchen hierarchy and his immersion into “all the things food.” Porter now was focused on becoming an executive chef with the end goal of ultimately becoming chef/owner. He credits the fact that by starting his career later, he was already a “professional adult” with a strong work ethic and goals. Porter committed to showing up prepared to work hard and being eager to learn. His education continued at home where he mastered kitchen techniques and recipes through trial and error. Even today, he spends many hours poring over cookbooks and watching online videos.
After a brief interlude working kitchens in Boise, Idaho, Porter eventually returned to Cape Cod where he landed a job at the now defunct 902 Main Street in Yarmouth. To say he blossomed under the tutelage of his mentor, chef Gil Pepin, would be an understatement.
“This is where my eyes were really opened to making things from scratch and my whole culinary philosophy developed,” states Porter. “He is really the one who showed me everything, brought me up and helped fast track my career. He took me under his wing, and when he closed 902 Main and took the job as the executive chef at the Belfry Bistro in Sandwich, he took me along and gave me the position of sous chef, though technically I was probably not worthy of the title as I was underqualified.”
Pepin eventually left his position at Belfry but his replacement, Dan Kenney, retained Porter and educated him on the business skillset needed for running a successful kitchen. He taught Porter tricks for putting out good food fast and effectively managing food and labor costs. Storing all this knowledge, Ben felt prepared when the Glass Onion in Falmouth offered him a post as executive chef. Ben thought it was a great fit for his first role in this position, as the restaurant was smaller and more manageable. Owner Josh Christian and new chef Porter shared the same mission: to produce quality food from scratch. Though happy at the Glass Onion, Porter knew the move to a larger venue would financially enable him to reach his end goal sooner: to save as much money as possible and open his own restaurant.
Angela was also back on Cape Cod gaining valuable restaurant experience working as a server at Clancy’s. Ben and Angela reconnected over after-work cocktails at the Hot Stove Saloon in Harwichport, the hangout for the local industry crowd. Ben needed a date for a wedding. He asked, she accepted, and they have been together ever since. Prior to opening Viera, Angela spent five years as a server at the Ocean House in Dennisport where she absorbed the details of running the front of the house from owner Janet Barbato.
In April of 2014, less than a decade after Ben’s first kitchen job, the Porters, now married, opened Viera in their hometown of Harwich. Viera, the Portuguese word for scallop, is a tribute to both of their heritages: Angela is of Portuguese descent and Ben is the son of a scallop fishermen. “Angie’s dad was throwing out some Portuguese words and I just really liked the ringtone of the word viera. I could envision it in a particular font on a sign. I love cooking with scallops. I find they are so versatile and pair really well year round with a variety of seasonal ingredients,” says Porter. His knowledge of local boats gives him the inside track to source what is freshest.
“I don’t have much of a preference for what I work with, but I want whatever is beautiful and pristine. The seafood that comes directly here and stays here is what I like to work with. I don’t want what is shipped up to auction in Boston and then ends up back down here on the Cape. We do what we can to use the bounty that is local: shellfish, finfish and local lobster. These are all things that not only do we know which boat it was caught on, but how many days it’s been out of the water. With finfish it’s even more important to know how it’s been cared for, whether it sat out on the deck in the hot sun or was properly tended to. There is often a difference in the color and texture of the fish flesh from boat to boat. We work with people we trust,” says Porter.
When available, farm-raised shrimp are courtesy of E&T Farms in West Barnstable, and his main produce provider is farmer Jeff Deck of Not Enough Acres in Dennis. The meats sourced for Viera are hormone- and antibiotic-free and are carefully selected by the kitchen staff.
“We spent a lot of time trying the different products and seeing which purveyors’ meats have the best marbling and texture before we make a decision. We do this with everything we source. Our pastry chef, Kyle King, is equally as picky with the chocolate he uses,” says Porter. Essentially, everything is scratch made, including ice creams and sorbets. Transforming the space to meet their needs, Porter converted the giant freezer into a walk-in refrigerator. The former refrigerator is now an immaculate storage space. Porter explains, “We only need a small chest to store our ice cream. We don’t need a freezer for anything else.”
No longer able to ignore the buzz around town, I made an early fall dinner reservation at Viera. Angela Porter warms up the chilly night with the most dazzling of smiles as she leads us into a space that is both welcoming and cozy. An eight-seat bar and three high tops sit behind a half wall to the left of the entrance. The remainder of the room is occupied by a half dozen candlelit booths and freestanding tables that can accommodate about sixty guests. An open window allows a glimpse into the kitchen where chef Porter and sous chef Geoff Boehme create their masterpieces.
There are two stars at Viera: the cuisine and the top-notch staff. Our server, Antonella Fernandes, describes each menu item in depth and displays an incredible wealth of food knowledge. Here we truly had the best of both worlds: an incredible meal and the savviest server who enthusiastically states, “I find it’s a joy to serve beautiful food.” Bravo, Antonella! After responding to the question of how we prefer our meal to be paced (kudos again!!), we place ourselves in Antonella’s hands and allow her to guide us in the selection process. She explains that the menu is transitioning from summer into fall. Three times a year the menu is revamped. Porter explains, “Lobster is a huge hit in the summer, and although they are still beautiful in the fall, we don’t find the locals clambering for them.”
First up, we choose a simple starter of plump fresh oysters plucked from Cape Cod Bay by Viera server and oyster farmer, Lynne Fox...need I say more? We pair our perfect bivalves with a charcuterie board, and the back-of-the-house talent is immediately brought to the forefront. It included a tantalizing mixture of house-made options highlighting some truly labor-intensive techniques: chilled summer sausage, chicken and olive galantine (Porter had just perfected this skill two weeks prior to our visit), Berkshire pork pate wrapped in bacon, wonderful grainy house mustard, sweet fig jam, pickled blueberries, and hearty slices of cranberry walnut bread.
An unexpected sample from the kitchen arrives: a beautifully panseared, locally caught sea scallop atop a celeriac puree with a Thai basil citronette, just a hint of grapefruit and blood orange, garnished with a house-made duck prosciutto. Move over, scallops wrapped in bacon!
From our vantage point, we watch and marvel at how Porter and his sous-chef choreograph their movements, orbiting around each other seamlessly. Talking quietly, they speak in an abbreviated kitchen code as they plate meals.
The approval factor continues to climb with the arrival of entrees. Each dish is exquisite and showcases the talent of Porter and company. An artfully fanned 7X Ranch (mentor Gil Pepin currently is part of the 7X team) Wagyu beef skirt steak enhanced with a sumptuous black garlic aioli is one of the most flavorful pieces of beef I’ve ever tasted. The sides of subtlety smoked potatoes (courtesy of one of the smokers behind the building), a bright salsa verde, and grilled asparagus also delight. A seafood fettuccine is comprised of a bounty of E&T Farms shrimp, sea scallops and lobster over house made pasta. The “pork two ways” features a perfectly grilled pork loin and a luscious braised pork belly over Anson Mills’ rice spaetzle, cardamom carrot puree, bok choy, and more of that delicious grainy mustard. Duck breast was crispy skinned, perfectly rosy, savory and tender. The attention to detail and emphasis on fresh is apparent in every bite. It is hard to fathom that in under a decade, Porter has risen to this level of talent.
My dining companions, typically generous plate sharers, seem especially territorial with their selections. We enjoy a medium-bodied Albert Bichot Chablis as well as a Domaine Duclaux Chateauneuf-du- Pape decanted tableside by Antonella. There is a nice variety of reasonably-priced bottles as well as a few higher-end selections on a wine list chosen by Chef Porter to complement his cuisine.
“Wine tasting is probably the best perk of owning a restaurant. So much of it is stressful hard work, but tasting and selecting wines is the aspect that I really enjoy and find relaxing,” says Porter. They enjoy hosting wine dinners, like the one that recently featured the wines of Ken Forrester. Porter explains, “The staff here is well versed in offering pairings as needed.” And for those who enjoy a nicely crafted cocktail, my signature “figgin martini” (Kleiner fig vodka, Bully Boy vodka, white cranberry and a squeeze of fresh lemon) was expertly chilled and well balanced, not overly sweet.
Not ready to throw in the towel yet, we move on to dessert. It was hard to resist, after Antonella’s descriptions. We were also curious to see if the desserts, made by pastry chef Kyle King, were of the same caliber as the other courses. King, like Porter, was not classically trained for his role. Hired by Porter as a cold side line cook when Viera first opened, he brought his bread making expertise from the bakery of Pain d’Avignon. He has since expanded his repertoire into the sweet side of things. Largely self-taught, King has earned Porter’s complete trust in developing their desserts. “Each dessert list he has created has been even better than the previous one. He’s amazing,” states Porter. “I am all about the savory world while King has a great handle on both savory and sweet. We are both super passionate about what we do and together I think we are a great balance.”
Keeping with Porter’s scratch-kitchen philosophy, all dessert components are made in house. The only argument here was which was the best of King’s creations: the mini chocolate whoopie pie paired with a petite trifle layered with chocolate mousse, vanilla pastry cream, chocolate cookie crumble and fresh raspberries; the rich banana rum creme brulee adorned with a delicate tuile cookie; the carrot cake served with a swirl of decadent vanilla caramel and a scoop of honey ginger ice cream sprinkled with candied nuts; or perhaps the champagne-poached pears and shortbread cookie encircled by a sangria plum puree enhanced by a scoop of a surprisingly floral Sichuan peppercorn ice cream? All winners for sure, but the creamy flavor combinations of the house-made ice cream were particularly notable. My favorite was the chocolate chili—a rich fudgy start with nice heat at the end—with the scrumptious toasted almond coconut a close runner-up.
I have already begun plotting a return visit before they close for the season on December 31. Seasonal licensing allows Viera to remain open from April 1 until New Year’s Eve. This year, they found both of their “shoulder” seasons (spring and fall) to be stronger in comparison to previous ones. Though they joke that it would be easier to pull up stakes and operate in a less seasonally-driven environment, their roots are firmly entrenched in Harwich.
The Porters count their blessings: a home they built in town, two sons (Dreyden, 3 and Gage, 1), and a business that they will continue to grow together. In January, they will celebrate five years of marriage. They share an obvious love for one another that is a joy to behold. Three nights a week, Angela and Ben work together and Ben unabashedly admits, “These are my favorite nights here, when we are able to share this dream together.” Cheers to those like the Porters who know that the best things in life are often right in plain sight!
11 Route 28, Harwich
774-408-7492 / vieracapecod.com
Open Tuesday-Saturday at 5pm