My first job after university was up between Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park, an area not known at that time, at least to me, as a haven for fine dining. Late last year I returned to Great Portland Street for an illuminating evening tasting the Bourgognes of Mark Haisma and the Pinots of Bodega Chacra at Picture restaurant. We were back in the same street on Tuesday with one of the attendees at that dinner to sample the new, and much lauded, Portland.
Portland’s pedigree comes from being under the same ownership as the excellent Quality Chop House on Farringdon Road, though the main similarities seem to be a good wine list and the necessity to get out at somewhere on the Central Line and head north.
Whereas QCH has the sort of old world charm suggesting it has not changed in many decades, Portland is bright and modern, fashionably bare light bulbs and pale wooden furniture.
(Airy, modern, with an open kitchen)
There’s a tasty snack selection to begin with, and a recommendation for the pickled shitake mushrooms was spot on, not wine friendly but deliciously intense. My starter was described as a salmon confit, but it was effectively salmon in a foam with greens. The greens were delicious, a theme at Portland it seems (and for vegetables in general). K and DS went for scallops, hand dived (of course!) with a Jerusalem artichoke purée.
(subtle mallard with a far eastern nod )
In a place where fresh ingredients and cooking what’s available are at the centre of what they do, the menu changes regularly. Looking on their web site today I see neither of the two starters we ate are listed, nor my particular main course of mallard (though mallard is there). The others went for the barley, mushroom miso, chestnut and truffle dish, which might be a Portland staple? I’m not always over enthusiastic about desserts, but the bitter chocolate with cep ice cream was excellent, a combination I’d never have thought would work so well.
(bitter chocolate with cep ice cream, aka Portland Mess, but really good)
Back to the wine list. It’s short but well formed, at least if you are fairly adventurous. There’s an interesting division into Textbook, Leftfield and Special. We typically went Leftfield and ordered Julien Labet’s “Les Varrons” Jura Chardonnay. I remember that one of the first Vin Jaunes I ever bought (after the ubiquitous Henri Maire Chateau-Chalon) came from Julien’s parents, Alain and Josie. That was a very long time ago and Julien is in charge of winemaking at the family domaine now, as well as making his own wines. This is a lovely wine, very much of its origin (Rotalier in the Sud-Revermont, south of Lons). Very complex, slightly exotic. The Portland wine list “on-line” actually suggests they have Labet’s “En Chalasse” Savagnin instead, an equally superb wine, but the Chardonnay went perfectly with my dishes.
Overall impressions here are very positive. The food is good, and inventive (as the large array of jars of pickled vegetables attest), and there is obvious ambition, as you’d expect from a chef called Merlin. The room is bright, and even seated near the open kitchen we were neither overwhelmed by its smells, nor by undue noise from the kitchen staff who work calmly. Copious quantities of water, still or sparkling, are poured without any specific charge, and service is added to the bill at 12.5%.
(Loo decoration! – a double mag of Cos is from 1950, which I understand may be a significant vintage for the mother of one of the owners?!)
Minor niggles were probably specific to our waitress who seemed not always to understand our requests – K asked for green tea, which was noted without comment, but what came was jasmine, although they changed it without question when the (unusual these days) lack of green tea was acknowledged. The food was served hot, but not my espresso. The rest of the staff we spoke to were very friendly and informative, especially in furnishing detailed information about the 16-seat private room downstairs.
The restaurant do say they may ask for the table back after two hours. I know the place is small and rents are high, yet what I call this English custom always grates a little, especially having spent a leisurely three-and-a-half hours, with three bottles of wine and digestifs, in Saint-Julien just a few days ago. Still, it meant we were home before ten o’clock, which has its plus points at the start of the week. It also meant not experiencing the very uncomfortable chairs for too long. I don’t think anyone tried dining on them before placing the order!
But the above are all minor points. I’d like to go back, for sure. Looking at today’s menu, the fallow deer, game pithivier and suckling pig are all making my late morning stomach rumble a little, and this meal was enough to suggest that there are dishes equally in need of sampling on the ever changing menu. But then I probably have a slightly stronger yearning to return to the Quality Chop House with that old world charm, for the very fine Berkshire pork along with those deliciously wicked confit potatoes, even though an evening up in Farringdon will mean a much later bed time.
Portland is at 113 Great Portland Street, London W1. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, the latter usefully from 6pm. Booking advised, though when we arrived on Tuesday evening some clients without a booking were able to find a table without difficulty. There’s a good web site, though the menu on the night may not exactly match the one you peruse in the morning, not a problem on our part.