London's Portland Restaurant Mixes Rustic Dishes, Rollicking Wines
Many restaurants open with a splash. It's Champagne usually—Prosecco if the party is thrown by an Italian or a cheapskate.
Portland snuck under the radar last month when it opened on Great Portland Street, in central London. If any corks popped, I didn't hear them. No publicists were employed.
This informal British restaurant, housed in a former clothing showroom, is self-effacing to the point of near-invisibility. The decor is understated and the prices are modest. Even the cooking isn't show-off: The finest dish is a pie.
The game pithivier, for two people at £19 ($29.37) per person, is the most expensive item on the menu. The crust is soft and buttery, without being soggy or cloying. The meat is so rich and powerful, it would go to Davos each year if it were human.
But then we would be cannibals for eating it, so let's park that image to one side.
The filling varies. When I tried it, strips of pigeon meat formed a layer over whole mallard breasts, providing a contrast of textures and colors and mouthfuls of almost melting flesh. Game sauce—a reduction made with birdy bones—just takes the flavor deeper, as does some black truffle, resulting in one of those moments when conversation stops because you are using your tongue to taste rather than to talk. The sensation is dark and smoky, a smoldering fuse of flavor.
The menu starts with snacks, including pig's head croquettes—crispy, unctuous, and oozily seductive—which are served with a kimchi mayonnaise. The acidity of the dip whips the balance of crisp and fatty flavors into line. This is rustic food that has an urbane, almost cosmopolitan edge.
Pickled shitake mushrooms come with soy and ginger. Did I say this was a British restaurant? We're all multicultural now, with the exception of the occasional Chelsea soccer fan in Paris.
White onion and parmesan soup is a vegetarian flavor hit, as is the potato gnocchi, served with pumpkin and kale pesto. Blood sausage, a gooey boudin noir, bashes your taste buds and then wallops them with red onion.
And the smoked ox tongue sandwich? I'd say it speaks for itself, if that weren't a troubling thought. Let's say it is like a big pastrami treat with sauerkraut and grainy mustard between slabs of first-class sourdough.
The desserts are fine, though I rarely get excited about desserts. The lemon tart successfully walks the line between sweet and sharp without wobbling. It is topped with meringue as well as tarragon, a classic combination for a taste of the Mediterranean.
The chef, Merlin Labron-Johnson, comes from Devon, in the west of England. He worked at restaurants in Switzerland and France before spending two years at In de Wulf, in Heuvelland, Belgium, which holds a Michelin star.
His dishes are clean and unfussy, with typically just a few ingredients. The presentation is similarly well-judged and uncluttered.
It's the wine list that makes Portland a slam-dunk for me. A rollicking good time is assured, unless you are depressed.
Although it is short, there are several treats, including ""En Chalasse" Julien Labet 2012, a Chardonnay from Jura that is subtle and lemony. While it's not cheap, at £57, it is available by the glass (at £11) if you are on a budget. The reserve list is even more tempting. The Wood Road Zinfandel, Ravenswood, Sonoma 1996 (£69) is more than worth the price, though I think I have finished it, so good luck.
The owners are youthful industry veterans. Will Lander co-owns the Quality Chop House while Daniel Morgenthau is ex-10 Greek Street. One of the positives about Portland is that the menu and the wine list change almost daily, depending on what is available. It's that kind of place. You're not going to get signature dishes or fawning service. Think neighborhood restaurant and you should be fine. Look elsewhere for quote-unquote elevated gastronomy.
Portland may not bring a lot that is new to the table. It just fills it with things you want to eat and drink.
Portland is at 113 Great Portland Street, Fitzrovia, W1W 6QQ; +44-20-7436-3261 or portlandrestaurant.co.uk.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.