Portland – Great Portland Street
Posted on February 10, 2015
It’s Friday lunchtime and Portland is packed. It’s been this way for the three and a half weeks since opening the waitress tells me, due, in part, to a five-star review from Timeout’s Richard Ehrlich who deemed the latest restaurant from Will Lander and Dan Mortengau of the Quality Chop House and 10 Greek Street respectively, a place of pure ‘astonishment’.
The upside of this is that, surely, I was in for a treat. The downside: I’m left tableless, perched on a stool with the glass fronting inches from my nose, my back to the restaurant, looking out on a rather unremarkable stretch of Great Portland Street and equally visible myself to the scrutiny of Fitzrovia’s lunchtime rush. I was in a culinary vivarium, a gallery exhibit of animate modern art entitled something along the lines of ‘Man Lunching Alone’. I seemed to be attracting as much interest as The Louvre’s Salle des Etats.
But it’s no wonder that eyes are drawn into this striking addition to an otherwise tired road, too far north of Oxford Street to be disturbed by lost shoppers and one with few other eateries of any quality – there’s Villandry and Nandos somewhere nearby. From the outside it’s sophisticated and inviting, smart but casual if such description extends beyond dress code, and inside it’s similar – think Pollen Street Social without the suits or linen. Exposed round bulbs hang from the ceiling with coiled filaments aglow; schoolroom wooden furniture is used with austere trendiness and sharpened by elegant tableware. The open kitchen adds spectacle, shelves of pickling vegetables and pretty plates some much needed colour and expectant diners drool and passers by peer, pressed up against the glass like Charlie Bucket to see what all the fuss is about.
But on my visit, Chef Merlin Labron-Johnson’s food fell short of the wizardry Timeout, and the Willy Wonka-like fascination had lead me to believe. Having said that, it started well. A canapé-sized croquette of pig’s head was extraordinarily crisp, its interior a piggy fondant of fatty slow-cooked meat. Served on a blob of kimchi mayonnaise with some mandolined pickled radish it was a £2 morsel of face-melting quality. The starter proper – new season leeks, smoked scallop roe and ash – wasn’t as good. Limp baby leeks the size of scallions criss-crossed the plate in wilted despondency, too small to deliver enough allium sweetness and perhaps too dainty to clean properly – I was left with grit in my teeth. The roe was nice, thick like taramasalata and subtly smoked, quite lovely with the bread and its unusual whey butter that was light like a mousse.
The game pithivier heralded by Marina O’Loughlin as ‘a pie of wonder, an über pie’, with its black truffle and game sauce looked and sounded as good as her description. Sadly it was meant for two, so I was left with a rather uninspiring selection of main courses and opted for pigeon that arrived in exploded view, the bird dotted around the wide-lipped bowl in an exhibition of diminuative butchery. The breasts, portioned into four pieces, were cooked as rare as pink blood diamonds; deep and gamey in flavour they were excellent although the legs, feet and all, were tough and meager. The rest of the dish was rather indifferent; the mushrooms were reasonable, the pearl barely bland, the game smoked tea insipid, faintly acrid and tasting of brown. Yet the side dish was a triumph. Large florets of cauliflower were simply roasted until butter-soft, their heads slightly scorched and heavily scented with thyme. It was the dish of the day.
It was a meal of allsorts – some lovely, some not – but nothing launched me into the echelons of astonishment. That’s a huge achievement for food, one that perhaps only an über pie can manage. I’ll have to come back in tandem for that.