Portland opened in January and is now one of London’s hottest restaurants, getting a 10/10 from Giles Coren in The Times and 5 stars from Time Out; Marina O’Loughin of the Guardian is “smitten” with the place and on my visit AA Gill was eating at an adjacent table. It has been set up by Daniel Morgenthau (previously of 10 Greek Street) and Will Lander. Lander has good pedigree – he founded the Quality Chop House and is the son of the FT’s restaurant critic Nicolas Lander. The head chef is the impressively named Merlin Labron-Johnson who moved to Portland after two years as sous chef at a funky Belgian Michelin starred restaurant called In de Wulf. The restaurant is in a long, thin room topped by an open kitchen and adorned with minimal artwork and furnishings – it has lots of hard surfaces so is a bit noisy (but not in an intrusive way). They offer the same a la carte menu (4 choices for each course) at both lunch and dinner, and pricing is very reasonable given the quality of Labron-Johnson’s cooking, with starters at £6-11 and mains up to £20.
I started with roasted scallops and artichoke velouté (£12) which was truly wonderful – the scallops had been cooked perfectly so they were soft, silky yet still firm and the rich, light velouté was packed with deep earthy notes. The velouté was sprinkled with little artichoke crisps which lended texture and body to the dish. We also had a simple mackerel and oyster tartare with beetroot and a hint of wasabi (£11), this was well composed so that the mackerel and oyster stood out clearly, although I would have preferred the wasabi to be slightly stronger.
For main course we had wood pigeon with enoki mushrooms, parsley and smoked onion tea (£19). The cooking of the pigeon was faultless – the breast was tender and full of gamey flavour, the leg was served whole and looked great on the plate: the leg meat was delicious although there wasn’t a great amount of it. The enoki mushrooms (normally used in Japanese cooking) were doused in meat stock and their delicate flavour countered the pigeon very well. I was disappointed with the parsnips which were slightly underdone – I would have liked them to be finished in the oven and nicely caramelised. I was slightly confused by the onion tea which tasted a bit like lukewarm bovril and seemed superfluous to the rest of the dish.
Our second main was fallow deer with Martin Sec pear and kale (£20) which was handsomely presented in a nouveau-rustic style. The deer loin was cooked wonderfully pink and it had a understated game hue, it combined nicely with the slightly sweet, almost floral flavours of the roasted pear. Kale added texture, crunch and a hint of bitterness to the mix. A well balanced and perfectly prepared dish.
We finished with a simple but truly memorable hazelnut eclair (£5) – a beautifully presented and executed pastry that was sweet but not sickly. The pastry was light and crispy – I totally agree with Lisa Markwell of the Independent who called it “the equal of the finest Parisienne pâtisserie”. And a final note on our service which was fantastic – friendly and attentive yet unobtrusive, we also had a nice chat with chef Merlin who let us sample some of his uncle’s homemade blackberry wine.
Verdict: Portland is deserving of all the attention and hype 9/10