Giles Coren recently reviewed Portland, Great Portland Street’s new culinary adornment. So wonderful was his experience that he claimed it to be “a perfect restaurant”. I tweeted this on my way to dinner there, only to have him sardonically (and mistakenly) reply that I had misquoted by using the definite article rather than the indefinite. His keen eye for detail may have been put to better use in his restaurant critique – “perfect”, with or without the definite article, is not a term to be so liberally bandied about.
A gust of ice cold breeze swilled around the intimately sized room as the door shut behind us. We found ourselves in a space of clean lines, bare wooden tables, suspended chrome lights, white walls and a voguish open kitchen with jars of things being pickled bordering its front. The friendly waitress showed us to our table and bestowed both sparking and still water in glass jars upon the table, on the house – no money leeching here. The modern European menu consists of lists of fashionable Japanese/foraged ingredients with names fun to roll around in your mouth like ‘ventricina’, ‘enoki’, ‘sriracha, and ‘culaccia’. Indeed, while we were reading some of them out loud, the waitress standing some distance from our table leapt across the room to explain to us what they were. She was almost worryingly attentive, but still charming – and nowhere near as intrusive as the service I experienced at Hakkasan a few months ago: I’ve been informed that my voice is like a foghorn, but this does not excuse the fact that the waitress ran across the room’s expanse to answer a question I had discreetly directed to my friend regarding the different sauces. There must be microphones under the tables - I was on edge for the remainder of the evening.
Bread and butter arrived. The butter, as the waitress gleefully announced, was lightly dusted with grated ox heart. Intrigued by the gory wood shavings, we showered the sourdough with them. Either the bread was too strong, or a rather more generous helping was necessary, as the heart provided only the slightest murmur of saltiness – which may, even then, only have been the salt in the butter itself.
Always curious to test a restaurant’s aptitude for preparing vegetarian cuisine, and with a pig-like keenness for truffles, I ordered the salsify with 36-month Comté and spring truffle. The vegetable was soft, with a slightly chewy texture, which reminded me of the traditional South African koeksisters I first enjoyed when I was three. Combined with the savoury perfume of the truffle and the salty delicate Comté the dish was excellent. My discerning dining companion gave his delicate foam-coated Roscoff onion and Cornish mussels with cider and brown butter a firm 10 out of 10.
His main, monkfish with ponzu and enoki, failed to live up to the starter despite the sensitive cooking of the fish. Instead, it was rather texturally challenged, the gelatinous ingredients stacked in slippery formation on the plate.
With my dining companion looking on with food envy, I revelled in the rich tender flesh of the venison I’d ordered and the caramelised sweetness of the accompanying parsnip. Although they did not detract from the excellence of the dish, the contribution of oats to the dish wasn’t significant, nor was it necessary.
Dessert ensued. Ever since my stint at Le Caprice I’ve longed for the citrus tang of yuzu. I salivated (metaphorically) as the elegant triangles of yuzu tart decked with cigarettes of green tea meringue made their way from the open kitchen to my table. It did not disappoint. The meringue, though delicate was an interesting and elegant addition, and the frozen yoghurt added a creaminess to the kick from the yuzu tart.
At this point I was beginning to feel myself slipping rather gormlessly into the haze of Giles Coren’s utopia. I needn’t have worried. It didn’t last. Within the ambrosial Elysium he had conjured up in his review, hairline cracks were beginning to show. They even began to establish themselves in the food. After the first few spoonfuls of his chocolate bar with peanut butter praline and peanut ice cream, my dining companion began to dig with greater purpose into the dessert. With tweezer like precision he honed in on the source of his suspicion and plucked out a 3.5 inch strand of something between the thickness of a human hair and an animal whisker. Unwilling to stir up a fuss he smeared it down on to the rim of his pate and pressed on.
At this point, mid-dessert and without any prior warning, the waitress rushed over to us and told us that we had to get up that very minute as the next guests for our table had arrived. I could see them out of the corner of my eye peeling off their coats and inching their way round the restaurant to assert themselves over what was apparently no longer our table. We were told that we could sit at the bar, a row of five bar stools lined up against the glass window. We slunk over, but every stool was taken. Clearly we still had some status in the pecking order as one of the waiters squeezed his way through the tables and removed a couple from their chairs who had yet to eat so that we could sit.
The waitress then arrived with my half eaten and melting pool of yoghurt and yuzu. The illusion was shattered further by the location of our new position right next to the door. Gusts of bone-chilling wind swept into the room whenever the door opened. Huddled in our coats next to the exit we no longer felt welcome. Two truffles arrived with the bill, a nice touch apart from the fact that they were decidedly average: the shell was factory-made, and the caramel filling leaked out of the pre-made hole on to the plate.
Whether Portland is “a perfect restaurant” as asserted by Giles Coren, or “the perfect restaurant” is irrelevant. Whilst much of the food is excellent, a few too many hairline fractures appeared over the course of the meal for the restaurant even to near an exemplum of restaurant utopia. The appearance of a hair, too, was somewhat less than perfect, and not all that appealing.
Suitable for: business lunch, friends, family, casual dates