Portland restaurant in London has gone from nought to full speed in just four months. Jennifer Sharp went to visit
Portland has been an immediate success since it opened on 10 January and, reassuringly, without a self-conscious theme, celebrity hype, or Twitter hysteria. It offers fresh, original cooking, a simple but classy interior and a pleasingly collaborative approach between owners, chefs and front of house. It feels very modern and just right for London now.
Co-owners Daniel Morgenthau and Will Lander were at school together and spent time in jobs they didn't especially like before joining forces for Portland. Their previous experience in business and banking supplied invaluable skills for setting up a restaurant and they have enjoyed every second, from securing the site, finance and defining the philosophy of Portland to recruiting the team.
The chef is Merlin Labron-Johnson, who started at the Elephant in Torquay, followed by a stage at Gidleigh Park and then a longer more productive period with Michael Caines at the Royal Clarence in Exeter. Keen to learn French, he went to Switzerland and France, working in one- and two-Michelin-starred places before taking on the role of sous chef at the cult Belgian restaurant In De Wulf.
"It's in the middle of nowhere," says Labron-Johnson "but it draws foodies from all over the world." In De Wulf serves 20-course menus that are chiefly vegetarian, with an emphasis on foraging, pickling and fermenting. These influences are clearly visible in the menu at Portland where Labron-Johnson has devised a flexible menu of snacks, starters and mains using vegetables with great respect and imagination. Leeks are served with garlic and yogurt (£5), salsify with 36-month-old Comté and spring truffle (£10), and barley, mushroom miso, chestnut and truffle (£14). Sides include Little Gem with breakfast radish, fennel and sour cream; crispy potato millefeuille with kimchi mayonnaise; and turnips and tops with shallots and oyster sauce (all £4).
Alongside the delicious and complimentary artisan bread, there's whipped whey butter with savoury shavings of dried beef heart, tasty charcuterie (£7 or £8), tartare of beef with anchovy mayo, grated yolk and bonito (£7.50) and teriyaki quail with fermented daikon (£9). Labron-Johnson serves yearling Black Face hogget with asparagus and brown butter (£22, pictured below).
The menu has evolved as the team assess what works best. There's a more concise list of starters and mains (plus daily specials) as 60%-70% of customers order sharing plates from the expanded snacks menu. Dishes bound by a short season feature only briefly on the menu, so the game pithivier that wooed early critics has disappeared but the pig's head croquette (£2.50, pictured top) is a constant, sometimes served with kimchi, sometimes with radish and the punchy chilli sauce Sriracha.
Portland occupies a large bright space that was once a fashion showroom. There are 45 covers on the ground floor, with a bright open kitchen at one end flanked by shelves crammed with jars of pickled, fermented vegetables and home-made herbal vinegars.
The dining area has velvet-covered banquettes, wooden tables and chairs, cheerful modern pictures and a high counter overlooking the street. There's a large private room downstairs that seats 16 comfortably. They are currently doing about 50 covers for lunch each day with 60-80 for dinner.
The nine-strong brigade (including sous chefs Stuart Andrew and Edoardo Pellicano) has a refreshing lack of formality with none of the deferential ‘yes chef' patter and a readiness to hear everyone's voice. Young pastry chef Ellie Barns-Graham devised a rosemary ice-cream with juniper meringue, honey and tarragon vinegar, while the kitchen porter is a favourite for staff lunches with his Bangladeshi food.
There's a remarkably versatile wine list along with cocktails, beers and a reserve wine list (about 10% of the total) of special bottles in limited quantities. Lander (whose mother is the wine writer Jancis Robinson) stresses that he doesn't raid his mum's cellar but sources mainly from wine collectors with far more stuff than they can ever drink.
113 Great Portland Street, London W1W 6QQ
From the menu
Snacks and starters
- Pickled shiitake mushrooms, soy and ginger, £5
- Pork head broth, enoki mushrooms, slow-cooked egg £9
- Sashimi of wild sea bass, buttermilk and lime £11
- Cornish cod, charred cabbage, miso sauce £19
- Jersey Royals, spring vegetables, smoked egg emulsion £14
- Wild turbot, dashi, white broccoli £30
- Hazelnut éclair £5
- Muscovado sugar tart, burnt pear, cultured cream £7
- Rice pudding, Seville orange, London honey ice-cream £7