Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin is charmed by Il Portico while Reverend Richard Coles experiences exceptional Caribbean cookery at June Plum

15 June 2021
Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin is charmed by Il Portico while Reverend Richard Coles experiences exceptional Caribbean cookery at June Plum

Marina O'Loughlin of The Sunday Times is charmed by the old-school atmosphere and elegance on offer at Il Portico in London's Kensington

Il Portico's owner, James Chiavarini, son of the original padrone, brought it to my attention by the dangerously subversive expedient of dropping me a line. Chiavarini is a bit of an occasional agitator, a grit in the oyster of unhelpful councils and grasping delivery platforms. He made a lot of noise during lockdown about the fate of the restaurant industry in general – and his in particular, of course – writing impassioned pieces in the popular press (met, as is the way, with comments such as "better off with Chinese takeaway"). He has a podcast too, inviting all sorts of interesting types to have lunch and sound off about the topics of the day. The restaurant may be old-school; Chiavarini's initiatives are anything but.

This is a place that revolves around family and tradition, specifically their Emilia-Romagna background. The chef has been with the business for 32 years. When I ask how the daily special of roe deer is served – "shot near my father's farm"; everything comes with a story – the answer is comical: "Our chef is still cooking in the seventies." So there's a sauce of wild mushrooms, a touch of cream, perhaps something like Marsala. It's a barnstorming dish, vast quantities of extremely fine, rosy-pink and pleasingly gamey venison, genuinely more than enough for two, the sauce more dressing than swamp, with a hashtag of fried polenta batons on the side. Yes, possibly a bit autumnal, but do you remember the weather last month?

We have pasta first, blissfully chewy wriggles of strozzapreti ("priest stranglers") tossed through nuggets of frazzled prosciutto and oozy squacquerone cheese. Cappellacci are models of their kind: delicate, eggy dough, juicy braised veal shin filling honking with aromatics, sage butter and Parmesan to scoop into the dumplings' al dente nooks and crannies. I haven't eaten cappellacci this good since Ferrara. It's ballsy of them to be from Emilia-Romagna and not put lasagne on the menu, but it's not that kind of restaurant – they crowd-please in their own merry way.

Price: £145 for two, including 12.5% service charge

Il Portico
Il Portico

Reverend Richard Coles exceptional Caribbean cookery for The Observer at June Plum in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

Strong, clean flavours that delight are delivered by its chef-patron, Jodi Jenny, who grew up in Jamaica, near St Mary's, the daughter and granddaughter of cooks. She trained in Miami, and then came to the UK and worked in restaurants around here, posh pub grub at first, but, as she grew in confidence, and in the esteem of her employers, Jamaican food appeared on the menu. Customers so enjoyed it, she started Jamrock, a food van.

I sat at a table in the courtyard, as Covid restrictions obliged, with a button I could press to deliver bursts of warmth from the heater overhead. I scanned the table code to download the menu onto my phone, and as I read, a bowl of complimentary ‘boom shakka lakka' popcorn arrived, salty and spicy and still warm, and my customary pint of Red Stripe lager (£4.20).

My starter, ordered from the vegan menu, was BraDap cauliflower (£5.95), al dente florets dredged in a sauce of Jodi's own creation, a happy accident involving nearly burnt onions and molasses. It is rich, dark and treacly, sweet but with smoky depths, which complements the faintly bitter vegetable beautifully. Portions are substantial, which works just fine for me, but fainthearts may find one serving sufficient for two as a starter.

For my main course I ordered curry goat (£12.50), as good as any I have eaten, the meat tender, and unlike versions I have had in the Caribbean, deboned and degristled. It is marinaded generously in Jodi's own curry sauce, which is dark and rich with heat and sweetness, and runny so it leaks into the steaming pile of rice and peas which comes on the side, the rice soft and almost sticky, the peas gently releasing their leguminous richness in the mouth. One of the adaptations to local palates is making the degree of heat optional. I like fiery, so I ordered some of Jodi's own hot relish, Junkanoo Poison (£1.20) on the side, a mysterious pinkish creamy-looking concoction that looks like something you would put on a dessert rather than a curry, but it is deceptively powerful.

Price: starters, £1.95-£8.25; mains, £9.95-£18.50; desserts, £6.50-£7.95; cocktails, £6.95-£8

June Plum
June Plum

The Telegraph's William Sitwell finds the ultimate definition of a good time at the Royal Oak in Luxborough, Somerset

The food in this handsome, 14th-century Somerset inn, deep in a gully (so much so that my ears popped as we descended the road towards it) and all wooden beams and flagstones and cobbles and stone walls and open fires and ales, is as respectable, delicious and wholesome as the welcome and service.

It's the mussels that stick in the memory, not least because of how they were presented. They came in their own huge metal pot, marked ‘Moules', with a pot on top that you took off to reveal the mussels and then could use for the empty shells. They were simply cooked in a splash of cider and leeks and I loved their feasty joie de vivre and freshness.

After that I ate the perfect example of lasagne. Just how I like it: tactile, hot and cheesy, and reheated at high temperature. My pal Matilda's bowl of cannelloni was similarly warmly enveloping and deeply tasty. She'd started with garlic and chilli prawns, which like the other dishes came on very pretty, decorative china and was deftly done – juicy, with a dash of heat and some nice juice to mop up with some toasted bread on the side.

We had a very happy evening at the Royal Oak. There was a riotous assembly of charming hooligans in the corner of the busy courtyard, as well as dogs, no phone signal and a feeling of happy harmony, just as you might hope for in a good country pub.

Score: 4/5. Price: dinner for two excluding drinks and service, £55

The fact that Bentley's is still such a stalwart of the London dining scene is a testament to its timelessness, says Molly Codyre of The Independent

I must admit, the traditional silver-platter, well-coiffed waiters and white tablecloth-style establishment isn't usually my go-to. I tend to prefer the informality and easy-going nature of smaller, more local-feeling restaurants. But Bentley's, with all its gilded edges and sirs and madams, may just have convinced me there is joy to be found in grandeur.

The fish Kiev, on the special's menu for that day, was a testament to the kitchen's inherent knowledge of the versatility of fish. Treated almost exactly like the chicken iteration of the famous dish, this was a flaky fillet packed to the rafters with a herby, garlicky sauce then rolled in breadcrumbs and fried until golden. Served with a crisp, spring-inspired courgette salad, it was a masterclass in elevating the simplicity of fish, without overpowering its delicacy. The seaweed butter potatoes, meanwhile, took the humble carbohydrate to new heights. Adding just a thimble-sized dose of sea salt and a hit of umami, they were soft-boiled, buttery and the perfect accompaniment to the seafood-heavy meal.

Bentley's knows what it's doing and it does it right. The food was largely an overwhelming hit, and the environment speaks to a certain sense of understanding of what people expect when they dine here. Service is friendly, formal when necessary, but familiar to the clientele who welcome it.


The Times' Giles Coren loves every mouthful at French celebrity chef Cyril Lignac's Bar des Prés in London…

I ordered blind with a swirling pin over the various needy headings ("Land & sea", "Raw & marinated") and was rewarded with a procession of brightly coloured, sharply accented, beautifully fresh and precisely plated European variations on Japanese themes, and vice versa.

First up was seared chutoro (five pieces for £21): "Voilà, bish, bosh," said my guy. Actually, he didn't. He was a very elegant and lovely Frenchman and the dish was fantastic. Yellowtail maki rolls (£9 for six) were followed by a wondrous riff on nigiri sushi, with gorgeous salmon draped over rice that had been fried into crispy, sticky little fingers (five for £16) and then fresh little spring rolls of king crab with cubes of mango and flecks of mint rolled in lettuce (seven slices for £20).

There was an escalope of breaded volailles des Landes (£26) – a St Germain riff on katsu with a sriracha mayonnaise – and a somewhat underpowered and dainty take on Nobu's famous old black cod in miso (£39). But I've not eaten cod in miso in two years, thanks to lockdown, and even a slightly disappointing cod in miso is better than no cod in miso at all.

Score: cooking: 8/10, service: 8/10, Cyril: 9/10; total: 8.33/10

Bar des Prés
Bar des Prés

… while the London Evening Standard's David Ellis finds little new at Bar des Prés in London, even though there's much to enjoy

Bar des Prés may be Paris-born, but it's definitely a mostly Japanese restaurant, with the roll-call of hits that do the rounds in this part of town: sashimi, sushi and maki, lobster salad, crab with avocado. They insist it's "Franco/East Asian" and while unnecessary French descriptions do run through the menu as an attempted persuasive – "Black cod caramélisé au miso" – it feels as if Lignac was one step away from calling the place "Le Sushi" and hoping to get away with it.

While normally a menu left unexplained is a bullet dodged, here I could have done with a hand; with frightening prices and little idea of how much to have, I wasn't sure if we'd go hungry or I'd have to call the bank to extend my limit.

There's lots to enjoy – tight rolls of icy, delicate yellowtail carpaccio given life by an almighty tang of homemade soy sauce, say, or hot chunks of mildly spiced prawns that had a regrettably regurgitated look but turned out to be comforting, fleshy bites (really, I wanted them piled high to snack on).

Dover sole sat in a foaming blanket of broth, the red chillies adding a much-needed thwack of heat; beef satay was rightly cooked only in passing and given a flash of bright citrus from a smart squirt of lime. Lignac's vanilla mashed potatoes, on the other hand? A signature, apparently. One that could scribble his reputation away: it brought to mind microwaved Carte D'Or.

Price: meal for two with wine, £300

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