People often ask me for restaurant recommendations. This is fine; telling people where to eat is, after all, what I do. And though the existence of my app (still only £2.99 from the App Store) has helped this process immesurably, and guided thousands (probably) of people towards thousands of lovely meals, occasionally the set of criteria I am given creates an impossible task.
"We want somewhere super cheap", they'll say, "but serving great food. And we want to be able to book." And whilst such places theoretically exist, I'm afraid that after ten years living and dining in the capital I can state fairly confidently there aren't many of them. The battle between these three competing factors, of budget, quality and speed (ie. not having to queue) is one that every potential London diner has to grapple with, and there really aren't any easy answers. The dilemma is summed up quite neatly with this graphic a friend found on Instagram the other day:
You want exciting food for not much money? Then get in the queue at Tayyabs or Bao. Don't want to queue? Fine, feel free to book a table at Gymkhana or Kitty Fisher's, but you'll pay for it. And if you're really not that bothered about quality but just want somewhere cheap and quick? Burger King awaits your custom. I'm generalising hugely, of course, but hopefully you get my point.
Portland is a restaurant unashamedly in the "not cheap" section of the above graph, and there's nothing wrong with that providing you have the requisite "Great" food to go with your bookable ("Fast") tables. The problem in this case is that despite the food often being imaginative, and occasionally memorable (albeit in some cases entirely for the wrong reasons) I couldn't find enough to enjoy about it overall to justify the "not cheap" prices. But let's start at the beginning.
I believe this was described by our (very efficient and attentive) waiter as some kind of cod brandade, although it didn't have the taste or texture of any brandade I'd ever eaten before. Shiny and slimy, with the strange uniform texture of melted blancmange, it had no discernible fish flavour and in fact little flavour of any kind at all. The home made potato crisps were nice though.
House "miso" sourdough and whipped whey butter was almost the highlight of the entire meal. Apparently until very recently Portland bought their bread in; the current offering is the result of many months of testing and refining their own recipe. And it really shows - I've barely had a better loaf anywhere in the UK; perhaps only Hedone in London and the Baltic Bakehouse in Liverpool have a comparable mastery over the sourdough form. I won't go so far as to say that it alone made the entire trip worthwhile, but it certainly made a lot of what else that happened a lot more palatable.
"White truffle and Gruyere macarons" was the first worrying indication that Portland are happy to play fast and loose with accepted notions of savoury and sweet. Because whilst warm melted Gruyere and white truffle is very much a marriage made in heaven, slapping them inside a sweet macaron and calling it a "snack" doesn't do much for me other than make me call into question the chef's mental health.
Fortunately, chicken skins with liver parfait were much more straightforward and infinitely more enjoyable, smooth and delicately crunchy in all the right places and with the addition of pickled grapes helping to ensure the various forms of chicken fat didn't get too one-note. Nice presentation, too.
Squid toast with brown crab and pickled green asparagus performed the remarkable task of taking two famously powerful seafood flavours - crab and squid - and somehow combining them into a dish that tastes very definitely of neither. And though there's nothing wrong with asparagus and mayonnaise on toast as such, I can't be blamed for expecting something more.
A similar lack of the good stuff plagued this next course of lobster, red miso and daikon, in which a thick roll of pungent daikon completely overwhelmed a hilariously miniscule portion of crustacean. I realise this dish is only £4 on the A La Carte menu and was never likely to involve a lot of lobster, but it would have been nice to taste some.
And yet this dish, of halibut and leek with toasted hazelnuts, came as a reminder that not all of Portland's talents are aimed in the wrong direction. The combination of the beautiful meaty tranche of perfectly cooked fish, the creamy leek sauce and the crunchy toasted nuts was utterly irresistible, a classic set of flavours - dairy, leeks, fish - that have always worked together and always will. If only a bit more of the menu had the nerve to be this familiar.
Then we were back in Weirdsville with a whole enoki mushroom, its tentacles writhing and slipping in the mouth like a terrifying deep sea creature, topped with leaves of purple wood sorrel. You may have noticed that at this stage fully three of the dishes had come topped with a layer of wood sorrel. I'm not sure why.
Arctic char (a fish; no, I'd never heard of it either) was, like the halibut before it, beautifully cooked and perfectly complimented by some broad beans and a rich mussel sauce. Maybe it didn't quite need the chunk of pungent turnip but it was still a lovely thing, fresh and vibrant and seasonal. Clearly Portland's strengths lie in their treatment of large chunks of white fish.
The Challans duck itself here was fine; not swoon-inducingly amazing, just fine. It could have done with a bit more seasoning but the flesh was nice and pink and the skin had been rendered nicely to leave not too much fat. Other than that though, there wasn't much on the plate of interest - blobs of Roscoff onion purée was rather too sweet and cloying for my liking, and the sauce that should have tied it all together was far too thin - in texture and flavour - to do its job properly.
The other main course, monkfish with sprouting broccoli, went down much better. Fish perfectly cooked and seasoned, sprouting broccoli adding earth and crunch, and a little blob of seaweed purée tasting pleasantly of the sea. Another good fish course.
And then. And then we were served strawberries, meringue and avocado. That's not a typo - it hasn't been autocorrected from apple or apricot. Someone at Portland thought putting strawberries, shards of meringue and bleedin' avocado in the same bowl would make for a quirky and enjoyable dessert. Well, they were wrong. It was like finding the remnant's of yesterday's Mexican dinner buried under an Eton Mess and was entirely repulsive. In the name of God, Portland, why?
So, up and down, then. I can't deny that amidst the eccentricities and mis-steps and downright avocado-shaped pratfalls there were a number of interesting bits and pieces. But it's also hard to escape the harsh truth that for this kind of money (we spent £235 between three people and hardly had much booze) there are more reliably enjoyable places; places that favour flavour over experimentation and where you're very unlikely to be served broccoli spongecake or, I don't know, pea and mince trifle. So thank you for a deeply unpredictable albeit entertaining evening, Portland, but in the end you weren't my cup of tea.