Please note that Merlin Labron-Johnson is no longer cooking at Portland. Time Out Food editors, November 2018.
It is rare to go to a restaurant and be astonished. But at Fitzrovia’s Portland, astonishment begins when the first dish arrives and doesn’t let up until the last.
We were expecting high quality because of the team behind Portland, whose combined experience includes time spent at the Quality Chop House (four Time Out stars), 10 Greek Street (five stars), and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Belgium. But nothing prepared us for this bold, powerful, surprising food; chef Merlin Labron-Johnson was cooking like a wizard.
The menu is also great value for this level of cooking: most ‘snacks’ and starters from £5-£7, no main course over £20, desserts £5-£7.
We put together our meal from small dishes, and found ourselves repeatedly falling into stunned silence. Three dishes give the idea. Diminutive pig’s head croquettes perched on a blob of kimchee mayonnaise (pictured above): rich filling, satisfying crunch of crumbed exterior, sparky sauce. Carrots stood up straight in a thick sauce of aged mimolette cheese and granola; neither carrots nor hazelnuts have ever tasted so good. Pickled shiitake mushrooms balanced startling acidity with hauntingly earthy, smoky, meaty flavours. Only one dish disappointed out of 11: flabby chips. All the others were superb.
The room is small (45 covers) and has a view of the kitchen unless you sit at the window-facing counter. It’s mostly a bare-wood, no-frills kind of place apart from linen napkins, but it’s very attractive. The short and imaginative wine list has fair choice under £30. Cocktails are well priced and well made. Our dessert, ‘chocolate bar, peanut butter praline, peanut ice cream’, was small, skilfully executed and tasted sensational.
Portland’s website says it reserves the right to ask for tables back after two hours. I don’t begrudge this table-turning, given the restaurant’s size. It’s a small price to pay for astonishment.