Most exciting things happening in the London food scene are taking place in the East. Rents are slightly cheaper there meaning less barriers to entry for up-and-coming chefs to ply their trade, and there’s more bearded hipsters who are willing to give their new, paired back brand of cooking more of a chance. Portland is Fitzrovia’s attempt at joining this scene. With only a choice of three dishes for each course, the menu is confidently minimal. It matches the dining room which is simply designed with white walls and school chairs, lacking slightly in any real warmth or identity. Take away the open kitchen and you have a school detention room. This being Fitzrovia, it was busy with ad execs and creatives (think Oliver Peoples and casual shirts), and the menu with it’s unusual combinations might well have been drawn up in one of their think tanks. It’s all very present, but lacks any roots that give you a way in.
Snacks were the most enjoyable dishes of the night- a thin crisp of chicken skin had a rich liver parfait on top with candied walnuts and a slice of grape (£1.50 each) to cut through- it was a skilful piece of cooking and tasted as good as it looked. As did the wild rice cracker with yellow fin tuna, lime and shisho (£3 each) which was a refreshing mouthful. Bread with smoked butter and shaved ox heart (a bit of a pointless addition) was lovely, but only 3 half slices left you wanting a lot more.
For starter a Halibut sashimi with buttermilk and black radish (£11) looked like an anaemic flower petal. The black radish added a freshness and light crunch but it distracted slightly from the flavour of the fish. It was a dish that was all surface, with nothing exciting beneath. The other starter of Salsify with thin strips of ‘Mangalista’ pig (basically crispy bacon) and Comte (£10), was forgettable. These flavours all work together, but there just wasn’t enough love in the cooking to make it anything more than a shrug of the shoulders.
From the specials Partridge with blood sausage and fermented damsons (£24) was a taster menu portion. The meat was slightly dry and there just wasn’t enough to the dish to make it of much interest. It needed the side of potatoes with Montgomery cheddar (£5) just to fill the dish out, but even they lacked any love. The boiled new potatoes were under-seasoned and had not been cooked with the cheese, so none of its flavour had seeped through into them. Miso-grilled deer with aubergine and yoghurt (£26) was cooked well but again it was criminally seasoned meaning the meat couldn’t shine. Perhaps chefs here must be allergic to salt. A side salad of baby gems with radishes and buttermilk (£5), was crunchy but nothing else.
Dessert was an interesting combination of apple with rosemary ice and vanilla ice cream, again presented in a distinctive modern way that didn’t immediately draw you in. The flavours were a perfect marriage and it was a refreshing finish to the meal, but an added texture or maybe just chunks of apple would have made it feel a little more substantial. Like the rest of the dishes it felt like more of an essence of something, or an idea for a dish, rather than something complete in itself.
I really wanted to love this restaurant- it’s trying to do things differently and it was refreshing to see a slim, focused menu. But having a menu this minimalist was a bold statement that didn’t quite come off. It’s confident cooking with obvious flair, but less focus on the look and idea of the dishes and a little more attention to depth of flavour (or just salt) and things would have been a lot better. At £65 a head I had expected more. It was all texture and colours, without a soul.