After an abstemious January (me) and an extension of the festive season (the other half), we were looking forward to what the National Portrait Gallery could offer. So, having made our way through the frankly biting cold we were relieved to be shown to our table.
First off, the view is amazing. Being almost level with Nelson on his column, you sit with some of the best sights of London stretched out before you. Unfortunately there’s some work being done next to the gallery, but a tiny bit of scaffolding didn’t take anything away from the glorious backdrop. As the lights of Westminster and Big Ben twinkle, it re-affirms your love for London.
We started the evening with a delicious and very pretty Kir whilst we studied the menu, which is packed full of British classics and a few surprises: beetroot mousse anyone? The waitress brought us an amuse bouche of pickled herring with beetroot, beautifully put together, with the salty freshness of the herring offset by the earthy sweetness of the beetroot.
Time to choose then. I went for the unusual beetroot mousse with cauliflower puree and honeyed walnuts, while my other half went for the very manly homemade black pudding with confit of savoy cabbage & pink fir potatoes served with a fried duck egg. Both were fantastic. On such a cold evening the black pudding was warm and comforting and the duck egg was cooked perfectly. The beetroot mousse was a revelation: having spent a good few years as a vegetarian before marrying an ex butcher, I can honestly say nothing was ever this good back then! The flavours all worked brilliantly together. It was tasty and light - the perfect starter.
So, onto the main event. I had chosen the wild stone bass with a clam and saffron sauce, served with spinach and a side of mash. Again, going for the manly choice, my companion chose the enticing sounding trio of lamb served with champ potatoes and a side of kale to share between us. The fish was crispy-skinned and meaty-fleshed, and the sauce was subtle, with just the right amount of saffron. The lamb comprised fillet, rack and a cute little pie all of which were proclaimed “lamby” and delicious. It should be noted that, although we are a pair of salt fiends, even we found both the potatoes and the kale incredibly salty. Those with a healthier attitude towards their salt measures may well have struggled with these dishes.
The pudding menu probably gave us the biggest problem of the evening. I would happily have eaten the entire list, and ended up stuck between the Pear William ice-cream served with lavender shortbread, and the dark chocolate and espresso tart, served with white chocolate ice-cream. I decided to push on through, abandon any thoughts of the January diet and go for the chocolate tart. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a proper grown-up pudding with strong espresso flavours, followed by the sort of dark chocolate that almost makes the spoon stick the roof of your mouth. Yum. On the other side of the table another love affair was beginning with the caramel millefeuille. Each layer of pastry had been cushioned with cream and served with a little jug of warm caramel. Double yum.
We finished the evening with a liqueur coffee, which was greedy in the extreme and which could, if I’m honest, have been a little hotter, but in no way took the shine off our evening. The restaurant itself feels intimate and the staff are friendly and attentive without being overbearing or pushy. For a Friday night, it wasn’t heaving and there were a mix of suits and couples, which made for a pleasant buzz of conversation.
It’s almost the kind of place that you’d expect proposals to be happening in, but in a good way. Although the Portrait restaurant is a little pricey on main dishes, the wine list has something for all wallets (we had a very good mid-range Sauvignon Blanc). For an evening with a difference, book soon, before everyone gets in there.
The Portrait Restaurant, National Portrait Gallery: St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE.
Reviewer: Tara O’Reilly