I cannot review the Gay Hussar every time the Labour party behaves like a self-harming teenager (‘I don’t want to be elected, anyway!’) so I went to Portland instead.
Portland is a spectral restaurant on Great Portland Street; it is a good place to feel numb. The name is neutral, bespeaking nothing beyond a vague acknowledgement of its surroundings, which is Fitzrovia and its traffic pollution; Portland, on the whole, is so understated the critic struggles to get a grip on its mysteries, as if sliding down a glacier towards ducks. Even its Twitter presence is ambiguous: when I attempted to follow it, I mistakenly followed the loveless bastard whose job is to tweet the weather in Portland, Oregon (‘Cloudy’) — but that is my punishment for seeking fact without opinion on Twitter, and I will bear it.
So a restaurant in Fitzrovia, palely loitering; for some reason I think of John Keats playing busboy. The floor is blond, the walls white, the chairs tan, the banquettes grey, the paintings bloody and emaciated (one critic said she thought she saw Theresa May on the wall). It is faintly Swedish industrial, but spindly: it could be the world’s chicest cafeteria. It is co-owned by Will Lander of the Quality Chop House (son of the FT’s restaurant critic) and Daniel Morgenthau of 10 Greek Street; the chef is Merlin Labron-Johnson of In De Wuld near Ghent.
None of this is my style particularly. A says my ideal restaurant would be owned by the Phantom of the Opera and Billy Bunter and specialise in 10ft sausages, but I am too moral to dine in Stringfellows, which is probably the closest London can offer to such a mad fantasy. My Spectator colleagues would tell me the technical term for my quibbling is ‘being a Feminazi [who cannot take a compliment] and wears dungarees made of gravity’.
But I do think Portland has done something remarkable behind its cape of vague, as I dine on a weekday lunchtime with A and the strangely pliant toddler: it has made a foodie restaurant that is not pretentious, overpriced or insulting to the intelligence of the diner. It does not pretend there are tree elves in the kitchen whisking eggs and laying straw (Dabbous — and if I sought such creatures I would reread The Hobbit). It does not think we are in 1636, and this must be explained by a menu masquerading as a PhD thesis (Dinner). It does not make you listen to an iPod playing the sound of whales chatting, the better to ‘appreciate’ its ‘vision’ as you eat something that was never meant to exist (The Fat Duck); it does not make you look into your lunch’s eyes before you eat it, and contemplate your latent psychopathy, for which you must then, in every sense, pay (Beast).
The menu divides into Charcuterie, Snacks, First Course, Main Course, and ‘Sides’. We eat tempura courgette flowers, which are divine, addictive: a foodie’s sour cream and onion Pringles. Portland lardo are soft needles of pig fat; they melt on greedy tongues. Wild sea-trout with peas, beans and cider sauce and tomato salad with redcurrants are perfectly wrought plates of slightly pretentious food. But the duck — and the exquisite potato mille-feuille, a tiny basket of fried potato so delicious I almost went full restaurant critic and wept — is so wondrous I burped. Pudding — brown butter ice cream with grilled pear and straw-berry tart — is likewise glorious.
Morgenthau and Landau have done it. They have made a foodie restaurant that is not hateful, and this, in itself, is something wild.