Back in August, I booked a ticket for a curator’s lecture on the current major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Giacometti Pure Presence. I started going quite regularly to the Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago and ended up buying a Friends’ season ticket because it made sense to do so. I love the place. Apart from the wonderful exhibitions, it’s a fantastic place to be on Late Shift Nights (Thurs and Fri) when the gallery is open until 9:00pm and there are lots of extra activities: bars, live music, art workshops and generally just a great buzz of cultural excitement.
I’d heard many times how wonderful the Portrait Restaurant was with its marvellous views across Trafalgar Square and excellent food. It seemed like a good plan to add an extra treat to my visit for the lecture by enjoying an early evening dinner there beforehand. So, a couple of weeks ago I booked a table. Perhaps the fact that only the pre-theatre set menu is available from 5.30-6.30 should have been a clue to the formulaic nature of the food served at that time.
I’d booked for 5.45 as I wasn’t sure I could get there earlier, but in fact turned up at 5.30 and they were most welcoming and quite happy to seat me early. I wanted to be finished by 6.45 so I could get down to the theatre in the basement area where the lecture was to take place, and be seated without having to hurry. It was already quite busy, and I could see a couple of women finishing their Afternoon Tea. The menu was brought and there was a choice of three dishes for each course: 2 courses @ £19.50; 3 courses @ £23.50. I made my choices and ordered a glass of French Merlot and asked for tap water. It wasn’t a long wait until my starter came, but they brought the bread at the same time and it would have been nice to have this come immediately with the wine and water.
The warm rolls were good; a generous slab of butter was served on a small slate. For my starter I’d chosen Cod & Salmon Fishcake, pickled cucumber, fennel and spiced mayonnaise.
The fishcake was OK but really nothing special and I’ve tasted many better. The pickled vegetables were actually not very nice; the fennel surprisingly tasteless. The spiced mayonnaise was a bit like the kind of marie rose sauce served in pubs without the ‘gastro’ prefix. I was hoping things would improve when my main came. I’d ordered Confit duck leg, braised red cabbage, prunes, gratin potatoes.
This is very classic fare; classic French food, which was why I chose some French wine to go with my meal. The duck was OK but the vegetables not great. I was instantly reminded of that kind of catering food that one suffers sometimes at events: mass produced. It was all tired as if prepared long ago and thus, much like my starter, not very pleasing. I was uncertain about having a dessert but I was getting through the meal quickly (a hazard of eating alone) and with some time to go before the lecture started, I thought I might as well. It turned out to be a bit of a saving grace. I chose Vanilla & Grappa panna cotta with caramelised clementine.
The panna cotta had a perfect wobble to it and was beautifully creamy and soft with a good hit of vanilla and grappa. The caramelised clementine wasn’t so good because the end slice I was given was too chewy with all the membrane that surrounds each slice. What a pity they didn’t segment it properly – which in a restaurant that boasts such fine food ambitions, should have been a natural thing to do.
The meal was, as you’ll have realised, a huge disappointment. And not cheap – not for a pre-theatre meal in the Covent Garden area where there are lots of fantastic deals to be had and much better food at cheaper prices. Of course, the Portrait Restaurant boasts the view, though maybe I should have gone at lunchtime for that as all I could see were some lit-up landmarks like Nelson’s Column and the London Eye in the distance. And the service was friendly and attentive. But then one doesn’t go to a restaurant just for that.
Fortunately, the lecture turned out to be wonderful; really excellent. I’d seen the exhibition last Friday with my friend Elsa and it’s superb.