Portal is a Portuguese restaurant but it’s far from the sunny climes of Iberia. The nearest Underground station is Farringdon which means ‘fern-covered hill’, and it’s William and Nicholas de Faringdon, whose name is said to have originated from one of those calm and lush summits, who were aldermen in the early 13th Century. Nicholas purchased the area of the Farringdon ward of the City of London in 1279 and became alderman of it a couple of years later. In 1394 the ward was split into Farringdon Within and Farringdon Without – the In and Out refering to the London Wall which slices through the ward.
Clerkenwell is the neighbourhood, and it’s been transformed over these last couple of decades. It was an area famed for poverty as well as breweries (that accounts for the poverty), smelters, printers and also paint manufacturers. Portal now inhabits a former paint shop.
The building is Grade 2 listed and dates back to the Georgian era, and it belonged to the aforementioned paint mixer who sold his wares from the front part of the shop. Portal has been so sympathetically designed that it has retained much of the charm of its ancient incarnation. Matt black paintwork would have been the norm in the 1700s and it’s used here to create a contemporary restaurant with a nod to the past. Original architecture with modern features are combined by its co-owner, the world-renowned architect Ken MacKay, who restored Portal’s original exterior and retained the original windows, shelves and floors.
Between the First and Second World Wars a warehouse was built at the back and that is now the kitchen and the main dining area. The courtyard was converted into a conservatory, making a stunning space showing old brick to great aesthetic advantage. The Adega Room at one side of the dining room is a private glass-doored wine store, furnished with racks of fine wine from every corner of the world and a striking table which seats up to ten people.
Portal’s manager, Antonio Correia, has an extensive knowledge of Port and he is a member of the prestigious Royal Port Society. This appreciation of Port prompted his friendship with Pedro Branco who owns the family-run wine-making company, Quinta do Portal. This was the inspiration for the name of the restaurant.
Celebrated Portuguese chef Victor Felisberto has recently taken the helm and provides a menu which offers the best of Portuguese cuisine. There are contemporary dishes as well as traditional fare. The list isn’t huge but it’s no worse for that. There is something for every taste: carnivores, vegetarians and even Vegans. Victor says that “Coming to the gastronomic capital of the world, and especially to a restaurant as highly regarded as Portal, gives me the perfect platform to display my flair and style of cooking.”
Goat Cheese Tart with Crispy Leeks, Asparagus, Honey and Toasted Almonds was my starter. This was a delightful twist on the ubiquitous tart. No thick pastry here: a substantial round of cheese is perched atop a round of pastry, making the whole a delicate affair. The honey glaze was an innovation that I will personally be stealing.
Braised Bisaro with Pea Mash and Roasted Baby Peppers sounded intriguing. What was Bisaro? Bisaro is a particular type of Iberian pig. It forages for its own food so its meat is rather akin to wild boar. The Bisaro meat is marinated for 12-16 hours in red wine and vegetables, garlic and other seasonings. It’s then slow-cooked overnight to present a truly melting texture. This must surely be a signature dish and a must-try recommendation from this reviewer. I’ll be returning to sample the Stuffed Pig’s Trotter very soon. I know this chef will work wonders with that undervalued appendage.
Portal Pasteis de Nata with a Mocha Shot had my name on them. These are those traditional Portuguese egg custard tarts. I have been a fan of such confections all my life. I would buy an English custard tart on my way home from school. Portal offers the delicate Portuguese version. The pastry was light and flaky and the filling creamy. There are two per portion and I was near to complaining that an odd number of anything always looks better on a plate …so could I have another three please. The mocha shot was chilled and refreshing but those tarts were the stars.
I didn’t know what to expect of Portal. I spent an evening in one of the most pleasant restaurants I have ever visited. Yes, it’s a matter of taste but Portal suits my taste for decor and cuisine, and I suspect I am not alone. It’s unique and has been added to my list of favourites.
88 St John Street, London EC1M 4EH
[This venue is now closed]
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018