I have always had a soft spot for Portuguese cuisine, it brings back memories of some of the wonderful food I grew up eating in Brazil - Bolinho de Bacalhau, Pasteis de Nata, and Pork and Clams Alentejano to name a few. Porto is also one of my favourite cities in the world for many reasons including its fine seafood and wine, and I have been going there regularly for a few summers now (more here).
Portugal is also one of the very few countries in the world that have maintained and cultivated their native grapes for wine production, developing some fantastic wines of great finesse. These days when the range of grape varietals cultivated across the world is increasingly narrow, it is wonderful to see some exciting and relatively unknown indigenous grapes being used to make the distinctive wines of Portugal.
So when I heard that Porto-born chef Jeronimo Abreu, who trained at the prestigious Ecole Superieur de Cuisine Francaise Ferrandi in Paris, had taken over the kitchen as Portal's new head chef, I decided to pay them a visit.
Opened in 2005, Portal is an elegant Clerkenwell restaurant serving a selection of Iberian tapas and traditional Portuguese dishes with a contemporary twist and an unrivalled range of Portuguese wines and Port (reputedly, the most extensive Portuguese wine cellar in London). Portal has a bar area at its entrance where guests can just pop in and enjoy a glass of Port, Portuguese beer or wine with a plate of tapas of their choice. The tall bamboo trees against the exposed brickwork encased in glass, the careful lighting and the beautiful but understated decor give this restaurant an air of discreet refinement which is pleasing and very Portuguese.
On our visit, Dr G and I started at the bar sharing a plate of 50g Pata Negra (DOP Senorio Montanera) @ £17 served with various pickles and accompanied by a glass of chilled Terras do Demos Rose @ £9.50 (by Coop.A.Do.Tavoro). This was a delightful and refreshing wine made from the Touriga Nacional varietal, one of Portugal's finest grapes also used in the blend for Port wine.
We then moved on to the restaurant area, where we enjoyed a starter of crab and mussels spicy soup with coriander @ £8 and another of sautéed scallops served on tomato and olive brioche @ £14 which were both delightful.
The "Feijoada de Bacalhau" with asparagus, spinach and coriander @ £30 (for 2 people) was next. I love the Brazilian "feijoada" which is made from different cuts of pork and sausages but the Portuguese salted cod version was a first for me. The beans were soft and perfectly cooked as was the asparagus which still retained a nice bite. The bacalhau fillets were surprisingly good with the combination of beans, asparagus and other greens making for a hearty stew.
For main Dr G had a plate of "Braised Bisaro (a Portuguese pig which is part-boar) with Green Asparagus and Chorizo Açorda" (bed of mixed bread, vegetables and chorizo) @ £22. The meat was meltingly tender having been marinated and cooked over many hours, and was very pleasing.
I very much enjoyed Dr G's braised bisaro, but whenever I go to Portuguese restaurants I tend to order what I feel the Portuguese excel at - bacalhau (salted cod). And so I ordered a plate of "Roasted Bacalhau with Black Eyed Peas Migas and Sautéed Turnip Greens" @ £20. It did not disappoint. The bacalhau was perfectly cooked, with a good firm texture, and just the right degree of saltiness. It was sympathetically partnered with rich olive oil flavours of the migas, and the turnip greens. It is a dish I order frequently whenever I am in Portugal, where the migas are more commonly made with corn bread. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Jeronimo's version with black eyed peas migas.
One of the wonderful aspects of this restaurant is the opportunity to sample an array of fine Portuguese cheeses with a variety of Port and Madeira wines. By this stage in the evening, we were rather full and skipped the cheeses, but were lucky enough to sample a wide range of their fortified wines ranging from bone dry to unctuously sweet - an experience I would heartily recommend to diners in view of the rarity of this experience and the sophistication of the wines.
For dessert, we opted for the Pasteis de Nata with cinnamon ice-cream @ £8, Figs Fondant with Figs Carpaccio @ £10 and, in a moment of gluttonous madness, the Coconut Crème Brulée with Apple and Strawberry Mille Feuille @ £7. Pasteis de Nata are a quintessential Portuguese snack, and the version on offer at Portal is my opinion one of the best in London. They were magnificent - rich, sweet burnt custard in a flaky pastry case, accompanied by a creamily intense cinnamon ice-cream.
The coconut crème brulée was also wonderful, and endearingly eccentric in its upside-down presentation, nicely teamed with a glass of Madeira Barbeito "10 year old Sercial". The star of the show however was the figs fondant, gorgeously showcasing the excellent attributes of this much neglected fruit, and well worth the extra 10 minute wait. It was perfectly matched with a glass of Madeira Barbeito "Malvasia Reserva" @ £9.50.
Cost: A three course dinner costs around £40 per person, excluding drinks.
Likes: Refined surroundings, excellent service, wonderful food and probably the best and most extensive Portuguese cellar in London.
Dislikes: The only three-course set menu available for lunch and dinner at £40 per person is (in my opinion) a little steep, and it would be good to have more affordable food and wine options particularly at lunch or for the set dinner.
Verdict: Excellent Iberian cooking by new Porto chef Jeronimo Abreu in this well-established fine dining Portuguese restaurant in the heart of Clerkenwell. One of the best and most extensive cellars of Portuguese wines, Ports and Madeiras in the UK, and the place to learn about the best that Portugal has to offer in food, wine and hospitality. Highly recommended.