As a school girl I was extraordinarily lucky. My passion for the arts was cultivated from a young age with access to all of the London attractions at hugely discounted rates. One school chum had a rather famous father who, at the time, was the artist in residence at The National Gallery. Every year we visited him for a chat about his work and a peek at the painting in progress (for several years, a rhino on Venice Beach) and then, visit concluded, we’d hop over to The National Portrait Gallery and sketch paintings. Now I visit the museums and galleries far less, but the restaurants? The restaurants I will make an exception for and now The National Portrait Gallery’s in-house restaurant by Searcys, Portrait, can join that list.
Recently shortlisted for a London Lifestyle Award and boasting Head Chef Katarina Todosijevic, Portrait is located on the top floor of the gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square. The view would be spectacular were it not for the rooftops and scaffolding in the way, but this is London – that’s a fairly standard view. The dining area, however, is beautiful and brightly lit with famous beautiful people hung upon the walls; a large 25-seater bar stands to the left and seating for 80 spans the length of the venue.
Already packed when we arrived, our table by the window was waiting for us to slip into quietly. My companion for the evening was my best friend, whom I affectionately refer to as Northern Girl or NG. Whenever I take her out on ‘Friend Dates’ we have a tradition of ordering the same things; I always go for the duck and she for the pork belly – unadventurous? Sure, but it’s actually a pretty good judge of restaurants for us. I usually enjoy my dishes far more than hers, but this evening the tables were to be turned.
My starter was the homemade black pudding (unfortunately a little burnt on one side) topped with spinach and an ever-so-slightly over-poached egg, and NG’s was the beef carpaccio with pine nuts, rocket, truffle, honey and lemon dressing and – wait for it – truffle cheese.
This was her first win of the night. Oh how I wish this had been my starter. The truffle cheese was singlehandedly one of the best things I’ve tasted in the past year, the combination of flavours ingenious. I took one bite and decided that I needed to find some truffle cheese. If you have any please send it to The Arb HQ with, ‘FOR JACKIE’S EYES ONLY’ stamped upon it – I’d love you forever.
Then our mains, mine duck breast served with wee raspberries providing a lovely tart sweetness and, somewhat bizarrely, giant honking logs of rhubarb (which I really was not expecting as it was described as a ‘rhubarb jus’) – overall good but not spectacular and here, yet again, was where NG beat me in the ordering stakes. Her pork belly, served with apricots, ‘bubble and squeak’ (which was really a colcannon) and confit red onion was simply divine. The pork fell apart and melted in the mouth, the ‘bubble and squeak’ provided a lovely onion and cabbage spice and, though it was more mash than the fried potato cake we had been expecting, the creaminess was the perfect contrast to the rest of the dish. Sides of green beans and fat chips finished us off, as did the wonderful wine pairings. Score 2 for NG and a big fat 0 for me.
Last up, desserts. I had opted for the elderflower and champagne crème brûlée with raspberry sorbet, fresh raspberries and a brandy snap basket (can you tell I was on a raspberry kick?) – all pleasant enough – but NG! She did it again! Her caramelised walnut tart with clotted cream and toffee sauce was enough to make me cry with envy. Luckily, she was quite full from her pork extravaganza and so I was able to steal healthy amounts of sticky, gooey walnut and crisp pastry whilst she was fighting off the food coma. Still, 3-0 to NG, game, set and match. We also particularly enjoyed the Hungarian Tokaji paired with our desserts – the almost date-like flavour gave an extra depth to the sweets that would’ve been otherwise missed.
We concluded our meal with chocolate and banana truffles. I couldn’t taste the banana but the truffles had beautifully crunchy exteriors dusted with cocoa and soft, silky smooth chocolate on the inside so I didn’t mind.
Even though I did not order to the best of my ability this evening, the food was still very good and the maitre d’, waitress and sommelier were all extraordinarily attentive towards us during the meal, equally so to the rest of the diners around us. I’m not sure that it’s the best meal I’ve had in London over the past year but it’s definitely up there in my top ten. Thoroughly enjoyable food in a wonderful venue – long may it continue.