The Portrait by Richard Corrigan


Restaurants in museums and art galleries tend, on the whole, not to be up to much. (The late, lamented Rex Whistler at Tate Britain, closed down because of outraged sensibilities because of Whistler’s mural, and thereby losing one of the best-value wine lists in London, is a notable exception.) After all, you’re not going there to eat and drink, you’re going to see relics, fossils and works of art.

But ever since The Modern at MoMa won Michelin stars and led to the gallery becoming a much-beloved and acclaimed restaurant in its own right, the gauntlet in this country has been laid down. Who could take up the challenge of establishing a really excellent destination restaurant that just happens to be set in one of the capital’s most iconic galleries?

Well, step forward Richard Corrigan, restaurateur extraordinaire, and a man who has always managed to strike precisely the right balance between informality and the upmarket. If you want the latter, there’s the fine dining Corrigan’s Mayfair, and if you’re after the former, Bentley’s in Piccadilly and Old Street’s Daffodil Mulligan (‘for plenty of craic’) are not going to disappoint.

But does Corrigan, someone whose cooking and general persona combine both ebullience and immense technical skill, really have what it takes to elevate the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait restaurant to the heights that it merits?

 We visit for dinner, which is initially a slightly strange experience of being silently ushered through empty galleries, before we arrived at the fourth floor and are confronted by stunning views over central London. Remember the scenes in Skyfall and Sherlock when Bond and Sherlock Holmes, respectively, gaze out over the breadth of their domains?

Well, they were filmed near here, and the opportunity to gawp over some of the finest panoramas in the capital is not to be sniffed at, just as a welcome salvo of cocktails, including the aptly named ‘Portrait’, a pimped-up gin and tonic that comes pleasingly close to Mojito territory without quite wandering into it. We try a bar snack of pig trotter on bacon jam with focaccia to soak up the drinks; it’s very good. We clink glasses, look out over a darkening Trafalgar Square, and prepare for an excellent dinner.

Nothing is disappointing, from the excellence of the service to the splendidly comfortable setting, and, oh my, the views. But the food has to be top notch to hold its own in such situations, and thankfully it very much is. The menu is short, carefully selected to account for the best Anglo-Irish produce, and wonderfully put together.

We opt for simple starters of the secret smokehouse salmon (no idea if it’s the salmon or the smokehouse that’s secret, but it’s excellent anyway) and crispy poached egg with asparagus; the latter is lighter on the morels than we’d expected, but the asparagus, served with artichoke hollandaise, is both a visual and culinary delight. The half-bottle of East Sussex Bacchus that we order goes wonderfully with the food; all is well.

I’m about to order the beef fillet for a main course and then I’m struck by an atypical moment of doubt; there is something really rather appealing about the sound of free range chicken cordon bleu, served with potato salad and wild garlic mayonnaise, so that is called for, along with the lamb rump and kidneys and coco beans and a side of perfect olive oil mash.

The lamb is excellent (my guest is amused to find that what she’d thought was a particularly fine mushroom was in fact a piece of kidney), but the chicken – a kind of Anglo-Irish version of katsu – is something else, transforming what can often be a slightly bland dish into a properly exciting main course. It’s helped immensely by a bottle of Portuguese red wine that’s potent but never overbearing, making for quite the lively conversation.

I’d eyed up the chocolate mousse with pear and honey madeleine for pudding, but unfortunately it’s off. Ah well; marmalade steamed pudding and rhubarb and ginger pot crème both indicate how good the kitchen is at finding new twists on old favourites, and both more than make up for any fleeting disappointment.

Then it’s time to leave, and head off into the night, taking fond farewells of the excellent staff who have been so entirely accommodating of our whims and caprices all evening. We head off into the London night sated and giddy, and my guest says “Well, that was flawless.” I can only echo her remarks, and agree wholeheartedly.

The Portrait Restaurant, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE. For more information, including opening times, and for bookings, please visit