I don’t know who is chiefly responsible for, when brainstorming the re-opening of the National Portrait Gallery, deciding that it should also operate as a culinary haven, but I’m glad they did. After a three-year renovation, it finally relaunched, and sitting at the top of the building on the fourth floor is The Portrait; the latest venture from Richard Corrigan, 3-time winner of the Great British menu and Head Chef at Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill.
Corrigan worked at the previous incarnation of the restaurant at the Portrait Gallery, so this is something of a homecoming, and the culmination of a long-term vision of what should occupy the top floor (and take advantage of the panoramic views, where everything from the London Eye and St Paul’s Cathedral to The Shard is visible).
What Sets It Apart
The new restaurant is all about comforting, classic food with quality ingredients. Think British and Irish favourites like Carlingford oysters, Cornish mackerel, locally farmed lamb and pork – it also helps that Corrigan is something of a wizard with a potato. The self-assured confidence of the menu gives the impression of a chef who has spent years playing around with the finest ingredients, trying to find the best preparation, and has ultimately settled on the idea that you don’t mess with the classics.
The pricing is, as Corrigan says, egalitarian. If you want, you can go for a two-course set menu for just £29, or go wild on the a-la-carte and wine menus and spend a lot more if you really want to make it feel like an experience – the beauty of the restaurant is how it can easily fit the bill for either of these occasions. Either way, quality and satisfaction is all-but assured.
It’s fair to say the relaunched restaurant has been perfectly pitched. The decor is bright and understated, taking advantage of its enviable location by recognising the star is always going to be the view. In a way, the setting reflects the food. Simple without being basic, elegant without being pretentious, laidback but luxurious. The sparks of innovation are laced subtly throughout the menu rather than leaping off the plate, but there are more than enough quirks to ward off any hint of a temptation to call it stuffy.
The result means that it fits in beautifully within the ecosystem of the gallery. Go before or go after viewing the world’s most expansive collection of portraits – you can even catch a sneak preview of the truly excellent Paul McCartney photography exhibit as you enter – it’s as close as you can get to a slam dunk of a London day out. We sampled it for lunch on a warm, overcast summer day, but it would work equally well as an evening night out.
What We Ordered
To start, I order the lightly salted and oiled whole artichoke, which seamlessly threads the line between being rich and full-hearted, and also fresh and light, with the quality of the ingredients shining through.
The lemon sole main does that thing fish only seems to do in good restaurants, and absolutely never does when you try to make it at home; each bite flaking off but miraculously holding together on the fork before melting in your mouth. The accompanying miso and mushroom flavours add just the right amount of earthiness and sweetness. A taste of nature, but refined.
For dessert, really it’s hard to wrong – the only misstep would be to not order one. For those with an unashamed sweet tooth, the strawberry and cream-filled giant macaron is bound to earn a star-making reputation, while for those – like me – who prefer any sweetness to be offset by an equalising tartness, the English cherries with goat’s milk ice cream is a wonderful discovery.
For Londoners like me who increasingly find themselves only daring to venture to the center of the city when acting as an unofficial tour guide for visiting friends and family, this restaurant is something of a godsend. Sitting perched above the carnage that usually engulfs the area from Leicester to Trafalgar Square, staring out at what seems like every notable London landmark, is a new entry to the capital culinary scene that would wholly justify its existence even without the cultural clout acquired by art from the likes of Monet and Hockney lining the halls of the floor below. That just happens to be an added bonus.