Review: The Portman, Marylebone, London

The area north of Marble Arch in London is becoming quite the foodie destination. Long home to the Middle Eastern restaurants of Edgware Road, a few years ago it acquired a fine Spanish restaurant in the shape of Donostia, a branch of Vinoteca, and recently the new permanent home of ace Japanese restaurant Kurobuta that I reviewed recently.

It’s also home to The Portman – the kind of pub with good food that would make you fell very lucky if it was your local. They invited me down to try it, and we ate in the dining room upstairs on a lovely spring evening. It’s a proper dining room, quieter than the pub, with properly set tables and restaurant-level service.

We started with ceps on sourdough with a duck egg (pictured above) and asparagus with hollandaise. Both dishes were good, with the mushrooms probably the standout dish of the whole meal.

Mains include a pie of the day and steak, but we went for chicken kiev and fish stew. The kiev was well executed, and came with a pilaf of wild rice and peas, and coleslaw. The fish stew was a generous bowl of shellfish and fish is a rich broth, served with a punchy aioli. Portions are generous, and we really didn’t need pudding, but did manage to put away a rhubarb and ginger crumble.

In an area clocking up some really great restaurants, The Portman is a very decent gastropub with good cooking and great service.

Scrambled Eggs with Morels, With the First Asparagus of the Season

Alongside wild garlic and asparagus, morel mushrooms are one of the jewels of spring. Finding a tray of them in La Fromagerie right after picking up the first of the season’s asparagus at the Marylebone Farmers Market prompted this brilliant spring brunch.

Morels are conical mushrooms with a honeycomb-like cap. Brush them carefully to remove any soil, and slice them in half lengthways. Sauté them in butter, and then for two people add four eggs and a dash of cream and scramble them. We served it with toast, and asparagus with shaved pecorino.

It’s Wild Garlic Time Again – Brill with Wild Garlic Sauce and Crab Butter / Roast Potatoes in Wild Garlic Pesto

The wild garlic is bountiful right now – huge trays of it in the markets so I picked up a big bag in the Marylebone Farmers Market and we used it to the full in this meal.

Wild Garlic Pesto is a great way to use a glut, as it will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, and freezes well. You can find the recipe for wild garlic pesto here. Pink fir apple potatoes were sliced, tossed in a little oil and roasted in a hot oven for about 45 minutes, until getting crispy and golden on the outside. Drain them on a little kitchen paper and toss them in the pesto.

We served this alongside a great dish of pan-fried brill with a crab butter and a slick of wild garlic sauce.

The sauce was made by sautéeing a leek, two sticks of celery and an onion until translucent, adding a mug of vegetable stock and simmering for 10 minutes until soft. Two handfuls of wild garlic were added, and when they’d wilted down, the whole lot was blended in a food processor until smooth.

When I was buying the two brill fillets for this dish, they had some huge crab claws, so I bought a couple and made this crab butter to go along with the fish. The white meat was warmed in a generous knob of butter with half a teaspoon of mace and a quarter teaspoon of smoked paprika.

The brill fillets were dusted in flour and pan fried, served with the crab butter on top and the wild garlic sauce alongside. A great taste of spring.

Worried about importing Chinese bacon, I decided to make my own…

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Chinese bacon is one of the most delicious things you can eat – a brilliant way of using a really small amount of meat to transform a dish of noodles or a plate of greens, in the much the same way that you can use a bit of smoked bacon in a tomato sauce to create a great pasta amatriciana. With a cure heavy on star anise and Szechuan pepper, it’s a brilliant mix of savoury, sweet, salt and smoke flavour.

So Chinese bacon: good. Chinese pork farming, however: not so good. Even if it were possible to tell which packets of bacon were from good sources, shipping meat around the world is unsustainable, and much of the available Chinese bacon uses heavy amounts of MSG.

The solution to this problem: have a go at curing some bacon myself. I ordered a Pro-Q Cold Smoke Generator from Sous Chef, armed myself with bacon curing salt, star anise, cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, soy sauce and shaoxing wine (Sous Chef can help you out with some of these ingredients too).

Bacon starts with a pork belly – in this case from Old Hall Farm at the Marylebone Farmers Market. I followed this recipe from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, except I didn’t use the garlic powder, and I added in a little dark soy sauce. As long as you use the right quantity of curing salt for the meat you have, feel free to alter the balance of other flavourings. The recipe above links on to some good articles about the safety of curing.

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Separate the seeds from the star anise, and grind these with the other spices. Mix with the sugar and salt, and a tablespoon or two of the soy sauce. Moisten the pork belly, with the rind still on, with the shaoxing wine, and rub the spices into it, working it into slits in the rind. It will look like this:

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Put it in an airtight bag, with any remaining spices, and seal. Place it in the fridge, and then turn it over every day. I left it in the fridge for six days – the recipe says between five and seven days, until it feels firm all the way through.

When you take it out, wipe it dry and leave it on a rack to air for an hour or two, and then prepare the smoker. The Pro-Q produces up to ten hours of smoke. I was using it in a Weber kettle barbecue, and had a bit of trouble getting the airflow right for it to stay alight.

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After a bit of manoeuvring I got the smoker lit and the meat on top of it on a rack, where it stayed for 4-5 hours.

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After smoking, I cut it into three pieces (so I could freeze two) and kept one to use over the next few days. The recipe says that it should be fine in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but our first piece didn’t last that long…

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Unlike the Chinese bacon I’ve previously bought from Asian grocers, this doesn’t need soaking before use. Just slice off the rind and cut into lardons.

The first dish we made was a simple dish of noodles so as to taste the flavour of the bacon as much as possible. The lardons were cooked in a hot wok until the fat rendered, when a couple of sliced spring onions were added…

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…and then the cooked noodles – along with a splash of shaoxing wine and soy sauce.

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A couple of days later, the remainder of the first piece was sliced and cooked with two big handfuls of pak choi, tatsoi and flower sprouts, finished with just a dash of soy sauce, to create the dish at the top of the page.

So a combination of exotic spices with English pork and some oak smoke creates Chinese bacon made right here in London. If the initial motivation was a more sustainable way of enjoying Chinese bacon, the reason to make it again will be that it was just so good.

Review: Kurobuta Pop-Up, London

It takes something to get me to spend a Saturday night in Chelsea, particularly a Saturday night after an inauspicious day for north Londoners visiting this part of town.

It was a restaurant that bought me here, and what’s even more remarkable is that this restaurant is only a month or two away from opening a permanent location much closer to home in Marble Arch.

But the buzz on Twitter was loud enough for me to want to try Kurobuta in its current, pop-up, incarnation while I still had the chance. It was no surprise to hear the two Americans seated next to us talking of Danny Bowien and Mission Chinese as I too was thinking that this take on the Japanese izakaya shares the same informality, pace, big flavours and soundtrack – and I think it’s just as good.

The kitchen here – and like us you may find yourself seated practically in it – centres around those exciting Japanese flavours like ponzu, yuzu, wasabi, sesame and miso, mixed with a few things from elsewhere in Asia  like kimchee and steamed buns, and also reworks classic western flavour combinations like salmon and dill into a brilliant gravadlax maki.

There wasn’t a duff dish among the selection we tried: crunchy sweet potato fries with two sauces, the better of which had a lively burst of yuzu (Japanese citrus) in it; yellowtail sashimi with yuzu-soy; chicken kushi-yaki (a grilled skewer) with a barbecue sauce. Next up was more barbecue – this time pork belly in steamed buns with a brilliant chunky peanut and soy sauce to spoon over.

Pumpkin tempura came with a pile of pickled pumpkin, an oshitashi of green vegetables with a sesame sauce, and then those very fine salmon and dill maki (pictured at the top).

The dishes arrive at blinding speed, with hit after hit of brilliant flavour. This is about as far from kaiseke, with its emphasis on balance and building subtle flavour combinations, as Japanese food gets. Instead it’s a fast paced crescendo as each dish arrives and manages to do what two minutes previously seemed utterly impossible and raise the bar even higher.

Indeed the speed – and the 90 minute booking slots for tables – is one of only two minor quibbles, as the one missing bit of the Japanese izakaya experience is the relaxed pace and the chance to enjoy each dish fully before the next one arrives. The other quibble is the cost of the sake. While most of the dishes very reasonably lie in the £8-15 range, hitting the third glass of sake at £9 each made the bill tot up quickly.

Overall, though Kurobuta is ace – a winning combination of informality, great service and some phenomenal cooking that will knock your socks off. This can rightly take a place alongside A Wong in showing that London’s got some of the best reworked Asian cooking happening right now.

Kurobuta London.

Stir-Fried Venison in Ginger Sauce

This is insanely easy and amazing – a stir fry of venison with just three ingredients: ginger, spring onions and mirin (Japanese cooking wine), along with a little sesame oil.

For two people you’ll want a largish venison rump steak cut into strips. I get mine from South Downs Venison at the Marylebone Farmers Market. The season is not far from ending – you could use beef in this dish. You’ll also need two large spring onions, a tablespoon of sesame oil, a half wineglass of mirin, and a thumb sized piece of root ginger, which you should peel and grate finely.

Start by slicing the spring onions and cooking in the oil for a few minutes until they’re soft. Add the meat and stir fry until it starts taking some colour. The absolute trick with this is that the venison needs to be rare, so once it has changed colour, add the ginger, and keep frying for another minute or two until the meat is turning brown. By this point you’ll notice some of the meat juices collecting in the wok. Add the mirin and let it all bubble up quickly and reduce down for a minute to a thick sauce.

Serve this with some greens stir fried with sliced garlic, and plain steamed rice to soak up the fabulous sauce.

Beetroot, Roasted Onions, Goats Curd and Breadcrumbs

Goat’s curd has been popping up on restaurant menus for a few years now – if you haven’t had it, it’s the soft, creamy curd that you get from the first part of the cheese making process, before it is further drained and matured to make the more familiar forms of goat’s cheese. It has a smooth, light, tangy taste that you can use in sweet and savoury dishes. I picked this up from Windrush Valley at the Marylebone Farmers Market.

This supper dish combined it with beetroot and roasted onions, with a topping of crunchy breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon zest and sea salt – and it was really delicious.

The best way to cook beetroot is to scrub it, and whilst still wet, wrap it loosely in foil and bake it at 180°C for 45-90 minutes depending on the size – you want a skewer to easily go all the way in. Leave it to cool in the foil, and then you’ll be able to slide the skin off easily.

While you’ve got the oven on, you can roast some small white onions, by simply peeling them and anointing the top with a little olive oil. Roast until soft all the way through, and leave to cool. When you can handle them, slide off the outer skin to reveal the soft layers underneath. Slice into quarters and drizzle with a little salt and sherry vinegar.

To finish it off, heat a little olive oil in a pan and add a handful of breadcrumbs. Toss them about until they take on some colour, remove from the heat and add parsley, lemon zest and salt. Assemble the beetroot and onion, with a generous dollop of goats curd, and the breadcrumbs on top.

Black Badger Peas with Bacon and Cider Vinegar

My friends over at Hodmedods are on a mission to get us to eat more pulses – that’s a great idea on its own, but even better when those pulses are locally grown. They’ve added to their fava beans with black badger peas – a round pulse with a good strong flavour. This way of cooking them borrows from the traditional way of eating them in north west England, soused with vinegar.

Soak the pulses overnight, and then cook at a gentle boil for about 45 minutes with a bit of celery, onion and a carrot or two, until soft but still with a good texture.

When they’re nearly ready, sauté one small onion per portion of beans, with a heaped tablespoon of smoked bacon per person. Add the drained pulses, and stir in a decent splash of cider vinegar. Season with salt and pepper, and add a handful of chopped parsley, and you’re done.

A bowl of this, with perhaps a green salad on the side, makes a very warming winter supper. All Hodmedods products are available by mail order.

Clam-en (that’s clam ramen in an amazing buttery sauce)

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If push comes to shove, I’d probably choose clams as my favourite type of seafood. After a great spaghetti with clams, clams with mushrooms and shrimp, and having sautéed them with garlic, parsley and jamon, I wanted to try something new with the latest batch I brought back from Weston and Long at the Marylebone Farmers Market. A mention of a clam ramen with a buttery sauce in a restaurant review inspired this dish.

For good ramen, you need stock – in this case a dashi made from kombu and katsuobushi flakes. It’s simplicity itself and there’s a guide in this post. Alternatively you can buy dashi powder or sachets from Asian shops. I totally rely on the amazing stock sachets made by Kayanoya (and the generosity of my Japanese friend who mails them to me when I’m running out).

Apart from that, for two people: two spring onions, two leeks, a handful of shimeji mushrooms, butter, two cups of clams, saké, a teaspoon of white miso paste, a handful of beansprouts, fine ramen noodles (the type about the thickness of vermicelli) and if you can find them, some shiso leaves.

Sauté two sliced spring onions and two leeks in a generous slice of butter until soft, and then add about a large mug’s worth of dashi. Bring to a very gentle simmer, with bubbles just breaking the surface, and add the mushrooms.

Discard any clams which are open, rinse them and cook the clams in a cupful of saké in a pan with a lid until they have just opened (at this point, discard any that remain closed). Reserve six, and take the meat from the shells of the others and set aside. Strain the cooking liquor through muslin, and carefully add to the broth – it will likely be quite salty, so you don’t want to add it all and ruin the dish. I used about half of it. Dissolve the heaped teaspoon of white miso in water, and add this, one spoonful at a time, until the liquor is lipsmackingly delicious. Add the clams and a handful of beansprouts.

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Cook the noodles for three minutes. Rinse under hot water and arrange in bowls. Spoon broth and contents over the top.

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Arrange the three reserved clams on the top of each bowl and add sliced shiso.

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Buckwheat with smoked bacon and kale

This is one of those dishes that’s like a risotto in essence, but using a very different grain in place of rice. The combination of a little bit of smoked bacon and kale works in this rice risotto heavy with parmesan, and is related to this version with pearl barley, which replaces the bacon with beetroot and adds a melting soft cheese

Buckwheat, though, makes probably the lightest of all these grains. It is in fact a seed not a grain, and it has nothing to do with wheat, so it’s gluten free if gluten’s not your thing. It is also probably the fastest to cook of all the grains. 

For two people you’ll want 150g of buckwheat grains, vegetable stock, two sticks of celery, two onions, a small piece of smoked bacon (enough to make a couple of tablespoons of bacon lardons), and four handfuls of kale, tough stalks removed and roughly chopped.

Slice the onions and celery and sauté over a medium heat until soft and just starting to turn a caramel colour. Taking a little time over this step really helps get a great flavour in the dish. Add the bacon pieces and cook for another five minutes or so, until the bacon is just taking on a bit of colour. Add the buckwheat and stir for a minute or two until you start getting a real toasty smell rising from the pan. Add this point add warm vegetable stock to cover it to a depth of a couple of centimetres. Cook over a medium heat, checking after five minutes to see if there’s enough stock. Add the kale and stir through the pan, and cook for another three or four minutes. Check that the buckwheat is soft, and cook a little longer if necessary. I prefer to stop cooking before it gets too soft, as it can quickly go mushy. 

And that’s it – a lighter version than the risotto, but one where the flavours of the kale and bacon are brighter and cleaner.