There are actually quite a few portuguese restaurants in London but many of them are aimed at the Portuguese living here rather than at anyone else. This may explain why, despite there being a sizeable portuguese community, it’s a cuisine that many Londoners don’t seem to know that much about.
So I was pretty excited when I heard about a new portuguese restaurant in London’s Notting Hill. Coincidentally, although it’s now one of the most chi-chi parts of the capital, back in the Sixties Notting Hill was a poor area which became home to many of the first wave of portuguese immigrants arriving in England.
There’s nothing in the name, Notting Hill Kitchen, which tells you about the kind of food on offer. The menu, has been devised by the portuguese chef, Luis Baena. He’s apparently quite famous, but if I’m honest I’ve never heard of him (but then I’m more of a keen foodie and not a restaurant critic).
The restaurant itself is in a traditional victorian terrace – the only hint of an iberian influence are the blue and white tiled panel outside and the simple paper placemats indoors which are also inspired by blue and white tile patterns.
Our party of four – three of us with family ties to Portugal and the fourth half-spanish – were given a warm welcome despite arriving slightly late. The staff were attentive and friendly during our visit and the sommelier was very helpful when it came to choosing from the impressive selection of portuguese wines on offer.
We began by ordering a mixture of petiscos (the portuguese equivalent of tapas) and some larger starters. The three miniscule seafood cataplanas (a typical stew from the Algarve) were tasty. Also good, although I’ve never seen one in Portugal, was a rather unorthodox-looking pale pink prawn sausage. Less successful was a cold, partially-cooked egg yolk, dressed with truffle oil and served with shredded greens. Again this was not something any of us have ever eaten in Portugal. I couldn’t taste the white truffle and the egg’s texture wasn’t particularly pleasant. However my starter of alheira, a portuguese sausage made from game, which was served with roasted quince was delicious – beautifully combining flavours I associate with Portugal. It was served in the traditional manner with two fried eggs, in this case two tiny quail eggs. A black-eyed bean and octopus salad also went down very well with one of my companions as did the richly-flavoured bone marrow and pata negra (cured ham) served on toast.
For mains three of us had bacalhau à brás. The dish - a mixture of flaked salted cod, finely grated chips and scrambled eggs served with a scattering of olives – was very good, although I suspect it may have been too salty for some english palates. The other main course we ordered was also a very traditional portuguese dish – arroz de pato or duck rice. The version I have always eaten has a strong flavour and slightly oily texture, with bits of choriço and duck mixed into the darkened rice. At Notting Hill Kitchen, the pale rice seemed rather dry and over-cooked to the point of mush and the flavours were not nearly as robust.
For dessert, I couldn’t quite bring myself to pay £7 for a pastel de nata (a portuguese custard tart), but my partner had no such scruples. Instead of the traditional round tart, nowadays an increasingly common sight in many London cafés, this pastel had been shaped into a rectangle with pastry on the inside instead. I don’t think this really added to the taste, but it was good and the accompanying cinnamon ice cream was, according to him, delicious.
Overall, we had a fun night out in a relaxed and friendly setting – some dishes more recognisably portuguese and more successful than others. Our party was probably harder to please than most and it wasn’t cheap at £50 a head including one bottle of wine and service (certainly compared to most portuguese restaurants I’ve been to in London). But if you’re looking for something different or are feeling homesick and fancy a treat, Notting Hill Kitchen is probably worth a visit.