‘I’m not sure squid and tuna burger is a genius idea, but I love pigs’ cheeks cooked until crusty’
Poor old Portugal has never really been up there in the international haute cuisine stakes. Being an earthy cuisine – lots of pig, lots of fresh seafood, much given to the twin thrills of extreme, smoky heat and lots of sugar – attempts to zhuzh it up are often self-defeating. I’m thinking particularly of a visit to Lisbon’s glittering Tavares, whose gourmet version of the much-loved bacalhau à brás (salt cod with eggs and fried potatoes) was notable only because of the noodle-thinness of the chips. There’s pure dead posh for you.
But there’s no denying the gorgeousness of their native produce: sparkling seafood, blackfoot pigs every bit as glorious as their celebrated Spanish cousins, fragrant sausages and evilly squelchy cheese. It’s these, and the joy of unsung Portuguese wines, that make eating out in the homeland such a pleasure.
So the idea that Notting Hill Kitchen (there’s a name that conjures up the sultry heat of an afternoon by the Douro, eh?) intends to offer “an ever-changing menu inspired by the Atlantic-facing Iberian Peninsula” is a little perplexing. Did they just bung a bit of Spain in there for luck? And there’s not much help from chef Luis Baena’s website, which is more happy waxing voluble about his “mission” than his actual food.
Baena’s backers have set him up in what was Leith’s, a lovely warren of interlocking rooms in adjoining town houses. They’ve imported Barcelona-based Sandra Taruella to turn it into a very handsome restaurant, all sludgy colours and slinky furniture, with flashes of blue-and-white tiles. The clever lighting makes everyone look several degrees more attractive (and mutes the inevitable red-trouser brigade). It’s a serene, sedate space for people who like to dine as opposed to just going out for their tea.
The simplest thing on the menu is some hand-carved Joselito jamón. A fine example it is, too: its nutty fat coats the tongue, its garnet flesh is ripe with concentrated essence of acorn-fed porker. Other starters are “designed to share”. So we reluctantly share a Galician-style pig’s head terrine, as rustic a porcine number as you’ll find outside the dehesa. So far, so Spanish. Then there’s a version of bacalhau à brás (here without onions), the salt cod and potatoes whipped up with some stonkingly vibrant olive oil from Elvas, where the dish originated; and a salad of finely chopped, smoky octopus with black-eyed beans and more of that oil. These are all fine dishes; the bread, served with almost-white sheep’s butter, grassy olive oil and an egg yolk slow-cooked to the texture of aïoli and spiked with truffle, lifts them into another dimension altogether.
The mains can’t quite handle the pace: there’s a tendency to over-reduced, vinous sauces, treacly and overwhelming, especially in an ox cheek dish so overpoweringly beefy it would make a vegetarian faint from several paces. I’m not sure a “burger” made from squid and tuna is altogether a genius idea, but I love pigs’ cheeks cooked until crusty outside and almost spoonable within, and served with migas (buttery crumbs) scented with more truffle.
What lets NHK down is the clumsy service. There’s a startling lack of knowledge about what’s on the plate (the spaghetti-like threads of mooli served with the “burger” bamboozle them) or in the bar (“Er, house vodka?”). The sommelier knows his stuff, but is brusque to the point of incivility (though we love his recommended A Coroa godello); and we’re interrupted every five minutes by management with as much self-awareness as a needy teen. Saying “Sorry to interrupt you” before interrupting to ask, “Everything OK?” really doesn’t make everything OK.
Still, it’s a glamorous gaff. You could come here with a date or a grandparent and be equally happy. If the staff got a boot up the jacksie, it could be a welcome addition to the shrinking pantheon of London’s properly grown-up restaurants.
• Notting Hill Kitchen 92 Kensington Park Road, London W11, 020-7313 9526. Open Tues-Sun, lunch noon-2.30pm, dinner, 6-10.30pm. About £35 a head plus drinks and service.
Value for money 6/10
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