Happy days at Portabello
I’ve been spending a bit of time around Summertown recently as I’ve started contributing to an extra radio show, and the BBC Oxford studios happen to be on the corner of South Parade – happy days! This is the street that holds a clutch of treasures, including Vanilla fashion boutique, The Oxford Wine Cafe, Sarah Wiseman Gallery (see the current exhibition with Athol Whitmore, below, it’s amazing)….
…. plus there’s The Book House bookshop, Mamma Mia pizzeria which I reviewed a couple of weeks back and also Portabello, a family-friendly modern European brasserie that I’ve never quite made it into over the years (despite an enticing verandah), and now I’m kicking myself, because it’s fabulous.
It’s close to the Banbury Road end of South Parade, with a now defunct Italian on one side (a victim of landlords hiking up rents to painful degrees) and Bang and Olufsen, literally being dismantled on the other side the day I visitied (about to be turned into flats). I can’t see Portabello going any time soon though – I ate here at around 1.45pm on a weekday and it was rammed. An interesting mix of customer too, which is probably the secret of its success. Quite a few business lunches, a few retired couples, a couple of families with grown up kids, a mum with a tiny baby in a pram, and even a quartet of hungry schoolgirls! So there’s definitely an inclusive, non-stuffy atmosphere in this restaurant, even as at the same time for food is confident and beautifully presented.
The restaurant is split into two halves with a central bar scooping round in a semi-circle across both sides, the left hand with a cosy tan leather banquette cubby at the rear, with bistro tables to the front, and the the right side with banquette seating right down the side, set against exposed brick walls, large photo prints and ‘specials’ blackboards.
There’s a sense of light and modernity with the clean lines and simple pendant downlighters, and it feels stylish and spacious without trying too hard. A major benefit of having two equal sides is that on quieter days or nights the waiters can usher you into the section where other people eat, easily creating atmosphere.
I had a banquette seat, all the better to peer at what was going on, and here’s my view.
Upstairs, there’s a private hire room (not particularly flash on the day I peered in, but I’m sure it can be zsushed up pretty quickly and looked like it could hold 16-20 for dinner comfortably), more banquette seating outside the loos, some actory black and white photos on the walls, and a zingy teal colour that I found myself strangely attracted to.
Nice loos too – let’s just throw that one in.
Right then, the scene has been set so, er, shall we eat?
I had a absolutely delicious (and for me, uncharacteristically healthy) charred asparagus & broccoli, avocado bulgar wheat & marinated feta salad for starters. The bulgar wheat was slightly curried which I loved and the asparagus and broccoli were flavoursome and on the right side of crunchy.
Ding dong, round two and I went off the specials board with grilled sardines, heritage tomatoes and aoli. Another beautifully presented plate and though admittedly it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a grilled sardine (unless *cough* you’re me), the portion was generous, the tomatoes those pretty shades of yellow, purple, green and red and it took me to the coast, a warm breeze against my hair, waiter smiling at me slowly as he …. Oops, just getting away wtih myself there for a second.
No room for dessert but meh, when has that ever stopped me? I chose a vanilla poached pear with yoghurt, honey & almonds (£6.50) and it was divine, sweet but not straying into cloying, the crunch of the almonds offsetting the soft pear.
Service was efficient, friendly and not overfamiliar. Seriously, what’s not to like about this place? The experience for me was a positive one and I’d definitely come back, either with Mr Muddy if we’re knocking about this side of town, or as a place to meet the girlies for a lunch.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Business lunches, families or friends, particularly in the day. I’m guessing evenings might suit adults better but certainly there was no sense of children not being welcome. Brunchy nibblers out on that verandah would be lovely if the weather will please turn its hand to summer now. Anyone wanting excellent food on a budget – I thought the prices were very reasonable given the quality of food. Vegans and kids are catered for with their own menus. Monday nights you can bring your own wine for £5 corkage.
Not for: Anyone looking for a more formal dining experience. This is a superior brasserie serving the local area, but doesn’t make pretensions above that.
£££: Entrees mostly £7-9, Most mains £13-18, with ribeye steak at £22.50, desserts mostly £6.50. Fixed price lunch an enticing £7.95 Mon-Fri.
Portabello, 7 South Parade, Summertown, Oxford, OX2 7JL. Tel: 01865 559653. portabellorestaurant.co.uk