the UK Dining Guide

Porters English Restaurant, Covent Garden WC1

Pies and Puddings of perfection

By London standards, where there has been such a whirlwind of feverish activity in the restaurant scene, Porters English Restaurant is well established. It will be twenty one in the year 2000, so I bet there'll be quite a celebration there on the eve of the next millenium. In 1979 its founder, the Earl of Bradford, observed the lack of a good English restaurant that served traditional food at prices that ordinary folk could afford to pay. So in the very best traditions of noblesse oblige which means nothing if not service to the community, he opened Porters in the Covent Garden Market, then undergoing its transformation from London's great central fruit and vegetable market to one of the Capital's most successful tourist and leisure attractions.

Things have moved on a lot since then. The British have become much more adventurous where eating out is concerned. Food in pubs was virtually non-existent 20 years ago, but nowadays roasts and pies are pretty much standard fare, with a few trailblazers promoting the more modern culinary trends. So where has all this left Porters? For one thing its position at the heart of the tourist centre of London means that those curious to sample traditional British fare at reasonable prices do not have to look far. When we visited I was surprised to note that in fact most of the clientele seemed to be true blue Brits. This is always a good sign; for instance, if you see a bistrot in Paris stuffed full of locals, that's always the one to go for.

The starters mostly consist of soups, all at £2.95. It needed only a moment's reflection on the rest of the menu to see the wisdom of this, given the generous main courses and the promise later of proper puddings. The Cauliflower and Stilton soup was extremely tasty and came with practically half a loaf! Split pea and Ham soup is one of my all time favourites: here, the colour was a vivid green and it tasted excellent, having been made with proper ham stock - for utter perfection I'd have liked some identifiable pieces of ham floating around, and both soups could have been hotter. I imagine like everyone else in the restaurant trade these days, his Lordship is well aware of the risk of lawsuits for accidental scalding!

The centrepiece of the menu is the selection of pies, all at £7.95. There are two main types: they can be covered with pastry, or with a potato and cheese topping. I had a fish pie smothered with mashed potatoes and bubbling cheese. There was plenty of salmon, white fish and prawns, but the sauce was a touch bland. We wondered if the addition of a dash of white wine and saffron would be unauthentic and non-British? My friend's lamb and apricot pie was an absolute delight. It had a vast dome of caramelised brown pastry of the lightest texture - I'll bet a lot of research went into perfecting that mixture. There was plenty of meat inside and the sauce was dark, rich and delicious with more than a hint of mint.

I was excited at the prospect of a side order of bubble and Squeak - a traditional leftovers dish made by frying up mashed potato and chopped up cooked cabbage. The secret is to fry the cabbage first so that it gets a bit crisp, then mix in the spuds. The Porters version was interesting, it looked like two pieces of toast cut diagonally, rather impressive in a fussy way, but in a blind tasting I doubt if I'd have recognised it.

If you don't fancy a pie, then there's traditional roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and two Malaysian chaps at the next table demolished their generous portions with gusto. You don't get any of that fancy carving of the joint at the table, but the price is half that of the establishment in the Strand where all that flummery takes place. I also liked the look of the grilled skewered lambs' kidneys served on bacon mash, for £7.95. I was glad to note that the steaks come from Scottish beef which is hung for three weeks. Thank heaven someone is taking the preparation of their meat really seriously.

Strictly speaking, puddings are cooked desserts: steamed, boiled and baked, as a rule. Certain English people, and I am one of them, rather perversely insist on calling any sweet dish a pudding. The puddings at Porters are prodigious, profligate and comforting. It was hard to choose between Spotted Dick, a prep-school favourite, and Lady Bradford's banana and ginger steamed pudding. One felt that chez Bradford one ought to put her Ladyship's culinary inventiveness to the test. It was rich in flavour but light in texture - a pudding par excellence. I had the Trinity College Cambridge Creme Brulee, probably the best ever. It certainly knocked spots off one I tried later in the week in a multi-Michelin starred restaurant.

I was delighted to see that wines from the brilliant Denbies Estate in Dorking are featured on the wine list for a very modest £2.25 a glass or £10.95 a bottle. We loved the crisp white with its very intense concentrated flavours. The red was very smooth and rich - amazing, it must be something to do with global warming. The real joy was the brilliant Denbies Noble Harvest 1992 in those very stylish tall bottles with a splash of red sealing wax instead of a capsule. This is an outstanding pudding wine by any standards - I tasted it in the company of Chateau d'Yquem and Willi Opitz last week and it held its own most nobly. At £18.95 this is barely more expensive than the shop price. Lady B's pud deserves no less a noble wine to match!

Clifford Mould, April 1998

You may like to read his recent article on Traditional British Cooking and where to find it in the Capital.

Porters English Restaurant, 16-17 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London WC1
Tel: 020 7 836 6466

Porters Web Site contains their latest menus and prices

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