Ladbroke Grove is a history lesson in brick and concrete. It was the core of the Ladbroke Estate, an explosion of posh properties built in the 1840s after the Hippodrome Racecourse, north of Portobello Road, failed to attract punters and closed down. The classy gardens, squares, villas and crescents of 'Leafy Ladbroke' came to rival the stylish Whig mansions of Holland Park to the south. Unfortunately, on the north side, the demand for house-building for wealthy Victorians dwindled, then stopped, in the 1860s. It was a project which just ran out of money.
The Grove today shows the same split personality. The lower half is Millionaires' Row; the northern half, though hardly Paupers' Alley, runs out of class and style soon after the Westway crossing. What it has instead, in abundance, is shabby chic – the antiques shops, market stalls and chic eateries of Golborne Road (Hi there, Stella McCartney!) and Portobello.
Portobello House is the newest addition to this groovy parish. It's an old Victorian pub, re-made as a two-floor hotel with a bar – not just any old bar but the 'Percy Bar' – and now a "bistro". The press notes rhapsodise about its "original features", "sheer space and modern feel", the "central mahogany-topped bar", the "huge original Murano chandelier", the "graffiti wall" and "cinema screen". You expect to walk into a multi-media cathedral. Imagine my surprise when we walked into… a pub.
The wallpaper is flowery, the decor grey. There are pub tables and chairs on one side of the oval bar. On the other side are the same tables and chairs, but with cutlery. You can tell this is the Bistro because there are fairy lights on the wall and tea lights on the tables. Above two button-back sofas, the "graffiti wall" is a blackboard on which someone has neatly, if inexplicably, chalked Yeats's poem, "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven". On the wall, scenes from Casablanca are played on a loop. I approve of having Ingrid Bergman's lovely smile on a wall, but the main effect is to contrast the liveliness and intrigue of Rick's Bar in Casablanca with the ordinariness of Percy's Bar in Portobello. This looks like an exercise in doing up a boozer on the cheap and giving it fancy names.
Our friends were flooring cocktails when we arrived: a Negroni and an Aperol spritz, both excellent. I ordered a martini and kir royale for Angie and me and was told, "Sorry the cocktail barman isn't available, and I can't make cocktails". Where, I asked, is he? "He's in a meeting," she replied. This was a facer. Should I have made an appointment? "Can we go on the agenda," my friend Chris asked sardonically, "under Any Other Business?" We settled, faute de mieux, for glasses of wine.
After this disastrous start, things improved a little. The menu is unambitious, but the cooking is superior to pub standard; the chef, Jan Ostle, worked at Gordon Ramsay's Chelsea flagship restaurant, and under Philip Howard at The Square. "Hand-chopped" steak tartare came with green pepper, onions and gherkin, plus an egg to be mixed in, and was fine, if under-seasoned. Fritto misto di verdura offered lightly battered fennel, courgettes and too many onion rings, but was OK. A shared Portobello platter – of marinated sardines (bracingly vinegary), ham hock terrine (gelatinous but flavourful), cured salmon with a little salsa of basil and onions, and a splendid parfait of chicken liver – was a tasty assembly of contrasting hues and tastes.
Main courses were down-to-earth, honest-to-God fare: fish and chips, burger, grilled mackerel, chicken breast, stuff you've had a million times. My pork belly came in two tranches that resembled burnt mille feuilles, with long wilted carrots and a trace element of mash. No chainsaw in the world could penetrate the iron-clad crackling, but the pork itself was chewily delicious in its Granny Smith purée. Angie's salmon fillet with crushed new potatoes and orange hollandaise was well cooked, nicely un-slimy – "but basically, it's just salmon and potatoes and it needs something else". Alison's butternut squash and goat's cheese risotto was creamy on the tongue with a tangy aftertaste, and happily reeked of truffles. Chris's onglet steak was heftily charred on the outside and red as a rooster's rump in the middle, and therefore just fine. Neither of us believed the chips were "triple-cooked", so much as McCained.
A pudding of chocolate mousse with salted honeycomb sticking out of it reminded everyone of a Crunchie bar; the tarte tatin was fine, apart from being burnt on the bottom. It brought to a close a meal distinguished by its provincial, slapdash quality in a pub that quivered with pretensions to being something else. Perhaps the forthcoming "film club" and "wine club" on the premises will improve things. Provided, of course, that nobody's "in a meeting" when the punters arrive.
Portobello House Hotel Bistro, 225 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 (020-3181 0929)
Around £80 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
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