Restaurant review: Picture, 110 Great Portland St, London W1
'It's the restaurant equivalent of BBC Four - upmarket but quirky'
Saturday 03 August 2013
The area around the BBC's Broadcasting House is not famous for destination dining. Apart from Villandry, there has never been much in the ex rag-trade district north of Oxford Circus to detain the restaurant guides. It's a place for homely mom and pop places – trats with candles in Chianti flasks, or Greek and Turkish joints. The sort of spot to suit suede-shoed radio producers lunching publishers on modest budgets.
Now, with the recent opening of the shiny New Broadcasting House, the TV mob have moved in. Thousands of them, uprooted from White City and crammed like battery hens into a vast, but not quite vast enough, new building. The incomers, their dining horizons miraculously widened beyond the chain restaurants of Westfield, flood out gratefully each lunchtime from their hot-desks and meeting cubicles to roam the sunlit uplands of Fitzrovia.
New restaurants are springing up to service this invading army of telly types. Once that would have meant expense account-friendly fine-dining places, but no one at the BBC has an expense account any more. The new austerity-era restos need to be discreet and justifiable-to-the-Daily-Mail cheap.
Picture, a welcome new arrival in the shadow of NBH, fits the bill in every respect. Set up by three defectors from the Arbutus/Wild Honey group, two chefs and a manager, it's the restaurant equivalent of BBC Four – upmarket but quirky, with crossover appeal to a wider audience.
Aesthetically, it's in tune with the BBC's current penitential mood. The room is long, colourless and spartan, with raw plaster walls, bulkhead lighting and old school chairs. Look, we're not wasting your licence fee on fripperies, proclaim the brown-paper menus and tea-towel napkins. But if the ambience is unforgiving, the staff are warm and helpful, taking their lead from boyband-cute manager and co-owner Tom, who will surely be signed up for his own show.
If you were pitching Picture's menu to a commissioning editor, you'd describe it as modern mainstream with a twist; small sharing plates of ingredient-led British fare that's taken a grand tour of Northern Europe and the Middle East. From the Nordic end of the menu, pickled silver darlings – not an old-school Radio 3 producer, but rollmop herrings, swaddling a sour-sharp dice of gherkins, capers and raw onions. From the warm south, Lebanese fried chicken, gloriously crisp if a little undersized, and served with a pool of yogurt sprinkled with sumac and pomegranate seeds.
Some dishes are a bit random. Poached egg draped in warm folds of ham-like pork belly, and partnered with white peaches and crumbled hazelnuts, left my guest, the historian Lucy Worsley, quite discombobulated. "Is it like Japanese food," she mused, "where you don't know what it is, it's just all grey and wobbly?" But others are simpler and more focused – slow-braised hunks of beef, in a sticky reduced sauce, served with coco beans and sweetly roasted carrots was notably good, and a steal at £8. Partnered with fries and aioli (£3), it would make a handsome lunch in its own right.
As at Arbutus, the food is just a bit posher than you'd expect from the menu descriptions, or the prices. There are rather too many cheffy flourishes – foamed sauces, fish skin crisped or crumbled, microherbs a go-go. But the bread is free, the wine list offers a great selection, served by the glass, carafe or bottle, and there's a tempting bar area for recently-fired senior executives to fritter away their redundancy pay-offs.
Not quite sure I'd got the whole Picture, I went back for dinner with my own silver darling, and found the room warmer and more convivial at night, although the calamitous acoustics need attention, perhaps from a moonlighting sound engineer. BBC Four launched itself as 'a place to think'; this is a place to shout. But again, even if some dishes slightly missed the mark, there were stand-outs to compensate – lightly poached salmon, topped with a crisp of its own skin and partnered with curried cauliflower and sultanas; a dark and seductive hunk of slow-cooked lamb shoulder with puréed fava beans. The overall impression was of a really well-run restaurant driven by the curiosity of a couple of gifted chefs.
The scores at the top of this page don't really reflect how much I liked it; but then, as is often the case in TV, ratings don't tell the whole story. Picture isn't a star performer, around which you might build a whole night's schedule. It's the kind of well-crafted, enjoyable format you find yourself returning to again and again. And that's mainly because – just like the BBC, for all its faults – they really seem to care about their customers.
Picture, 110 Great Portland St, London W1 (020-7637 7892). £30 a head without wine and service; set lunch £15 for three courses
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