Portobello Garden Caffe – Portobello Road, London

Can you book? Yes
Food: 9/10
Atmosphere: 8/10
Price paid per person: £13

Out and about on a lunchtime constitutional along Portobello Road last week something interesting caught my eye. Set back from the road, hiding behind vintage clothes in the arcade, was an alluringly attractive Italian restaurant. On my own, without reading material and in a hurry to get back to work, I had no intention of sitting down to eat but I was compelled to go in and investigate. I glanced at the menu and clientele, was charmed by the decor of hanging dried meat and flowers, and decided I would return imminently.

Thankfully an opportunity arose this week. I had taken it upon myself to arrange a lunch for myself and nine colleagues, and presented them with an option of four restaurants (secretly hoping that democracy would work in my favour). At first, take-up was slow as the more adventurous-sounding alternatives were far more popular, but risk aversion gradually set in and the simple Italian became the winner; a culinary hare and tortoise situation, if you will.

“What if they don’t cater for big groups? What if it’s awful and I’m forever ridiculed for my restaurant choice?” Such questions were running through my mind, distracting me from my morning tasks.

An amiable Italian gentleman saw the first sub-group and exclaimed “group of ten, this way please!” so we followed orders and went inside to our long table, immediately looking above us at the conservatory style ceiling and feeling as though we had walked into a Tuscan summer.

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Our charismatic waitress brought over an alternative to a complementary bread basket; a plate of amuse-bouche sized pieces of courgette frittata served on a forest of rocket. I was very impressed by this. They have foreseen that I’m going to be ravenous, having not eaten since my 11:00 AM apple; that I may not wish to bloat up on bread; that I enjoy being surprised, which I most certainly was. I had only been there ten short minutes and these people already knew how to please me more than some people who have known me for decades. If that isn’t customer service, I really don’t know what is.

The menu is slightly unusual in that there isn’t the usual long list of pizzas and pastas to choose from, instead there were a couple of al forno dishes (baked in the oven), several paninis (with pizza bread), and a list of specials, a few of which were mains. I took from this that a decision had been made to offer a limited number of dishes, but to do them well.

I had top-notch, considerably portioned gnocchi with bolognese sauce for £11.50, served whilst the tomato sauce was still bubbling from the oven, with fresh basil scattered on top.

To make the experience even more superior, they should consider investing in a second credit card machine to take two payments simultaneously since this was a bit slow.

I was really fond of this restaurant and highly recommend it. Now I just need to think up another reason to go back next week..

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