FOODSTUFF: Portofino owner can charm, but can his food?

A quick posting after a large media lunch at Portofino, hosted by owner Cormac Keane with Jane and John of Cuvées Classiques supplying some delicious Drappier, Lallier and Jacquesson Champagnes.

Like most of my colleagues, I went along because I was curious to see if the owner was as obnoxious as the 2009 emails made him out to be. The story eventually made it into a Dublin newspaper, see Basil Faulty rant for amusing reading.

Mr Keane’s tirade resulted after a customer requested he open the restaurant early - which meant roping in staff earlier too - and then cancelling at the last minute. What escaped most readers was that the customer was actually in the wrong, and the restaurateur had every right to be furious or demand compensation. However Mr Keane’s rude - if wittily put - email response didn’t endear Portofino to some potential customers. And it may be an ongoing theme. See Cormac’s annoying customer list.

So my first question on meeting Mr Keane at Portofino (dressed in a stylish grey suit he acquired when in the Moscow-based employ of Russia’s wealthiest man): “So how has business been since the email fiasco: responses suggested that customers were either decidedly turned off, or intrigued enough to visit?” Mr Keane responded that he’ll know the outcome in about six months time.

My impressions of the man were positive: he has entertaining stories, enjoys South Africa, and has a good Irish sense of humour. I haven’t visited Portofino independently since he took it over - the interior decor and tableware is virtually unchanged from its Showroom days. But I was out of Cape Town for much of December and January. And pretty busy checking out new eating spots in the Winelands ever since, mostly dining out on my own account. Had to add that last bit, in case I’m accused of being one of those journalists who never tips if hosted for a meal! I routinely do that too by the way.

Portofino impressions: A starter of warm creamed mussel and Champagne soup with green apple sorbet offered lovely flavours and the mussel broth was delicious, but I am so over cold sorbets with hot partners, and would’ve preferred something in keeping with the times. Oven-roasted fish with pesto was tasty, lifted by roasted Roma tomatoes. Beef fillet had a berry sauce, but little to excite as a dish, served with diced green veggies and mash (I wasn’t enticed enough to stay for dessert, but a colleague said the signature Lindt nemesis cake with white chocolate and semi-freddo was impressive).

As to whether I’ll be returning to Portofino soon, who knows? Yes, an independent review is the best test of a restaurant. But a hosted media lunch should deliver an experience so exceptional I’d want to keep eating - and return. They know we’re analysing every element. Today’s menu was passable without being exciting. I expect restaurant food to add a dimension beyond what I can do at home myself. Mr Keane let slip that a new chef is starting soon.