SMALL TALK

Portland's chefs on opening their second restaurant Clipstone

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

L-R: Merlin Labron-Johnson and Stuart Andrew
L-R: Merlin Labron-Johnson and Stuart Andrew

Related tags: Pizza, Bread, Chef

Merlin Labron-Johnson and Stuart Andrew, the chefs at Michelin-starred Portland in Fitzrovia, on launching their second, more casual restaurant in Marylebone, and taking inspiration from New York and Ghent.

Portland has only been open 18 months. What’s the rationale behind a second restaurant?

Stuart: We have a strong team at Portland and we’ve done very well there over the past year and a half. Dan [Morgenthau] and Will [Lander, Portland’s owners] wanted to give me and the other sous chefs opportunities to grow our own careers – with the help of Merlin. We felt we could offer something slightly different at Clipstone, something a bit more fun.

How does it differ to the original?

Merlin: It has a different vibe to Portland. When you have two restaurants very close to each other they can’t be exactly the same, so Clipstone has a more everyday bistro feel. Portland is fine dining, it’s a special occasion restaurant, and a lot of its regular customers are people who work in the area. Clipstone is about giving those people who can’t always afford to eat at Portland the same style of food prepared with the same techniques and in the same spirit but at a more accessible price.

Stuart: The backbone of the project is not that far away from classical bistro dishes but dragging them into a lighter, more Portland style. The spirit of a bistro is somewhere where people can eat affordable food. I’m comfortable in the Michelin environment of Portland but I like to give more regular people good food and really make a statement in that arena. There are a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants and I want to bring the standard up in places that are more reasonable to eat in.

What is the average price?

Merlin: At Portland, including wine, it is around £70 a head. At Clipstone, it’s around half that.

Stuart: If you give yourself limitations, that opens up creativity rather than just having whatever you want to cook. It also requires an intelligent approach to make things as delicious as possible within that brief.

Is the offer similar?

Merlin: Portland has quite a tight 3/3/3 menu as well as snacks and we also do a tasting menu in the evening. The kitchen is tiny and the dishes we cook are intricate and very à la minute, so we wouldn’t be able to produce them at the same quality with a larger menu. Also, we get so many regulars we have to change the menu all the time to keep it fresh. At Clipstone the menu is larger and won’t change as much.

What about the design?

Merlin: Clipstone has a look that fits with Portland’s but is a bit fresher. It’s a corner site so there’s lots of windows and light coming in. It’s not much bigger, it has 50 to 52 covers if you add on the outside tables [Portland has 45 covers], but we are hoping to increase the volume by turning tables a bit more.

What’s on Clipstone’s menu?

Merlin: It features a list of dishes such as you might find at St John Bread & Wine. There are cold cuts and crudo, either paté or rillettes that we make ourselves or charcuterie, made here or bought in, and a cold fish dish with pickles and fermented vegetables. After that, the menu features five or six dishes of an average à la carte starter size but to share, and then a section from our pizza oven. There will be four main course-size dishes, but still designed to be shared, and just two desserts. One dessert, Paris-Brest, is inspired by our favourite bistro in Paris, Chez Michel.

Pizza. That’s a departure...

Merlin: We essentially bought a pizzeria and stripped it out. We have a perfectly good pizza oven in the kitchen so we thought we’d see what we could do with it. Using our bread dough at Portland, we will be making three different pizzas. We don’t want to be labelled as a pizza restaurant but it is something we are taking very seriously.

Do you have experience of cooking pizzas?

Stuart: I worked at De Superette in Ghent, which is affiliated with [Michelin-starred] restaurant In De Wulf. It’s a restaurant-cum-bakery with a large wood-burning oven that, in the morning, is used to cook bread and, in the evening, is used for pizzas, so I got a lot of inspiration from there. We’ve had success with making our own bread at Portland so we thought we would transfer those skills over. Pizza is a nice vehicle for exploring different flavours.

Merlin: I spent time in New York cooking in classic neighbourhood pizza restaurants Pasquale Jones and Charlie Bird. Most places in New York do a variation of a clam pizza and I’ve not seen that in London, so we’re doing that. We’ll also have one with potato, lardo and rosemary and another with courgettes, Irish goats’ cheese and honey. They’ll change seasonally.

Both restaurants will be very close. Will that be advantageous?

Merlin: As executive chef of both restaurants, I’ll meet the teams once a week on a Monday and liaise between the two. We might buy half a cow and use some of it for Clipstone and the rest for Portland. Because the two restaurants are close and the chefs know each other really well, it’s going to be fun.

Related topics: Venues, People, Restaurants, Small Talk

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