Morag Bootland uncovers a haven of boutique shops, restaurants and much more in the heart of London’s West End.
For a country girl, a trip to London is always exciting, but it can also be a recipe for something akin to sensory overload when I’m surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the capital.
So, when I received an invitation to visit Portman Marylebone I was very excited to be returning to the big city for the first time since the pandemic began, but also to visit a community that appeared to be chock full of small independent businesses that is situated literally a hop, step and jump from the crowds and chain stores of Oxford Street.
On arrival, I checked in to the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill, which was to be my base. The hotel is full of period charm and the staff were incredibly helpful throughout my stay. The hotel is situated overlooking the lush greenery of Portman Square Gardens, perfect for exploring all that the area has to offer. My room was spacious with views of the garden and a huge bed to relax in when I’d done wandering. The hotel also has a fabulous cocktail bar and terrace, perfect for a night cap.
As I begin my wanderings, I’m struck by how peaceful this place is. The streets are lined by small cafes where diners are enjoying alfresco coffee in the autumn sunshine and the pace of life seems somehow slower than I had expected. My senses feel calm as I turn onto the red-brick frontages of Chiltern Street, once voted London’s coolest street by Condé Nast Traveller.
My first port of call was at Cox and Power, a modern jeweller with an in-store workshop. Here, managing director Rachel Sweeney showed me some of the exquisite and varied pieces made by Tony Power. As we wandered around the beautiful store, I admired the chunky wooden fixtures that juxtaposed perfectly with the delicacy of the jewellery and I struggled not to be distracted by the perfectly-lit diamonds that seemed to wink at me as I moved around. The workshop space is a little like stepping back in time. The tools of a jeweller have changed very little over the centuries and creating these beautiful pieces is a very hands-on affair. Here, I fell in love with an unusual and stunning tourmaline pendant, so be sure to pop in and admire it if you’re passing by.
A short walk saw me arrive at the Grazing Goat on New Quebec Street for a spot of lunch. The menu here is hearty and full of sustainably-sourced traditional British treats. I sat on one of the comfy tweed sofas and perused the menu while taking in the substantial wooden bar, wooden tables and cheerful striped awning covering the outdoor tables. My cod and chips arrived quickly and I tucked in with gusto. The beer batter was perfectly crispy and the chunky chips set me up for more exploration. On the staircase hangs a portrait of Lady Portman with a goat behind her. It is said that she was allergic to cow’s milk, so kept goats in order to drink their milk and the Grazing Goat now sits on the land where her goats once grazed, hence the name.
Back on Chiltern Street I make a mental note to browse the shoes for ladies with large feet in Magnus Shoes. Any other ladies with a firm grip on the earth will know what a luxury it is to be able to try on shoes before you buy them! The multiple bottles of amber nectar in Cadenhead’s whisky shop also catch my eye. You can take the girl out of Scotland, but….
I can’t stop now, because I’m headed for Bharti Vyas for a harmonising top to toe beauty treatment. This tranquil sanctuary has been around for 40 years and was one of the first places to bring together holistic wellness and beauty to create personalised treatments for customers. My treatment really did allow me to experience the best of both worlds with a facial tailored to suit my sensitive skin and a massage using some of Bharti Vyas’s own incredible oil blends. I left feeling refreshed and renewed and ready for yet more exploration.
Here in the heart of London there are more electric cars than I’ve seen anywhere else. Probably because we are in London’s ultra low emissions zone. I’m sure they add to the sense of peace of this place and the feeling of fresh air that is so rarely found in city centres.
A quick jaunt back to the Hyatt to freshen up for dinner means that I discover a special treat in my room. Some lovely messages of welcome along with a wee drink and some of the most delicious smoked salmon blinis.
Spruced up and ready for an evening in the city I pop into Thompson’s Gallery on Seymour Place where the lovely Justin gives me an expert guided tour of the great mix of 20th and 21st century paintings and sculptures that make this gallery a pleasure to wander around. On arrival I’m met by three beautiful bronze female figures in the form of Carol Peace’s ‘Come Along Girls’, Peace’s work is also showcased in the foyer of The Hyatt and I’m really drawn to the textures of the bronze resin sculpture, as well as the proud stance of the strong female forms. I particularly enjoyed the little, enclosed sculpture garden to the rear of the gallery which provides a real oasis of calm and would make the perfect place to while away a few hours with a good book. There are plenty of Scottish works of art on show to pique my interest too and an upcoming exhibition by landscape artist Mhairi McGregor called ‘To the Coast’.
Meeting an old friend, we head out for dinner at Clarette. This French restaurant with a focus on wine is situated in a mock Tudor townhouse with ornate stained-glass windows on the corner of Blandford Street and Manchester Street. Here we are shown to our table and offered a glass of champers to enjoy while we read through the classic French menu.
Clarette is owned by Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos of the Château Margaux family and Natsuko Perromat du Marais, a leading restaurateur and as you might imagine the wine list here is pretty awesome. To start, I can’t resist a French classic with a twist and pick the Tartare de boeuf, hand-cut beef rump, cured egg yolk, corn tortilla and jalapeños (£12). I loved the little bursts of heat from the chilli peppers against the creaminess of the egg and richness of the steak. Jules also loved her Chevre chaud caramelised goat cheese, pine nuts, figs and bitter leaf salad (£11). This dish was so pretty that she stared longingly at it for a good few moments before getting stuck in. Happy to be guided by our expert sommelier we both revelled in a glass of 2012 Margaux du Château Margaux with our starters, a juicy berry driven red with a comforting oaky finish. Listening to the chatter of the French couple at the table behind us, if I closed my eyes I could almost be transported to a Parisian bistro.
Matching mains of St. Jacques, seared scallops, lemongrass foam, mangetout, turnips and lotus root (£29) were paired with an unusual Greek wine, 2019 Moschofilero, Mister Helios, Kalogris from the Peloponnese. This citrussy white with a touch of saltiness was the perfect match to the generous portion of sweet, nutty scallops sat atop still crunchy mangetout and delicate turnips. I loved the addition of the crisp lotus root, providing a perfect contrast to the yielding scallop meat.
Determined to stick with the French theme of the evening I didn’t regret for a second ordering the Chocolate-passion fruit mille-feuille (£9). This decadent treat was rich in chocolate, cut through by the sharpness of the passion fruit and with perfectly crispy pastry – an absolute triumph. Jules declared her Banoffee tartlet and peanut butter ice cream (£9) to be amazing and her smile backed up the claim.
The short waddle back to the Hyatt was a pleasure after dark, passing by many restaurants and bars filled with weekend chatter, the warmth of friendship and the return of sharing good times with those we love.
A great night’s sleep in the aforementioned gigantic bed left me ready for a morning of more wanderings. Getting straight back into the French spirit, I stop off for a divine almond croissant, a glass of chilled pear juice and a French breakfast tea at So French. This is just one of many tempting independent places to eat on Seymour Place. The walls of this pretty little cafe are lined with artisan French goodies and the tables adorned with cheerful chrysanthemums. The cafe opened in February this year and has proved popular with the local French community who missed going back to France while travel restrictions were in place.
After breakfast I had planned a visit to Dashing Tweeds, a tailor’s shop that I had passed the day before and admired a beautiful raglan sleeve, green tweed jacket in the window. Here I met founder and former fashion photographer Guy Hills and his charming little Shih Tzu, George. Guy specialises in made-to-measure tweed clothing and greets me wearing an awesome wide-legged tweed suit. Guy sources his tweed from mills in the Scottish Borders and loves putting a bit of fun into the fabric. His reflective tweed jackets designed especially for cyclists are particularly cool. Guy does a lot of costume work for film and TV including Mary Poppins returns in 2018. While I browse the rails and photography books a fellow Scot pops in to buy the very jacket I had admired the evening before from the window. And very dapper he looked in it too!
With my visit drawing to a close I still have time for lunch before I head for home. I plump for Zayna, this North Indian and Pakistani restaurant has been a stalwart of the area since 2013 and had a presence in London since 2009. The modern décor and green foliage make for a welcoming and relaxed environment in which to study the menu. I eventually decided on the delicious Paapdi chaat, small wheat crisps, spiced chickpeas, yogurt and sweet tamarind sauce bejewelled with pomegranate seeds (£7). This was followed by a sizzling platter of Tandoori jheenga, a huge portion of juicy king prawns marinated in mint, coriander, lemon juice and red chillies (£25). I enjoyed the huge meaty prawns wrapped in a tandoori roti bread and drizzled in raita and tamarind sauce. A chilled glass of Chablis rounded off what was a glorious and hearty lunch. Service here is incredibly attentive and the portions are generous, so despite glancing at the dessert menu I couldn’t manage to eat another thing.
Travelling back to Scotland I reflect on how unique Portman Marylebone is and how much of a pleasure it has been to explore streets filled with independent shops, boutiques and restaurants. High streets filled with diverse businesses are such a rarity these days that finding a hidden gem in the heart of the capital is absolutely priceless and well worth travelling for.