A week ago I heard about Portofino opening in the ex-Showroom space at a dinner party, and all I could find out was that an unknown Irish 30-something, with no previous restaurant experience, by the name of Cormac Keane, was opening the restaurant.   I googled his name, and there were no entries for him.  I bumped into Vaughn Johnson, and he told me that he is doing Portofino’s winelist.   The opening date was vague, being sometime this week.

On Thursday evening I drove by, coming from a concert close by, at 10 pm.  The security guard assured me that the restaurant was open.  I went in, unsure if it had indeed opened, and whether I would be welcomed at that time of night.   The door was opened by Keane himself, and I received a most hearty welcome.   He was intrigued about what I had heard about him, and sat down to chat, sharing some of his story with me.   I noticed his red sneakers immediately and told him that they reminded me of David Kramer’s red velskoens, but he had not heard of Kramer.   The shoes stand out in the otherwise white interior. 

Whilst Keane has had an interior decorator attend to his restaurant, few changes are visible.  The ghost chairs of The Showroom are still there, giving the restaurant a familiarity if one has been there before.   White curtains separate the restaurant from the luxury car showroom next door, and help to protect oneself against its bright light.   Noticeably, the counter is uncluttered, relative to its predecessor, and the chef, Stephen Kruger, previously working alongside Richard Carstens, is very clearly to be seen and willing to assist customers.

Keane grew up in Ireland, with a teacher father and principal mother, but says he was not a good scholar, and never wrote any exams.   He did not do anything after finishing school, except fly around the world with a friend in that person’s private jet, partying for three years all over the world.   Despite his lifestyle he did not have a cent to his name, he says.  Returning to London, he was headhunted to become the social secretary of Oleg Deripaska, a close personal friend of Putin, Russia’s richest man, and 9th on the Forbes international billionaire’s list, with a worth of $ 40 billion prior to the credit crunch, created mainly from aluminium.   Keane worked for him for a year, and rubbed shoulders with Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair, Putin and Roman Abramovich.   A six-month stint working for an American hedge fund investor living in London followed.   In this time he discovered Cape Town, and came to Cape Town regularly.

No matter how little money he had, Keane has never cooked food for himself, and has been eating out since he was 17, he says.   “I have never cooked a meal in my life, and I have no fridge, and no ‘cooker’ in my home”, he says with pride.   This has made him an astute restaurant-goer, who knows what he wants, and is not afraid to ask for it, and to express his dissatisfaction, having been thrown out of restaurants as a result.

His view on other local restaurants is interesting, and he has a few favourites – Bizerca is his top favourite, but he also rates the Foodbarn, Manna, and Table 13.    He does not like La Colombe.

Opening a restaurant is something Keane feels he can do well.  He is hands-on, changing a table cloth, welcoming guests arriving even later (the ambassador to the United Nations, who lives in the apartment block above the restaurant).   He put the menu together himself, buying the best Italian cookbooks in London, and choosing recipes that he likes for his menu.

The prices are reasonable, with starters ranging from R 40 – R 85, pasta dishes at R 50 – R 85, mains mainly costing R 105, and desserts at R 40 each.

Generously Keane offers me a glass of Bruce’s Merlot, which is still in the restaurant.  He is selling off the old Showroom wine stock, so that he can bring in new wines, as per Vaughn Johnson’s recommendation.   He has the staff bring a platter of dessert samplers, including a pure pannacotta, a mint pannacotta, a delicious Lindt chocolate mousse cake, and an unusual tiramisu.  The honey and mustard pork fillet is tasty, and I particularly liked the pumpkin and potato mash and green beans.

Portofino is Cormac Keane, and he is a most amusing host.  He is who he is – cross him in his own space, and you stand the chance of being thrown out.   Should he not be there, it may not be the same experience.  He is irreverent, and a rebel, and has the confidence to believe in his new project and in himself, and to not have to compromise on what he is and what he wants from his staff and his clients.   He feels like a friend already, something one does not experience in restaurants easily.

I felt at home at Portofino, and will definitely go back.

Portofino menu 

Antipasti

Bruschetta x 3 – fresh tomato and basil, griddled courgettes and mint, chicken livers R55
Antipasti plate (for 2) – chilli salt squid, marinated vegetable rolls, Parma ham, salami, olives R85
Beef carpaccio – watercress, parmesan shavings, olive oil and lemon R 60
Melanzane all parmigiana – layers of griddled aubergine, mozzarella tomato, basil R45
Tuscan minestrone soup R45
Orange, almond, parmesan and goats cheese salad with lemon dressing R 45
Seasonal salad R 40
Pumpkin, goats cheese and pumpkin seeds salad with honey mustard dressing R 45

Pasta

Risotto of the day R75
Warm risone with pancetta, peas, asparagus, porcini mushrooms with truffle infusion R70
Fresh gnocchi of the day R60
Lasagna alla Bolognese R70
Spaghetti Carbonara R65
Broccoli and anchovy pasta R65
Penne Arrabbiata – fresh tomato and chilli R60
Butternut and ricotta ravioli with pine nut butter R55
Tagliatelle with fresh mussels R85

Mains

Veal parcel filled with pesto and buffalo mozzarella and ricotta and butternut stuffed ravioli R 105
Grilled fish of the day R105
Honey and mustard pork fillet – pumpkin and potato mash, green beans R 90
Lamb cutlets with rosemary jus – cannellini bean puree, vegetables R 105
Grilled baby chicken marinated in olive oil, garlic and chilli with baby pesto potatoes R 105

Desserts

Pistachio andalmond cake with yoghurt and honey sorbet and mint pannacotta
Homemade lemon tart with lemon ice cream
Ricotta and honey tart
Lindt Nemesis cake with honeycomb ice cream
Portofino Tiramisu
Selection of ice creams or sorbets
R40

Portofino Bar & Restaurant

Harbour Edge, 10 Hospital Street, Green Point

tel : 021 418 4500
info@portofinoct.co.za

POSTSCRIPT: Portofino closed its doors on 10 April 2010.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com