Upon arriving at Lisa’s, my partner asked if I was sure we were in the right place. Of course, I snapped, throwing him an icy stare. How dared he think I could get us lost in Notting Hill – a mere 10-minute walk away from home? How dared he doubt my promise of a nice dinner out? Only that it wasn’t one of his usual attempts at winding me up. He was genuinely concerned, and I could see why: the place was nearly empty, dead silent but for the whispered French chatter of the two staff members sitting at the back. As we walked in, they welcomed us with an awkward smirk, like mischievous kids who weren’t expecting their parents to come home early. I don’t blame them: while Lisa’s is always packed on weekends, customers trekking to the North end of Portobello Road on a chilly winter weeknight must be quite an unlikely sight. The Lisa’s we saw that night was miles away from the buzzing, cute little cafe we stepped into on many a Sunday lunchtime, hoping a stroke of luck would win us a vacant table.
As we soon discovered, we weren’t the only ones who’d braved the weather for a taste of Scandinavian food. Another couple walked in a few minutes after us, later followed by a group of five French folks; friends of the staff members, possibly invited to keep them company on a quiet night. There it came, again: the feeling of unease, as if we’d just crashed a complete stranger’s house party. Friendly and helpful on the surface, the waiter who welcomed us looked constantly on edge, like a kid who suddenly found himself stuck in a mess too big to handle. Whether that was the unexpected surge of customers on a January weeknight, or sheer embarrassment at the discourtesy of his friends, I couldn’t tell.
This calls for a bit of context. Lisa’s dining room has much more in common with a converted British period house, than with the efficient, minimal style of many Scandinavian buildings. Its quirky decor gives it more character than any mass-produced furnishings with a consonant-packed name ever would, and its spacious dining room and high ceilings add to its relaxing atmosphere. When the weather gets warm, it must be a lovely place to be – but if you visit in winter, beware: the old, heavy front door doesn’t close properly, and lets in all sorts of freezing draughts, just like the old Victorian houses we all remember from dreadful househunting experiences. Wear extra layers, sit as far as possible from the entrance, and arm yourself with lots of patience, especially if there are smokers in the room. In our case, they were five – and not the most respectful types, either. We suffered in silence (although the temptation to brush up my French and yell a menacing “fermez la putain de porte!” grew increasingly strong after fag number five). The waiter ran all over the place, closing the door every time one of his mates left it ajar. I felt sorry for him; a sympathy that quickly faded when he contested the legit voucher we presented him, and billed us a hefty service charge we’d seen no mention of in the menu. I’d much rather have left raving about the fantastic food I had, than ranting about the unpleasant surprise in our check.
Ok, rant over; you’ll only hear me rave now. Lisa’s menu is full of hearty mains, perfect to satisfy the fiercest comfort food cravings on frosty winter nights. My partner ordered the game hen with thyme, garlic and lemon stuffing, while I set my eye on the fish gratin with lobster sauce. Cue a deep ceramic oven dish, packed with sizeable chunks of fish, all covered in mashed potato and Swedish cheese. The tangy lobster sauce enhanced the texture and taste of the fish, which was both soft to the bite and flavoursome to the palate. All came in an extremely generous portion; my fears of having to make do with the tiny plates that some Scandinavian restaurants seem to favour vanished as I realised that my fish gratin was more filling than my last Christmas meal (yes, you’ve heard that right – Grandma’s guinea-fowl and all that jazz).
Our starter was also pretty good. In truth, all the starters on the menu sounded absolutely amazing; saying no to salmon tartare and pan-fried scallops with pancetta was no easy task. After much indecision, we shared a bucket of Nordic Atlantic prawns from the mains menu. In hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest choice, given the temperature outside (and inside): the prawns were ice cold, as I imagine they would be in Stockholm, and so was the lemon-flavoured water we rinsed our fingers with afterwards. Still, I don’t regret trying them; although I spotted a few black heads here and there, they tasted lovely, both on their own and with a sprinkle of lemon juice (plus, bearing with ice-cold hands for ten minutes is far better than being stuck with hands that smell of fish). Better still, they came with warm bread and a pot of aioli – and if you know me, you’ll know that warm bread is one of many (edible) ways to my heart. Even the aioli, which I’m usually wary of, was much more delicate than the over-the-top garlicky versions I had in the past.
Add up half a bucket of prawns, three slices of bread and a dash of aioli, and you’ll get very close to a full-on meal. Our starter of sorts didn’t leave much space for the main, and the main, which we ate down to the last morsel, left no space at all for dessert; a shame, for I’d gladly have tried the apple crumble and mud cake. I might come back for them – and those pan-fried scallops, too.
Lisa’s Kitchen & Bar
305 Portobello Road
London, W10 5TD
(nearest tube station: Ladbroke Grove)
Open 18:00 – 00:00 Tuesday to Wednesday, 12:00 – 00:00 on Thursdays, 12:00 – 00:30 on Fridays, 10:00 – 00:30 on Saturdays, 10:00 – 18:00 on Sundays. Closed Mondays.
+44 (0)20 8964 8293
Note: Zomato invited me to visit Lisa’s, and contributed to the cost of my meal. All opinions are my own.