El Portalon, Qurban Abbasov,National Flag Square,Bail, Baku
Tel : (012) 404 82 17 www.saffron.az
Many years ago, I had a friend who lived in Marbella. In those days it was a jetset playground for the international super rich. Bored with St. Tropez, they’d sail in with their yachts and fill the bars and restaurants, wildly partying the night away, looking tanned and glamorous after a day of jetskiing, roaring around on their Harleys and generally spreading their glitz and gloss.
My friend was actually an American girl but her grandparents had bought a typical hacienda style house way back in the 50s, so as Marbella grew all around them, they found themselves living at the epicentre. The oldies didn’t take kindly to the noisy brash newcomers but Sheila and I were enthralled and thoroughly starstruck. Any long weekend I could get away from London, I’d scrape together my pennies and jump on the plane to Malaga. After a late breakfast, we’d head to the beach or lie around her pool slathered in oil on a mission to tan as deeply and as fast as possible. Nowadays I wish I hadn’t but that was then. In the evening, we’d spend hours selecting and discarding outfits, – I remember distinctly how we used to lie on the bed, zipping up our skin tight white jeans with the help of coat-hangers- putting on make-up, doing our hair, painting our nails, dousing ourselves in perfume until around 10 or 10.30 pm when we’d head out to the beach bars in town, to the Marbella Club or to Puerto Banus, where the big yachts lay, and hung out, dressed up like dog’s dinners, posing, ripe and ready to be chatted up by some suave yachties, ideally famous ones. Things have changed now. Sheila and her family sold up and moved to Colorado, we both got married, neither of us to a yachtsman, Marbella expanded beyond recognition, Puerto Banus seems to have become hen party central and the yachts have sailed off to Ibiza, Mustique and St. Barth’s. One thing however, has remained a constant for the last 25 years, Tapas Bar and Restaurant El Portalon, owned by Jesus Mancho, just along from the Marbella Club, is still solidly there. In a world as fast changing as ours, this is an admirable achievement and speaks volumes about his ability to provide good food in a convivial atmosphere. Now Jesus, together with the Saffron Restaurant Group, has replicated his El Portalon in Baku, proving that, indeed, there is a God!
Very flatteringly, I was recently invited to the press launch of the restaurant. It’s located on National Flag Square. You know, right there by the world’s second tallest flagpole, and it’s not at all easy to find. I won’t go into too much detail about my adventurous journey there with a rather incompetent taxi driver, who took me almost to Sederek and back to Bulvar not once but twice, despite three phone calls to the restaurant for precise directions in Azeri, and who then attempted to drop me off by some isolated Portaloos in the back of beyond, insisting we had arrived, while I was wildly gesticulating and yelling ‘El Porrrrrtalon!’ from the backseat, increasingly rolling my Rs, as though that would help him find it more easily. Anyway, in the end I got there and walked straight into a glorious little piece of Spain.
I’m told that Jesus has had the Marbella restaurant replicated to the last detail, from every score in the beams and every coloured glass pane over the bar to every winerack, ewer, salt shaker and serving platter. Each and every item has been shipped over from Spain to create exactly the same successful concept over here. Naturally, key staff have also been transferred as has the menu. That’s perfectionism, if ever I saw it!
Inside, the restaurant has that typical rustic Spanish vibe with lots of wood and big glass topped barrels as tables in the bar area, the conservatory roof screened by bamboo blinds. The dining area is cavernous with red walls and much brick and stone work. Heavy carved furniture, copper pans, tiled floors and lots of candles make for a very cosy ambience. Proper starched white linen table cloths and napkins and pretty Villeroy & Boch crockery add to the gravitas and complete the picture. ‘Comer informal y un tanto solemnemente’ as it says on a sign, sums it up perfectly: eating informally but with a bit of solemnity, meaning I suppose, that here the business of eating well is taken seriously. The menu is, of course, mainly Andalucian. There are all manner of fabulous tapas including some delicious salamis, Iberico ham, prawns and spicy little meat balls. The main courses, not surprisingly, are equally varied and delicious, including pork belly, veal ragout and wood oven roasted baby lamb ( I know, odd, lamb is already a baby sheep…), just to name a few mouthwatering dishes. For dessert, I tried Arroz con Leche, a kind of Spanish rice pudding, which was so lethally good that that alone will ensure my return. It was lunchtime when I went, so I kept off the wine but those guests around me who indulged were very enthusiastic about the wine list and the tastings they were offered. All in all, the food was authentic, delicious and well presented, the atmosphere delightful and the service excellent, helpful and friendly but then, of course, it would be at a press launch. If El Portalon can keep all this up on an every day basis, then this restaurant and tapas bar will be a truly outstanding addition to the Baku restaurant scene. Naturally, such quality, fine tuning and polish does not come cheaply. This is not your corner bodega where you can knock back the vino tinto and leave with plenty of change in your pocket but, providing it can continue to live up to its promising start, you will get value for money along with a most enjoyable meal. ¡Buen Apetito y Salud!