Entertainment

Melting pot

It has been more than a year since Portia retired from the restaurant trade, leaving behind a hungry public wondering whether anyone could possibly take her place, and if her well-loved restaurant, Portia's Place, could possibly be the same without her.

An institution in political and journalistic circles, Portia ran a tight ship, with top quality Chinese food, in decent but not flashy surroundings.

So popular was it with politicians from all sides, that it was quite possible to have a cabinet minister at one table, their shadow at the next.

If you wanted a discreet dinner it was not the place to go - for every other type of occasion it was.

Portia knew everyone and lavished her welcome on all with equal enthusiasm. The stories were legion. My favourite of them has former Treasurer Peter Costello rising to depart after a good dinner, announcing he was "off to save the Australian economy" and walking smack, straight into the front counter.

But to the food. The long list of chef's specials is hard to go past, and provides a good variety of options on top of the lengthy menu, with dishes from many regions in China. The menu itself has changed little from Portia's time and, importantly, the chef, Bokun Chen, has stayed on.

Regulars will be glad to know favourites like the crispy duck pancakes and King Island fillet steak with pepper sauce hotpot are still there.

We start with steamed pork dumplings, chicken puffs and translucent prawn dumplings. The chicken puffs, a variant on a curry puff, are excellent; rich, slightly sticky chicken, in a deeply flavoured dark sauce, were all wrapped up in a good, crisp, soft shortcrust pastry.

The slippery, translucent prawn dumplings are delicate and filled with juicy prawns, a good example of a frequently made, and often bland dish. The steamed pork dumplings are sweet with good pork, and a little green herb for lightness and contrast.

Dipping sauces are good, sweet and hot, well matched to each of the starters.

A bottle of Shaw and Smith sauvignon blanc - with its lovely sprightly, but not acid tang - works well with the food. The wine list offers a decent range of drinkable options, but many choose BYO instead, the $6 a bottle corkage charge making it a real option.

The main of King Island fillet steak also comes with wasabi rather than pepper sauce as a special, and is a very good dish. Slightly caramelised on the edges, and tender and juicy inside, the wasabi lends a subtle heat that cuts through the richness of the beef. Seafood hotpot with pepper sauce is a great melange of seafood, with good prawns and scallops a highlight. All fresh and moist, with a hit of pepper heat, this is a good, indulgent seafood dish that lets the seafood play the main role, not the sauce. A plate of Chinese greens with sambal are a good interruption, and include good beans as well as the usual Chinese greens.

There is a good range of desserts, from the standard lychee and banana fritters, to toffee apple and coconut creme caramel. Toffee apple is essentially little pieces of freshly-made, toffee-coated apple, and when well made is delicious, as it is here. The small chunks of tart granny smith are dipped in hot toffee and sesame seeds, then plunged into cold water to set the toffee while all is still hot. The end result is a warm chunk of tangy apple, with a cracking toffee coating.

Portia's is a bustling favourite, with personality and quality that justifies the slightly high prices. No-one will be able to replace Portia, but the place she has left certainly does the former owner justice.

Portia's Place

Address: 11 Kennedy Street, Kingston

Phone: 02 6239 7970

Website: outincanberra.com.au/portiasplace

Owner: Jessica Huynh

Chef: Bokun Chen

Hours: Seven days, lunch 11.30am-2.30pm, dinner 5-10pm

Licensed: Yes, and BYO bottled wine, $6 corkage

Vegetarian: plenty on offer

To pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Eftpos

Wheelchair access: To the restaurant, but with difficulty to the toilets

Seats: 58 inside, 18 outside

Food: ***

Wine list: **

Style: **

Value for money: ***

Service: ***

Score: 14/20

Summary: It is a relief to find that none of the vitality and commitment to good-quality ingredients and dishes have left the building along with Portia. Still a great place to eat and spot politicians.

11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end.14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.

Catriona Jackson is  director of communications and external liaison at the Australian National University and a food writer.