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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Locanda Locatelli

The day: 2nd January 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: Seymour Street, London W1H 7JZ (020-7935 9088)
The venue: Locanda Locatelli
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Extensive list, Italian based, wide range of prices, also by the glass and half bottles

(A more recent review is here)
Locatelli is the Michelin starred beacon of fine Italian cuisine in London: we just had to start from here, even though obviously we would not manage to stick to our £100 rule. Or would we? Let us see…
The experience did not begin smoothly. Woman was put on hold for the best part of 10 minutes before being able to book. When we got there the restaurant was half-empty and our reservation was unheard of. Funny, isn’t it? Anyway, the very efficient hostess made us immediately comfortable.
The interior does not look like a ‘locanda’ (i.e. inn) at all. The modern decor feels a bit 70’s in a pleasant sort of way. The ambience is relaxing, with really comfortable chairs and upholstered benches. Man enjoyed especially the convex mirrors which allowed him to see the rest of the room, having left the seat with the view to Woman.
Homemade parmesan grissini (good) arrived swiftly, followed suit by a nowadays rare 1 litre bottle of water…Contrary to our expectations (from other reviews) all staff came across as friendly, solicitous but not overbearing or pushy with food or drinks: just relaxed and polite. Also, when later on we asked some searching questions, they were keen to answer. More on this later…
The menu has the standard Italian structure of antipasti (starting from £8), primi (several below £10 and most below £15), secondi of meat and fish (mostly in the £25-30 range), side-dishes (£3.75) and desserts (£6-£9). We were spoilt for choice. After a long and arduous negotiations (Man and Woman share every dish), we settled as follows. For primi, Pheasant Tordelli (pheasant filled pasta parcels) in rosemary jus (£11) and Pappardelle al ragu’ di Capretto (kid goat ragout) (£12).
While waiting for them, enters the bread basket, an all-important element of an Italian meal, and a telling signal for what is to follow. There was Tuscan bread (no salt), garlic bread (don’t think Pizza Express, please), bread with olive paste and two types of focaccia. Excellent:
The primi arrive:
The tordelli were just perfect, with the rosemary jus a fitting complement to the generous pheasant filling. The pappardelle was also very good, one minor blemish being a slight undercooking (we had made the same mistake the day before with our own home-made pasta, so we can forgive the chef J). The meat was in a tomato sauce (inclusive of a single tomato skin) and shredded to perfection: a very delicate and satisfying dish. To note in both dishes the fried rosemary, very nice to the palate.
For main courses we had venison (£28) and rabbit (£26.50).
The rabbit came as a leg wrapped in Parma ham and roasted (plus a smaller bit on the side, presumably from the saddle), sitting on a king-size bed of polenta and accompanied by radicchio. The dish was beautifully presented and tasted very good. Rabbit is a lean meat which can dry a lot in cooking. This was moist and succulent, cooked faultlessly. Soaking up the sauce with the polenta was a treat (though polenta purists might have found the polenta too liquid and ‘cheesy’: but we believe some compromises are inevitable in restaurant cooking. You can’t have it straight from the stove as grandma made it...). The sting from radicchio balanced the dish well.
The venison was a delight. Five medallions of accurately cooked (and before that, obviously accurately hung) meat on a bed of porcini, accompanied by ‘crema fritta’ and again radicchio. ‘Crema’ is normally seen in desserts, either as a filling to √©clairs or indeed fried, and is a sort of thick custard, generally made with eggs, sugar, flour and milk. It is interesting to see it used in a meat dish, here ‘replacing’ other standard sweetish accompaniments to game such as chestnuts or prunes. We wondered where the saut√©ed porcini came from: when the waiter said they were fresh and from Italy (statements which could not possibly be both true in January) we sent him for an expedition in the kitchen and he reported they were form South Africa. They looked beautiful and were good, though obviously never a match for Italian mushrooms picked in the morning. Look at them:
The dessert list was really inspiring. We went for Panettone pudding with panettone ice-cream (£7.50), and for Chestnut mousse, warm chocolate foam, lemon thyme cream and brandy ice-cream (£7).
Impossible to say which one was best. The chestnut mousse etc. came modestly presented in a plain water tumbler, but what was going on inside was a complex combination of flavours and textures. The spoon went through layers of different temperatures and consistency which were very pleasant to the palate, from the warm chocolate to the ice cream through the mousse and cream.
The Panettone pudding was as simple in conception as it was good. This is a sort of Italianate version of bread and butter pudding, but if you have tasted panettone (here is a beautiful picture, and here instructions on how to make it) you can imagine the variety of aromas it confers to the dish. We asked the waiter about the origin of the panettone and he assured us it was made on the premises. Further probing on a technical aspect (was there yeast in it or just natural leaven?) prompted a second trip to the kitchen and revealed that the panettone was in fact artisan-made but not on the premises. And yes, there was yeast, instead of 100% natural leaven as we and tradition would have preferred: but this is really entering the realm of obsession, so we’ll leave it here!
Complimentary petit four were nice: Raspberry jelly, Chocolate truffles and Almond amaretti, in increasing order of appreciation. Few in number but fairly sized and a good variety of tastes and consistencies.
We had two 175ml glasses of wine, an Aglianico del Vulture Paternoster 2004 (£8.50) and a Sicilian Syrah Mandra Rossa 2005 (£5) and water, 1 litre Lurisia (£3.50). The sommelier was extremely helpful, not patronising, and willing, almost eager, to explain.
The total was £94.50. Unusually, service is not included. We added something similar to the standard percentage to pay a round final bill of £105. Remarkably coffee is only £2.50, and there is an overall sense of generosity in the portions and general approach. So, incredibly, we did stick to the £100 rule after all!
But, hang on a sec: something is amiss here…Do the maths properly and you see that the desserts are missing from the bill. Once in while a restaurant makes a (big) mistake in favour of the customer. Once we realized this at home, we wrote to the restaurant. No reply yet…
Giorgio Locatelli offers classical Italian cuisine. The menu escapes ‘fancy’ flights which one sometimes finds in ‘starred’ restaurants. This a restrained reinterpretation of traditional fare where the emphasis is on balance, precise execution, and high quality of ingredients. In this sense it is a ‘locanda’, but one in which the cooking is done masterfully. Man found that the dishes in their simplicity and cleanness conveyed true emotions. Woman, found only the desserts to be deeply stirring, though she enjoyed everything. In our opinion Locatelli deserves his fame, but so do other very talented Italian chefs that bless London, and we hope the Locanda has opened the way for their good work to be recognised, too.

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