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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Via Condotti

The day: 21st January 2007, Dinner.
The place: 23 Conduit Street W1S 2XS, London (020 7493 7050)
The venue: Via Condotti
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Italian based list, good range of prices, starting with some options in the low twenties.

(NOTE, added November 2009: the chef has changed since this review)

Via Condotti is in Conduit Street, where else, in a fantastic position just off Regent Street well ready to entice tourists, residents and professionals alike. Which it does. It has had raving reviews since opening last August and it is almost always buzzing.

Here it is

When we walked inside we found ourselves in a front room with a handful of tables, which looks reasonably uncluttered. However we were then led through a narrow passage between a bar and the wall, to a dark back room which felt rather more suffocating. Here the decibel level was almost disco style, through a combination of bad acoustics and the booming voices of enthusiastic fellow diners. The tables were rather crammed, but the chairs were very comfortable: given the choice we would have preferred it the other way round. Below is a particular of the interior taken from our table towards the bar (top left in the photo), late in the night when we were almost alone.

Apparently there is an upstairs room too. Who knows, perhaps the quiet Heaven of the regulars?

The menu is short but very appealing, proposing traditional dishes and ingredients taken from all corners of Italy. From Burrata (Puglia) to Farinata (Toscana and Liguria), from pumpkin gnocchi (more typical in the North) to cicerchia di Spello (Umbria). Obviously, the chef patron Pasquale Amico being from Naples, shellfish linguine could not be missing. The menu is fix price: two course for £19.50, then add a fiver for each extra course, with some additional supplements of a few pounds for certain dishes. We went for a three + a four course menu, sharing the starter.

First, though, an adequately filled bread basket (grissini, olive bread and focaccia), and a handful of green and black olives:

The starter we decided to share was a Farinata di ceci with lardo di Colonnata: sorry for the picture, we were still getting to grips with the new camera

‘Farinata’ is a mixture of chickpea flour, water and oil which is in general cooked in the oven. There are however many variations, including cooking it in a pan on the fire. From the structure, in this case it looked like the latter. A satisfying dish, especially for Man, who found that the slightly ‘burned’ sharpness went well with the smooth flavour of the chickpeas and the lardo. To Woman, though, the burning went a touch too far. The richness of the lardo was perfect for the plain base of the chickpeas. Using ground pulses or cereal mixed with water in lieu of bread is rather common in Italian cuisine (think e.g. of polenta).

As primi we ordered potato gnocchi with rabbit ragout and risotto with Castelmagno cheese and red wine.

The sauce for the gnocchi was flavoursome and rich, rustic and comforting. If you force us to declare a defect, it was in the gnocchi: they had perfect consistency and texture, but were missing the typical indentation which makes them take up the sauce better – maybe at these prices they have to save on labour . The risotto was a dish of elegant richness and substance. It was just as creamy but firm to the tooth as Man, who is extremely fussy about risotto (Woman confirms he is a star for it at the stove), likes it.

Next, secondi: Monkfish in tomato crust and scarola, and Duck with black cabbage and pomegranate.

The monkfish dish was a delicate offering, with some extra tanginess and flavour coming from the tomato crust, as well as a nice colour (by now you know we are fond of presentation, too), rather than crunchiness. The fish itself came as a single ‘chunk’ faultlessly cooked. The duck also was cooked just right. Great idea to put it on a bed of black cabbage, and to garnish it all with pomegranate. Pity, though, that at this point the pressure on the kitchen was clearly beginning to bite (there were 120 people in the restaurant, we were told), and they must have salted the cabbage twice. What do you do on these circumstances? Do you send the dish back, spoil the dinner for your table, depress the waiting staff, add to the pressure in the kitchen, the temper of the chef, and the wait? We thought not. The cabbage was just this side of edible, and we hate to leave food in our plates However we did not lie when asked how everything was, and friendly and capable Raffaele from Ischia apologised and promised to report it to the chef. We never heard back from him, though…

After much deliberating over the tempting dessert list, we concluded with a Rum Baba’ and Pecorino cheese Seadas.

If you’ve read us this far you know all about Baba’ already (from our review of Latium). This should be a chef speciality given where he is from, and indeed it kept the promise. Very moist, almost soaked, with a strong rum flavour coming out, accompanied by cream custard and amarene cherries. A very different, more classical interpretation of baba’ than the one we had at Latium, also very good and springier.

Seadas are typical from Sardinia, and not quite easy to find in London. By deep frying the pastry parcels, the cheese which is inside melts, so we can hardly find the words to describe how good it is when you cut into them and the melted cheese spills out mixing with the warm honey. Superb.

As usual we passed on coffee, but here are the complimentary petit four: chocolate covered marzipan ‘truffles’, custard cream cannoncini and biscuits

As for wine, we went for a bottle of Morellino di Scansano DOC 2005, Poggio Argentiera, at £22. We were happy with this choice, which reminded us of the flavours enjoyed during a vacation in Maremma (Southern Tuscany), where the wine comes from. The ubiquitous 0.75lt bottle of water cost £3.50 - trying to improve on the margins here…

The total bill: £90.44 inclusive of 12.5% discretionary service charge and £1 charity for breast cancer (irrelevant, but not a classy touch, to charge the service on it).

Via Condotti is clearly a successful operation, and we can see why. Pasquale Amico proposes sound, traditional and unfussy Italian cuisine, cooked with evident care and passion, in a sytle reminiscent of Locanda Locatelli. The front staff form a cordial and well-organised team, working in difficult physical conditions – tables so close to one another, chairs so large, that service can’t be easy. Add to that the fact that the kitchen is downstairs, the constant smile on the waiters’ faces is almost heroic. The prices, for that area of London especially, are a very good deal indeed. Having recognised all this, for us personally it will not be a weekly affair. The tables are really too small (trivial detail, there was not room enough to move the glasses away from the plates to take a picture), and though it was just the two of us, we had to shout across the (tiny, did we say that already?!) table to keep a conversation. But from how busy it was, we are obviously in a minority. As for the food, our personal taste is for a touch more adventurousness. Aside from these personal preferences, congratulations again to them, this is a very good and complete expression abroad of Italian cuisine.



Unknown said...

Hi Man&Woman.. My parents and I will be treating VIP connexions to a nice Italian dinner. The dilemma is that they are extremely picky that even the best rarely satisfy.. while my family’s not exactly rich.

Can you help choose between Trenta, Via Condotti and Latium in terms of value for money? Also which is most roomy?

Yours is an extremely well-written blog, btw :)

Man-Woman said...

definitely Latium: and perhaps you may want to tell either Umberto or Alex (the managers) that it is a special occasion: good luck!

Unknown said...

Thanks, will go ahed and book with them.

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