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Tuesday, May 29, 2007


The day: 25 May 2007, Dinner.
The place: 30 Connaught Street, London W2 2AF (020 - 7262 9623)
The venue: Trenta
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Italian based list, quite short, many usual suspects, good range of (comfortably marked up) prices, starting below twenty.


Back again in London for a couple of days, coming from Trento we thought Trenta might be at least nomenologically appropriate for our next restaurant experience. For, if ‘Trenta’ (meaning thirty) is meant to be an indication of the ideal customer age, we are afraid we both fail miserably.
You’ll find this recent addition to the ever more buzzing Italian restaurant scene just off Edgware Road, westwards past the barrier of Lebanese restaurants where Maroush seem to keep cloning itself in an unstoppable way (nothing against the great Lebanese cuisine, by the way – so far we had always stopped at the barrier!).
A bold colour statement on the outside:
The interior is divided into two miniature rooms with just a handful of tables in each, one at ground level and the other in the basement. When we enter and we say we have a reservation for two, a man at the counter (who for the best part of the evening we thought was mute) runs speechless downstairs to call a woman. This nice woman puts on her best apologetic air and explains that unfortunately we cannot get a table upstairs because some lady had some hip problem…yeah, whatever. Now, not having the faintest idea of the place we had not requested a table upstairs, but we begin to be very concerned…
‘But is downstairs really so terrible?’.
‘No, no. It’s very nice’.

And indeed it is, in fact it is probably better than the upstairs room, where one would have to contend with the opening and closing of the front door. Tiny but nice. Walls white and strong red, modern paintings on the walls with matching colours, the modern feel sweetened by a piece of traditional furniture giving a homely touch. Guess: are the tables small or large? Anyway, we get a round table for three and we feel comfortable, and comfortably able to hear all the conversations going on in the room (though the atmosphere is pleasant and the noise level more than acceptable).
In the kitchen is chef Silvano Mazzoli and in charge the front room the athletic and hyper energetic co-owner Daniele Camerini, a living testament to the idea that ownership does motivate hard work.

The menu is quite short, and what surprises us is the scarcity of ‘primi’: only three choices. No, wait: tucked among the fish mains there is also a risotto with king prawns. The menu is fixed price, £19.50 for two courses (desserts are charged separately at £5). This looks cheaper than it is really is, as there is a £2.00 cover charge (cover charge? That relic of olden times? Ah, feels like being back in Italy again ) and a supplement on some items. So reckon on average 22.50 for two courses and £27.50 for three.

This is what the cover charge is for:

A fair offering. The bread is OK (certainly not amazing as we have read on other reviews: some critics should get out more), with the ever present Sardinian crispy bread (pane carasau: incidentally we don’t think we have been in a single restaurant in London that did not offer this item, which is funny because in Italy it is hardly seen in restaurants out of Sardinia), and a focaccia-ciabatta cross, sliced so tiny you could see through it. The best item was in the olive and nibbles dish: the spinach ‘frittata’ (we think pureed spinach worked with egg, on a thin layer of puff pastry).
The dishes look quite ‘unfancy’ (not necessarily a bad thing). We notice among the starters the cod ‘bocconcini’ with aubergine salad, and the salad of grilled asparagus, duck eggs and parmesan. However we go straight for the primi: the aforementioned risotto with king prawns and the ‘tardelli’ (type of ravioli) filled with wild spinach in butter and sage.

The tardelli are very pleasant, the filling abundant and tasty, with the sage well in evidence in the condiment, all flavours nicely balanced.
The risotto is the only real disappointment of the evening. First but not least , it is not a risotto… It completely lacks the creaminess of the real thing. The rice has not been cooked so as to absorb the flavour of the condiment. It has lost any bite, and there is a disconnection in taste between it and the crustaceans. It tastes more as if the rice has been previously boiled and then re-heated in the pan with the peas and the prawns. The tomato sauce too felt somewhat ‘disconnected’ from the prawns, having none of its flavours: we wonder whether all bits had been cooked separately and then assembled back? Having said all this, there are no unpleasant tastes and the prawns are in generous quantity. Please chef: we would humbly but strongly suggest to remove this item from the menu (or risk disappointing many more complaining bastards like us!).

For mains we continue on a fish theme: Swordfish (instead of the advertised tuna) with balsamic vinegar, cherry tomato salad, capers and olives; and Sea-bass in potato crust.

Now we are talking. The Swordfish is simply but colourfully and nicely presented, a generously thick chunk, pan-fried to great effect, with a crispy and golden-brown surface and perfectly moist inside, despite being cooked through. The accompanying potatoes repeat the crispy outside and soft inside texture, and we love them. The fish chunk is resting on a generous bed of spinach, which enriches and completes the dish taste-wise, colour-wise, and texture-wise. The flavour of the swordfish is, however, so delicate as to be evanescent – maybe it has lost some in the trip from the Mediterranean (where it was described as to have come from) to the British Isles.
Lack of flavour is certainly not a problem with the sea-bass, maybe the dish of the evening. An intensely tasting fillet, baked with the same cooking skill and attention the chef has shown with the swordfish, and the same can be said for the accompanying green beans and spinach. Excellent raw materials.

We conclude with amaretto pannacotta and chocolate duet (chocolate budino and chocolate pannacotta).

Definitely not a political statement, but in both desserts the right side was far better than the left. The amaretto pannacotta: well, the topping was nice, but the pannacotta itself slightly too solid, we thought due to an excess of gelatine. Instead, on the right, the amaretto icecream was really satisfying, nicely complemented by thin, coffee doused sponges. As for the chocolate duo: as you see, it is in fact a trio, and the odd one out in the middle was indeed a rather good raspberry (?) mousse. On the left, what Woman would have called a budino, which we suspect was the advertised chocolate pannacotta: much better consistency than the amaretto one, but a bit tame in taste. On the right, as for the mousse, another excellent performance by what must have been the advertised budino, a chocolate tart topped with dark chocolate icecream: yummy.

As usual we pass on coffee, and unlike in other places, we are punished by not being served the petit fours (which we are told are very good). Tsk, tsk, not in the tradition of Italian hospitality.

As for wine, we went for a Sicilian Anthilia 2004 (Ansonica and Catarratto) at £24.50. The HALF LITRE bottle of water cost £2.00. The bill came to £87.19 inclusive of 12.5% discretionary service charge.

We found Trenta an intelligent operation. A typical London venue, where space is scarce both in the kitchen and in the front room, and great imagination, adaptation energy and entrepreneurship are required to keep things running smoothly. These qualities are all there, and the enthusiasm and alacrity of Mr. Camerini, running from upstairs to downstairs and back (with great sound effects), trying to check every detail and to keep everything under control and everybody happy, are commendable. It would be good for many restaurateurs in Italy, working inefficiently amidst acres of space and complaining of the thin profits, to come and learn and live on the edge in his type of enterprise.
The same intelligence is shown in the menu. The chef keeps things simple, there is no over-ambition and there are no fireworks or sparks of great originality, but, with one exception as we have seen, his dishes are very well-executed and we mostly enjoyed them. He does not seem to have a passion for ‘primi’, but definitely comes into his own when frying and baking. The prices are just in line with what is nowadays good value in London for good Italian cuisine. We would suggest an investment in technology: a little bell to signal to the staff when a dish is ready, rather than the loud shouts ‘Viaaaaa!’ (Go!) that punctuated the dinner true Murray Walker style (if you are not a long time F1 enthusiast, forget the last remark).
And a birthday present for Mr Camerini: a food lift to bring the food up from the kitchen downstairs.
We would describe this as a good neighbourhood restaurant. Not a place one travels some distance to in order to sample culinary delights, but certainly one we would patronise often if we lived at walking distance from it. But alas, we are not neighbours of Mr. and Mrs. Blair…
Ah: and we were far from being the only customers over thirty!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ristorante Cesarina in historical Bologna

The day: 15 April 2007, Lunch.
The place: Bologna Italy, via Santo Stefano 19/B (tel +39 051 232032 - 235543)
The venue: Ristorante Cesarina
Nearest Airports: Bologna (British Airways, EasyJet), further away Forli’ (Ryanair)
The food: Traditional Italian/Bolognese
The drinks: We were not given a list, just Maitre d’ recommendation (read on...)

Today we are in the historical city of Bologna, and we meet again with MegaMan and MegaWoman of San Domenico fame, but in a much more modestly priced venue…mmmmh, maybe it would be a cheap opportunity to return the invitation . Cesarina is a bit of an institution in Bologna, bang in the centre of town, near one of its most beautiful and interesting churches (Santo Stefano). In the kitchen, chefs Peter Rambaldi and Cristiano Carboni.

You can sit inside or outside, in a sort of conservatory:

from which you can admire the beautiful buildings in Santo Stefano square:

From the moment we approach, it is clear that MegaMan and MegaWoman are most welcome guests here. The Maitre d’ treats them with deferential intimacy, and part of this treatment is that we are not given a menu like the suspicious tourists, but are simply told the main items instead, with a clear hint to what is most worth having. We do not want to spoil the atmosphere, so we do not ask for the list either, and therefore we will just be able to report the prices of what we are going to have. Here is the bread:

Yes, very plain. However, it is soon supplemented by this:

Traditional Bolognese coronary spoilers, these ‘crescentine’ are very good. The ingredients are the same as for bread: flower, yeast, water and salt, with some admissible variations, but they are ten fried either in lard (tradition) or in oil (modern innovation). As you can see they ‘inflate’ upon cooking, and they remain soft.

The ‘regional tradition’ chord is now well set for the meal. However we opt for a more eclectic menu.

For Primi, we go for an artichoke filled with rice (€11) and Spaghetti with clams (€13).

As you can see, it’s really ‘clams with spaghetti’ (as MegaMan had requested for the table…). A very generous portion of the molluscs, very good, very fresh, in excellent, intense, extravirgin olive oil (from Umbria), and cooked well. Truly satisfying.

Not so successful is the artichoke, where a little more trimming of the vegetable would have been most welcome, to remove some hard and indigestible bits. The rice inside is good, ‘al dente’.

For secondi, we have a beef ‘tagliata’ and Rabbit cooked in white wine with spices and herbs (€16 each).

Very simply presented, pure trattoria style: but also good. The tagliata is cooked really rare, but its quality could withstand it. The rabbit is greasily satisfying, and so are the accompanying vegs.

Next, desserts: Chestnut and mandarin ‘Budino’, and Chocolate mousse (both around €9, the imprecision being due to the fact that MegaMan asked for a non-standard item and we can only guess at the split of the €34 for the four desserts).

Nice looking, no? One can already see some love in the preparation. The flavours in the budino were excellent, balanced and very nicely matched. Man liked the deep chocolate flavour of the mousse, whereas Woman found it a bit sweet. Good stuff anyway.

With coffee, we also get this:

A variety of macaroons, made in a way granny would have approved of.

In total, for a meal for FOUR with a bottle of Terre Rosse Enrico Vallania 2003 (a Cabernet Sauvignon DOC from the hills surrounding Bologna, not bad) at €18), two mineral waters at €2 each, four primi, four mains, four desserts and four coffes (€2 each), the toal hit, including four cover charges of €3 each, is €188. Yes, why not invite MegaMan and MegaWoman…

The service has been smooth and efficient despite a full house, with just the right balance between deference and cordiality which marks the best of Italian service. Hey, what’s that? MegaMan is slipping, unnoticed by the Maitre d’, an extra tip (beside the one we leave on the table) to one of the young waiters who, we had noticed, was particularly cordial. MegaMan clearly knows how to oil the wheels of the world and how to cultivate the young generations . This is a remarkably well-run operation, where the very simple cuisine, while never able to stir a wild excitement in your tastebuds, rests on the solid foundation of excellent raw materials and correct cooking, a combination that cannot leave anybody less than satisfied. The prices are modest (considering that we are right in the inner core of a medieval, commercial, touristy and thriving town and many in the clientele are not local) and the setting, especially in the warm season when you can sit outside, is relaxing and pleasant. All credit to the manager/owner Signora Pina, then, who – unlike the tourist traps that unfortunately litter Italy - offers a likable and presentable image to the visitor. As 'natives' we went for the less traditional dishes, but be sure you can have your tagliatelle, tortellini and all the traditional regional fare here. One of the best choices in Bologna in this category and if you want to stay in town.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Asparagi di Zambana

In May and June in Trentino there are several fairs and special menus devoted to asparagi, one of the favourite vegetables of the locals in their short season, traditionally eaten with eggs.

The king of the genre is produced in a small town near Trento called Zambana. Its white asparagus is quite something, soft, with no detectable fibre, delicately flavoured.

Its unique characteristics are the consequence of the particularly sandy soil around the river in the Zambana area.

We tried the special asparagi menu at Trattoria Giorgio, one of the historical venues in Zambana. The general level of the cuisne was not something to write home about, so we won't, but despite this the aparagi were excellent, and cooked in many different ways:

Finely chopped and served in oil:

Battered and fried, and in butter:

As a cream, with whole bits and parsley:

In risotto (though the one served to us and reproduced below was not proper risotto, you get the idea):

As a spring salad (they put industrial mozzarella in the dish, but with a nice and delicate cheese it could be really good):

And finally..with scrambled eggs:

There was no asparagus dessert, but surely there must be a way...


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A trattoria: how low can one go?

The day: April 3rd 2007, Dinner.
The place: Near Trento, IT (you don't want to know the full address)
The venue: Maso Cantanghel

Closest airports: you can't be serious!
The food:
Fine dining, It ain’t
The drinks: Interesting list, mainly regional, several national and some other choices, dedicated list for little known or endangered grape types, hardly any choice by the glass.

Just further up the hills out of Trento is this trattoria, once linked to the adjacent vineyards that produce a reputable wine. We went expecting simple, genuine and well prepared food at reasonable prices as we have come to expect in this wonderful region in this type of establishment. Let see what happened instead...

A promising arrival: the dining room is nice, elegant and cosy, almost more fine restaurant than trattoria, and very welcoming

The bread is there already: two types, one fluffy white, the other more rustic in character.

There is only a set menu at €33, no other choice whatever. With this 'chef' (Signora Gius) you must have it all.

The first item is a trout.

Plain terrible. Similar to, and in fact worse than, the trout from a university canteen. Dry, carelessly cooked, seemingly frozen and defrosted, most likely re-heated, upon pressure of the knife a pool of (slightly too acidic) olive oil surfaces. The salad would have been passable, had it not been for the excess oil and salt. A disaster.

Next, we get a veal 'salmistrato' with potato mash.

The beef was possibly the highlight. The potato mash was a gluey mess the like of which we had not encountered for many years. No self-respecting canteen would dare serve anything like it. Just plain awful, the thought will remain unfortunately with us for some time. Brrr…

Next up were bread and beet gnocchi.

This time the advertised butter was hardly detectable. The main flavour was some kind of undistinguishable ‘vegetable stock’. The taste of the beet was far too deep buried in starch to make itself recognised. Again, salt, salt everywhere.

Next again, meats (pork roll and sausage):

It would have been a disappointment had we not dramatically adjusted our expectations downwards. The pork roll was a sorry, tired, bone dry piece of meat with a tasteless filling: perhaps we do not want to know what was inside. And the sausage: tasteless bar for some fennel seeds, which in view of what it could have been, was quite a bonus. The cabbage was possibly the best bit of the dish, as even the polenta was below par, a pretty rare event around here.

Finally the hazelnut ice-cream.

This was good indeed. Pity it arrived melted, as the cook had decided we had to be in sync with the next table. So, melted it had to be!

Petit fours:

Reasonable, too: we did not venture for all, but the cofeee meringue baci di dama and the ovis mollis were very decent. The chocolate truffle tasted a bit stale.

There was a breakneck speed of service, as if the kitchen wanted the six guests out as soon as possible, but the very nice waiter was full of information about wine, and leaflets too. Except for the sweet part, we had a desperately awful meal at Maso Cantanghel, a trattoria that imposes on you an entire menu, badly prepared and overpriced, for which the quantity can never make up for the lack of quality. There are far far better choices in this category, for example Il Libertino in town and especially I Due Camini in Baselga di Pine’.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

ps: L'Ortica

We did go back to l’Ortica to retrieve our wallet…and we did try the meats…

As excellent as the fish, with the same light-handed style and excellence of material. We have fond memories of the Tartare of Fassone di Oberto beef with extra virgin olive olive from Frantoio Montecroce

and of a superdelicate off-menu salad of rabbit

But we were also totally ravished by this:

parsley chlorophyll risotto with Tremosine cheese

A great risotto with perfect balance of flavours.

This place is a treat.


Saturday, May 5, 2007

Ristorante L'Ortica

The day: 1st May 2007, Lunch.
The place: Piazza Silvia, 1 Manerba del Garda (Brescia), tel: +390365651865
The venue: Ristorante L’Ortica
Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Fine Italian dining
The drinks: Good list, strong on local offerings

It’s a small world: we came here, on the shores of Lake Garda, upon cheerful Rudra’s recommendation (remember our previous week experience at Quirinale in London?). Driving from Trento just 100Km southwards we moved from an Alpine climate to a Mediterranean one: this is an olive oil area, an interesting variety, delicate and intense at the same time. Let us see how emerging chef Piercarlo Zanotti uses it in his cuisine (we were sure he would).

The dining room is rustic in a sophisticated way, wide, light, spacious and airy, with good sized, well spaced tables, and nice details.

The a la carte list is short but enticing, with dishes such as Astice salad with crispy celery and melon at €20 and Fassona Beef tartare with local extra virgin olice oil at €13 among the starters, parsley chlorophyll risotto with Tremosine cheese (at €26 for two) and Asparagus and crepes millefeuille with Malga cheeses at €13 among the primi, and pan fried scallops with foie gras and baby spinach at €26 among the mains, as well as a humbler roast chicken with lemon and rosemary potatoes at €18.

There are also several set menus, which all look good value for money. Five course surprise meat menu (€50), five course surprise fish menu (€60), four course tradition (€45), raw fish menu (€65). The a la carte menu proposes also vegetarian and gluten free options, as well as a kid menus and a bargain three course lunch menu at €30.

We felt lazy on the warm summery day, so went for a four course surprise fish menu – yes, this is Italy, you can easily negotiate variations without an eyebrow moving…

We also made sure that there would be at least some raw fish, as we had heard that chef Zanotti is keen on it.

Indeed, the amuse bouche was a chunky little cube of salmon sashimi style lightly marinated:

Imagine the best salmon sashimi you’ve had at your favourite Japanese, with a melt in the mouth tenderness, yet nicely firm, doused in a discrete little pool of delicate olive oil, and just a touch of pepper. A delicious start. Unfortunately, no bread yet.

Ah, now the bread comes:

We presume it was homemade, a limited selection, but definitely nice, even Woman had nothing to complain about.

Although we had the bread, we were getting worried because the wine did not arrive. When the first item from the fish menu appeared, the worry turned into panic (especially as we had already gulped down the glass of Chardonnay Costaripa Brut , advertised on the menu as included in the €5 cover charge).

So the first surprise, three “Fin de Clair” oysters:

Not that we are oyster experts, but these were a bite of sea, very good. And the wine finally arrived…

Next up, another tray of raw fish: clearly the chef had got the message

It comprised a tuna tartare, an amberjack (ricciola in Italian) superfine carpaccio, Sicilian prawns and a langoustine from the Adriatic sea. As usual, Man was won over by the presentation

But not only that: on the palate these were all superb. Fantastic raw material, masterfully and discreetly prepared and seasoned, presenting four quite distinct and complementary tastes.

Mmh, did they get we were in a four course variation? Yes, all we had so far was just the first item, we learned afterwards.

The pasta, the next item, turned out to be equally generous:

A linguine type pasta with loads, and we mean loads, of “tartufi di mare” (literally, sea truffles, but the British name should be Venus clam: imagine a clam more resistant to the bite and with a slightly more “meaty” flavour), and courgettes. The sauce was terrific, once more driven by the ingredients, obtained by finishing the cooking of the pasta for two minutes in the pan, with a touch of fish broth. The starch from this semi-artisanal pasta works to reach a wonderful density. The pasta is produced by Setaro from Torre Annunziata, Naples, who claim they dry it for a minimum of 24 hours, up to 120, depending on format.

And now we come to the main course: Scampi catalana with extra virgin olive oil.

What to say: fantastic. Impressive colours on the dark plate, tender, flavoursome, enhanced by the delicate intensity of the oil, and the lightest of cooking. Again, a generous portion of five beautiful animals.

To finish, our fourth and last course, a strawberry and wild berry salad with honey 'cialda' (the wafer thin “thingy” you see in the picture) and vanilla ice cream. We asked for just one to share, but it came in two plates looking a normal portion each:

Very dense and intense strawberry flavour, not too sweet, for Man it was ideal, whereas Woman would have preferred something with a more marked consistency. The ice cream tasted like home made, and it was very good.

Finally, we went for coffee, and with it came the petit fours:

What a cheerful (and generous) display! In the middle some caramelised fruits (including an intriguing cherry tomato), and all around a selection of biscuits and pastries plus two pistachio pannacottas. Excellent, a dessert in its own right, now Woman rejoices!

With a bottle of local Lugana Superiore Selva Capuzza 2004 at €18 and a 0.75 litre bottle of water, the bill surprised us at a ‘mere’ €128: the coffee, water and cover charge disappeared, but you will need a pair of smiles as beautiful as ours to produce the same effect Each (three and a half course, remember) set menu was charged at €55: even at full price, with these raw materials it would have seemed entirely fair.

The service is attentive and still relaxed (led by the quietly competent Stefano Bignotti), and the atmosphere is very pleasant. As for food, we had one of the best fish seafood meals ever at L’Ortica (and we take vacations in Sicily and Sardinia regularly). Chef Zanotti has the self-confidence to take a step back and let the food speak for itself, just helping its expression with the most unobtrusive of treatments. He seems to have adopted a somewhat ‘Japanese’ style to Italian cooking, which focuses on the very essentials, and is still distinctly Italian. We foresee a bright future.

What about meat? Well, in some kind of Freudian slip, once back in Trento Man realised he had left his wallet at the Restaurant. We’ll need to go back soon to pick it up…


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