You should be redirected in 6 seconds - if not please click the link below:
You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit and update your bookmarks.
see you over there :-) Man Woman


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Osteria dell' Arancio

The day: 19th August 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: 383 King’s Road, London SW10 0LP
(020-7349 8111)
The venue: Osteria dell’Arancio
The food: Italian trattoria
The drinks: Extensive and interesting list, Italian based, especially good on the Marche region but on others too. Mark-ups on the high side, and a lack of low priced options. Also some options by the glass, even more marked up.

Osteria dell’Arancio is tucked in a bend just off the final gasps of Chelsea King’s Road, beyond the fashionable shopping area. We had passed it by the previous day: from a quick scan of the menu, a la carte would easily break our £100 rule (for food that does not look like haute cusine), but the lunch menu is definitely more affordable (two courses for £16 and 3 for £20), and on a dull, grey Sunday it seemed like a very good choice. We went with real anticipation, also having heard good things on the sister restaurant in Italy.

The interior is very informal, basic set-up with lacquered (and chipped) tables, paper mats but cloth napkins, very ‘faux bohemien’ and ‘o so very Chelsea’. Tables outside might have been pleasant had there been a Summer.

The menu allows you the following choices: as starters, caprese (tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella); or beef carpaccio with parmesan, rocket and balsamic vinegar; or salad with grilled vegetable and fried egg. As Primi, risotto of the day; or penne all’arrabbiata (chilli hot tomato sauce, an extremely basic dish); or clam linguine. Among mains, beef tagliata with rocket salad and balsamic; or fish of the day; or melanzane alla parmigiana (i.e. aubergine parmigiana, that is floured and deep fried slices of aubergines layered with mozzarella, parmesan and tomato sauce, then oven baked). To conclude, dessert of the day – only one choice.

We cannot tell you anything else about the a la carte menu, as this is apparently not available at lunch (and we fainted after spotting just one item, Pasta amatriciana at a breathtaking £16). This may be a bit of a problem, especially as the lunch menu is rather short, and some of the dishes may finish by the time you order…

We decided to begin with:

- clam linguine

- risotto of the day (with pancetta and Pecorino di Pienza cheese).

The linguine (note the o so cute plate) came with a very adequate portion of good clams (12 of them). It was cooked pleasantly ‘al dente’, and in good oil. The ‘mantecatura’ was decent, too. A very honest dish: not that the sea was screaming at you, and the parsley, too, was rather tame, but all in all an enjoyable, simple and well made dish, for Man in particular (not nearly comparable, though, for example to this one, at l’Ortica). Just a note, there was nothing to clean your fingers after de-shelling the clams. .

The risotto, instead, was another story. Have you ever stood in the woods counting after a flash of lighting to check whether the storm is approaching or moving away? With the same trepidation we waited for the risotto to arrive: the longer it takes, the better it feels, as a proper risotto takes its time… unless of course it is not made on the spot, and this sadly was the case for our specimen, we believe (or something went wrong in the cooking). Consequently, it lacked bite, the first and already rather fatal flaw. In addition, the whole was rather bland: when you got to the pecorino or the pancetta cheese you perceived a hint of flavour (the pecorino might well have been from the pretty Tuscan city of Pienza, but we are not sure this was the best use of it), but neither the pancetta nor the cheese had lent much flavour to their surrounding. It was not bad, but it was not good. No lightening there.

As mains we had an obliged choice, as upon arriving we had been informed that they had ran out of parmigiana di melanzane (as if the menu wasn’t short enough already): so it had to be

- beef tagliata

- fish of the day:

The beef came in five slices, graced by some balsamic vinegar. The meat itself was of good quality, succulent and well prepared (‘al sangue’ –rare- just as we had asked), and the balsamic vinegar of acceptable quality. Trattoria-style and completely plain presentation (the dull rocket garnish just thrown there), and even more so for the next item.

The fish of the day was a sea bream, pan-fried and served skin up on top of some roast potatoes, with the dull salad garnish on the side. Nothing to object on the fish, probably farmed, but well cooked and tasty, with potatoes equally satisfying. Now…potatoes actually amount to a handful of cubes, and we are hungry, where is the bread? We ask for it, and this is what we get:

More depressing than the weather! What is this? Ultra thin slices (imagine a melba toast) of a rather dim-witted, soulless ‘thing’. OK, where were those potatoes again? (dreaming of the breads at Latium in London or Fior di Roccia in Trento).

To finish, we are presented with a dessert menu, where all items go for a very, very steep £8: lemon thyme vanilla pannacotta with berries (which turned out to be the dessert of the day, after inspection of our bill – no one had told us), a chocolate souffle, a tiramisu and an almond semifreddo (i.e. almond parfait). We went for

- pannacotta (dessert of the day)

- chocolate soufflé (£8).

The pannacotta, while finally a nicely presented dish, was your average pannacotta: a bit too tight (a tad too much gelatine), though definitely not unpleasant. We could not detect the lemon thyme – not the first time that the volatile aromas of herbs escape to freedom from a dessert without the chef noticing.

The chocolate “souffle” (it was not a soufflé, really) was very nice; it had been baked straight in the serving dish (which had therefore the temperature of the solar crown) with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream, the mint leaves garnishing the dish this time really imbuing your nostrils in a most inebriating combination with the chocolate. This was indeed a gratifying and impressive end to the meal (with roughly 800% mark up on the ingredients for this dish, one might say it had better have been so...).

With a bottle of 0.75 litre water at £3 and a bottle of white Pecorino Kiara from Marche at £26, and the usual optional 12.5% service charge, the total bill came at £82.13.

The service was informal and polite, if a little distracted, mildly distant and evanescent (we had to ask for several things; they didn’t once ask us if everything was all right). So, what to make of this place? As you may have noticed, we found it hard to give a character to this review, in a way because this is a feature it shares with the restaurant. Foodwise, it is a very decent trattoria or osteria, by Italian standards too: it is an operation professionally run by people who clearly put some effort in sourcing good ingredients (including wines) and upholding quality levels. In the dishes you find plain, regular fare that one could easily cobble up at home, but you would not have to mess with the kitchen and bother with the sourcing if you did not feel so inclined. Yet this is exactly what you’ll get: no culinary spark, no attempt to surprise or stir you at least somewhere by way of invention or of execution. Just exactly what it says on the tin, and with very few choices on the menu and zero complimentary extras. This type of venue plays an important role in Italy, where however it covers the low-midprice range. But here? The problem is that even the appealing lunch prices are marginally higher than those of other London establishments with far superior standards. Arbutus (with a cuisine of striking precision and flair), Latium (with the unique London artist of Italian cuisine at the helm), Semplice (the new Mayfair house of Italian pleasures), just to name three that impressed us, but even the more straightforward cuisine offered at Theo Randall’s for a few pounds more, are to us all better flavour for money in the lunch price range.

At dinner, as we mentioned, the prices at Osteria dell’Arancio cross the threshold of the absurd (even by London standards) for a venue with this plain cuisine, this décor, and this style of service. Forget it. So we wish ‘buon appetito’ to the Chelsea dwellers who may feel lazy and want to stay in the vicinities for lunch, but we’ll stop in town halted by much greater temptations, rather than crossing it to reach 383 King’s Road.

PS: The next review will also give you an idea of what 'higher' type of cuisine you can expect to find in London at those prices.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

The cream of Italian cuisine

‘Reveal the sin but not the sinner’ is an old Italian adage which comes handy on this occasion. We will fail to denounce a sinner (against Italian cuisine). Why? Because the sinner is a chef whose restaurant was suggested to us by a common friend, a person in the trade for whom we have a lot of respect. He knows what he is talking about, so we must assume that the chef in question is indeed capable of fine cooking, but has taken a different commercial position, and pushes for precisely that kind of Italian cooking which takes us back to the olden days when, as kids on a Saturday night, all we could afford were those greasy, cheap and cheerful trattorias all cream, cream and more cream to try and stretch the flavour of more expensive ingredients that bit further, and which put us off Italian restaurants in London for more than ten years. Have you seen “Spaghetti house”? Anyhow, for this (and many other establishments which have taken the same stance) the formula obviously works, as the place was nicely buzzing and has raving reviews from very satisfied customers.

We started blogging on a mission, that of denouncing establishments that tarnish the image of Italian cuisine abroad…So let’s find a compromise between friendship and ‘duty’: we will describe just the sin, maybe turning a terrible Friday night experience into a general lesson which we hope will be useful to those of you approaching Italian dining. So we present to you:

Ten clues for the keen observer to spot un-fine Italian dining:

(In a place with Spartan mise en place, but welcoming and tasteful décor, a bread basket with good bread, and the most cheerful, efficient and pleasant waitress, doing her job alone in a room with twenty-two customers).

Clue number 1: The wine list is inadequate and, especially, does not indicate the producer of the wine. For example it tells you only ‘Cannonau di Sardegna, £19.95’. You (and we) probably would not know the producer even if it was mentioned; nonetheless the lack of indication is a sure signal that the restaurateur does not care about his cellar. Indeed, the bottle of Cannonau we ordered was too warm, clearly badly kept. The liquid turned out to be an overly acidic, thin affair, nothing to do with proper Cannonau, which is the variety the Spanish call Garnacha and the French Grenache, capable of producing wines of powerful personality.

Clue number 2: At dinner (Friday night) the waitress asks you if you want salad with your pasta. This got us seriously worried, as it simply cannot happen in fine dining Italian restaurants. Pasta is not eaten with salad, full stop. At a lunch break during work, it may happen that you want to have a light meal with only a pasta and a salad, but even then you’ll have a pasta and then the salad, or a salad and then the pasta. Together, no. No chef would want the oil and vinegar in the salad to interfere with a nice pasta sauce.

Clue number 3: The waitress expresses surprise and concern when you say that you intend to have a main course after the pasta. ‘Are you sure? Pasta dishes are quite big, main courses, really’. For us, pasta is normally not a main course. In a standard meal, it is the dish that precedes the main course, normally meat, beef or fish. Are we the first Italian specimens they see? Fear rises.

Clue number 4: The pasta sits artlessly in a pool of creamy, buttery and cheesy condiment. The waitress asks if you want additional grated cheese. Oh my God, we want to disappear. Even if olive oil is not universally or exclusively used in all Italian regions, dairy excess in the dish is the hallmark of drab Italian cuisine. This is the case for the pasta below (at £6.95):

Clue number 5: The waitress threatens you with the dreaded giant peppermill. Help! That does bring back memories from the cheap haunts of student days. How can one know if he wants pepper in the pasta, if he does not know what it tastes like? Can’t the chef decide: does pepper go into this recipe or not? (Note: in trattorias in Italy, usually salt, pepper oil and vinegar sit on the table, for use if needed).

Clue number 6: The ‘Reginette with wild mushrooms and artichokes ’ (above) is just pasta with preserved artichokes and mushrooms. In fine Italian cuisine venues (actually, not only in fine establishments, to think about it), if you see a description like that, you expect fresh mushrooms and artichokes. (At any rate, flavour rules: there were no flavours in this stodgy condiment).

Clue number 7: The pasta is overcooked. This was the case for the ink linguine with prawns below (£8.95), a decently interesting dish (with ‘butterflied’ prawns), marred by the ocean of cream/butter sauce and, most of all, the not ‘al-dente’ cooking. Pasta must have a bite, and even if a cooking mistake must occur, better under than over cooked. Overcooked pasta is disgusting.

Clue number 8: Cutlery is of strange dimensions. In our case, the forks for the pasta were Lilliputian. The normal-sized fork for the main course is described as ‘giant’. (Maybe, as we chose a pasta before the main, it had to be classified as a starter, hence the miniature proportions).

Clue number 9: Your special of the day (for us, monkfish wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of spinach, £12.50), has the texture of a mushy mess, shamelessly yielding at the lightest pressure of the fork. Man and Woman, while agreeing that too much water had permeated and eventually destroyed the tissue, had different theories as to how this feat might have been accomplished. Man thought it had simply been overcooked (he also liked the idea of stylistic unity with the pasta). Woman, on the contrary, opined that it had been really badly frozen.

Clue number 10: The spinach have dirt in them. Come on guys, it must have said on the packet to ‘wash thoroughly before eating’!! (ok, we are being unfair here, indeed we believe they were of good quality). We take it as a sure sign of kitchen sloppiness, and an indication that something else will go wrong.

We are already at 10? Well it was worse than we thought, obviously – as we have two more:

Clue number 11: Stringy and dry game. The pheasant (£12.50) below (did you guess it: immersed in a creamy sauce to complement the mashed potatoes) was both. Maybe it had not been hung.

Clue number 12: The coffee is rubbish, what in Italian dialect is called 'ciofeca' (though at least cheap by London standards, at £1.35).

We have been primed since our childhood to eat everything in the plate (unless positively toxic): we just can’t stand the sight of unfinished food. So we soldiered on to the end, and returned absolutely clean dishes (well, almost, as we left in the cream, and part of the – soggy - mash) to the delight of the waitress who exclaimed: ‘I can see you really liked everything!’. Embarrassed smile on our part. But we could not face the desserts (can you imagine tiramisu’ at this point? Or cheesecake?)

For a two course meal, water (£2.95) and wine we spent £73.29. Add two desserts (which would be another £10, including 12.5% service), and you would be catching up with real fine dining budgets in London (depending on wine, of course), surely with smaller portions, but incommensurably more pleasure.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Mata'm Abu Ali

A lazy Summer Saturday, after an unsuccessful quest for a decent 'mandolina' in Oxford Street (yes we know, wrong place), it’s past 8.00 p.m and we are not in the mood (nor in the attire - not that we usually dress up, but there is a limit to everything) for a full dinner out, but we’d still like to relax over some light meal…and Edgware Road is just round the corner beaconing with its Lebanese offerings. Hop on the scooter (what else did you expect from Italians ;) ), we skip all the Maroush incarnations (below par for both service and food every time we’ve been there) and we go to Abu Ali, out favourite humble Lebanese joint, at 136-138 George Street, London, W1H 5LD (020 7724 6338).

It’s a very simple and bare affair, but enlivened by the numerous 'shisha pipe' smokers outside. There’s plenty of equipment for the purpose:

(the blurring of the photo is clearly an effect of the smoke rather than our photographic incompetence...). We don’t smoke, so we go inside, where a TV is perennially on, perennially showing either songs or news. Despite our attempts to study Arabic we continue not to understand a word of either, so we focus on the

From the long list offering standard Lebanese fare (starters/mezes around the £3.50 mark, mains around £7-8) we pick Ful Moudammas (Stewed broad beans in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice), Taboulleh (Finely chopped parsley salad, with mint, pepper and crushed wheat), Koushari (Rice with boiled lentils toped with fried onions), Falafels (fried chick pea balls), Baba Ghanoush (grilled and mashed aubergine) and Shish kebab with rice.

Ehm, maybe for a light snack this is a little overenthusiastic ordering…but the place puts us in a good mood.

Everything is more than satisfactory and certainly not worse than in many of the posher, glitzier and more expensive Lebanese alternatives in the vicinities. In fact, some things are positively very good and bursting with flavours. The taboulleh is generous in quantity, very fresh, very zesty and nicely prepared.

The Ful Mudammas has a nicely lemony taste perfectly balancing the olive oil:

The Falafels have an excellent texture from really good frying.

And the best, the Babaghanoush: Tremendous toasted flavour in the rich, creamy consistency. Here it is next to the taboulleh:

We drank Ayran (a salty yoghurt drink, £2.00) over the meal, while a complimentary set of pickles and a generous portion of pitta bread was served

(we thought of taking some with us for the next time we go to Arbutus...).

We finished with a mint tea (which came as a combination of a fantastic amount of real mint and a rather needless Lipton bag. Two ‘baklava’-like sweets (we don’t know the Arabic name) were generously offered, how nice!

Hold tight, all this (we were stuffed full by the end, forget the light meal) for £33.50! This place skips all the flashy decorations and refuses to change its drab decor (you're unlikely to meet the Blairs here, despite them living in the area and him having developed a taste for the Middle East); but foodwise, though it’s not fine dining, it can’t be faulted. At these prices in London, it is a bargain. Next time you are approaching the end of Oxford Street, and you do not feel like a full Locatelli meal, leave Cavendish Square behind and consider going to relax for a fourth of the price at Abu Ali.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007


The day: 2nd August 2007, Dinner.
The place: 9-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S 1LJ (020-7495 1509)

The venue: Ristorante Semplice
The food: Fine Italian Dining

The drinks: Carefully chosen list, Italian based, wide range of prices starting from the teens, also by the glass.

Ristorante Semplice opened just last March in Mayfair: Chef Marco Torri is in the kitchen, while Giovanni Baldino and his team man the front room. We had never been here before, but we knew we would feel comfortable, almost at home: manager Giovanni Baldino and his team were those who took care of us during their time at our fave Latium.

We confess that we’ve always found Baldino’s charm irresistible. But before entering the restaurant Man and Woman looked into each other’s eyes and made a solemn pact that, despite the regrettable lack of the usual anonymity, they had to be brutally honest in this review as in all others – no matter how well they would treat us, we would just relay the facts as they were, and most of all scrutinise the flavours in our dishes through a fine comb, as always.

So let’s begin…
The interior, a single room divided in two by a wood panelled wall, is an elegant affair of cream, gold and dark ebony brown. Its far from neutral tones however are sure to hurt the visual sensitivity of others. Some tables are rather close to one another, other less so. We were given the choice between a table tightly crammed in a row of other tables, and one with acres of space around, next to the central wall. Surprisingly we went for the latter (with the added bonus that, the level of noise in most UK restaurants being a problem for us, the wall provided excellent protection). Above is a view from the table.

We were welcomed by an excellent glass of Franciacorta spumante: can you believe it, an Italian restaurant that favours Italian spumante over French Champagne, how very peculiar…but apparently somebody disagrees (we prefer not to take up the xenophobic slant of your review of Semplice, as we just cannot take seriously somebody that hails Sardo as a beacon of Italian cuisine in London… ).

Tsk tsk, no bread basket: as you know, not a way to win our hearts…but assistant manager Vito Nardelli assured us we had a ‘bottomless plate’, so no need to hoard our focaccia crumbs here. The bread comes with a little plate of deeply aromatic olive oil from Campania.

The menu is reasonably long and rather enticing, with starters from the £7.50 of chickpea soup with quails and lardo di Colonnata to the £10.50 of e.g. Fassona beef carpaccio, primi in the £7.50-£9.50 range (unless you want to go for Lobster trofie, in which case you are looking at £15) and main courses in the £14.50-£19 range. Just for the fun of it, we note that the most expensive item of the menu is still well below the £28 that Theo Randall charges for his chargrilled Limousin veal chops with chantarelle mushrooms and salsa verde.

While waiting, a welcome from the kitchen: a caprese with Buffalo mozzarella:

The mozzarella was luxuriantly milky as fresh mozzarella should be, the cherry tomatoes at the same time sweet and tangy: delicious.

Next, our primi arrive:

- Buffalo ricotta ravioli with spinach and toasted hazelnuts from Piedmont (special of the day, £10.50)

- Pesto filled potato gnocchi with pine nuts and green beans (£7.50).

The ricotta ravioli: this is a very simple dish, and a bit of a provocation, in the same spirit of Theo Randall’s tomato sauce pasta. The kind of simple dish you can easily assemble at home, so here too we were curious to see how the chef would pull it off. Well, with great success: the butter sauce was light, with the toasted hazelnuts a perfect valet for her Majesty ricotta (really good), at the same time delicate and flavoursome, enriching the consistency and flavour spectrum without obtruding. We thought back of Randall’s muted performance the previous week, and the comparison was a little shameful for the celebrity…

The gnocchi: Man, of Ligurian birth, is always ready to be moved by pesto preparations (and by potato gnocchi al pesto in particular, having spent countless hours in his childhood rolling Granny’s gnocchi on a fork to give them the typical indentations); but also unremittingly severe in his judgements…Well, no indentations here, the gnocchi were giant specimens, ‘gnocconi’ more than gnocchi. Anyway they were delightful, the flavours true and clear, and the dense condiment a nice match. They were filled with an intensely perfumed pesto, and accompanied by toasted pine nuts (conferring an unusual taste variation to the pesto, as uncooked pine nuts are one of its basic ingredients) and very fine green beans, another ingredient appearing in classical ‘pasta al pesto’.

Next, the secondi. We asked for:

- Roast and pan-fried rabbit with carrots and broad beans (£17.50)

- Grilled breast of duck with aubergines, aged balsamic vinegar and soy sauce (£16).

The duck breast came colourfully presented (though the presentation can be improved), cut ‘book leaf’ style with the meat interspersed with unadvertised avocado slices, and sitting on the roasted aubergine. Mr Baldino himself poured the 25 year old balsamic vinegar on the meat at the table. We were impressed (Man particularly) by this interesting and original dish. Soy, though we personally use it extensively at home, is certainly not a common ingredient in Italian cuisine. We have also not seen avocado too often in Italian restaurants. And the combination of soy and balsamic was rather audacious – damn, at home we have used both soy and balsamic vinegar on avocado, but never together: why didn’t we ever think of it ourselves? The combination worked well, the meat was good and cooked nicely, perhaps only the aubergine seeming not to add very much to the combination.

The real show-stopper, however, was the rabbit. All of it was in the plate (well, its representative parts), including innards, elegantly presented in various preparations: the shoulder first slow-cooked separately, then wrapped in the lightest of fillo pastries; the leg breaded and pan fried together with a bit of liver; the saddle smothered in an excellent reduction, with bits of liver and of lungs. The rabbit itself was excellent, the technique behind it impeccable and the end result stirring.

If you want, you can finish your meal with an interesting selection of cheeses from Piedmont, mainly coming from small producers using ‘alpeggio’ milk (produced by animals grazing on high valleys in the Alps and of unparalleled aromatic richness – we had quite a bit of it in Trentino). It must be the most impressive in London (though the one at Quirinale was remarkable too). But we, cholesterol conscious saddos that we are, decide to pass on this treasure for this time.

A little detour arrives:

Basil sorbet: very refreshing, very aromatic.
Finally, our ‘real’ dessert: apple fritters with cinnamon custard (in the cup) and apple jelly (£6.50 – desserts go from £6 to £8)

The Custard was extremely airy, contrasting the much more ‘bodily’ apple fritters, all underlined by the apple jelly: a superb and cutely presented little dish. And as if this was not enough, petit four: ‘baci di dama’ and intriguing chocolate.

We had let the team do the wines, by the glass (a Vermentino, a Chardonnay and the only one we remember properly…two glasses of 2004 red Maclan from Veneto – Cabernet and Merlot), and we also had two glasses of excellent Passito di Pantelleria (£8 on the list). The rather rare 1 litre bottle of water goes for £3.50. Even without the ‘caress’ (Italian expression) which shaved our bill considerably, our three course meal bill still would have just met the £100 rule mark including (12.5%) service and wine.

The service bears all the hallmarks of Giovanni Baldino’s style: impeccable, friendly, supple and attentive without being intrusive. Sure, that night we were spoiled rotten: but even without such treatment this is the type of establishment that makes anybody want to come back. A strong emphasis is put on the sourcing of ingredients, all of superb quality. Chef Torri’s style, with his clean execution, relatively straightforward and restrained but peppered up by the occasional bold move, is a very good support for raw material that also wants speak for itself. Of course, sitting just off New Bond street, in this part of the world you would think it must be more expensive than establishments of comparable quality (at least in THEOry): but compare and contrast with e.g. Arbutus and Theo Randall: there we had to take at least a mixture of lunchtime specials to meet our £100 rule, here you can do so by going a la carte (and the lunch menu here is £15 for two course and £18 for three). Overall, this is one the very best and authentic expressions of Italian cuisine in London, where real passion for the food conjures up a true dining experience for the gourmet. Well done, Semplice.

(Added on 18 January 2009: Michelin agreed with us - Semplice have just been awarded their star).


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Theo Randall @The Intercontinental

The day: 20th July 2007, Lunch.
The place: 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London
W1J 7QY(020 7318 8747)
The venue: Theo Randall at the Intercontinental
The food: Fine Italian dining
The drinks: smallish but varied list, a selection by the glass, normal London prices and markups.

Theo Randall used to be head chef at River Café, voted at some point, in some meaningless ranking or the other, as the best Italian restaurant in Europe (note: this not to slag off the chef but to slag off the rankings). His faux rustic Italian cuisine was also awarded a Michelin star. Since a few months ago, he has his own little rustic place, at..aehmthe Intercontinental Hotel at the corner of Piccadilly and Park Lane, just in front of Hyde Park. Italian cuisine…celebrated chef…a three-course advertised lunch menu at £23…sounds exactly like our sort of material. Let’s investigate!

It was the day of the great Summer monsoon rain. The tube was barely running; people were stranded on motorways; and most dramatic of all it was raining in Theo Randall’s dining room! What a disappointment arriving there and being told that the dining room was therefore closed (to be fair they had in vain tried to contact us). Talk about dampening expectations. This is the unusable room:


Theo Randall’s kitchen was still running, though we would have to make do with the simpler dining room of the other café/restaurant at the Intercontinental. Let’s see…bright, spacious, pleasant atmosphere. Let’s try: after all we came most of all for the cuisine, and they absolutely guaranteed that we could have the authentic Randall menu and kitchen and even waiters.

Surprise: contrary to what was advertised, there is no £23 lunch menu. The innovation (unreported on the restaurant webpage at the time) is that they have merged the more expensive dinner menu with the dishes from the old set lunch menu. By picking the cheapest items you could not only feel an authentic miserable cheap bastard, but also make up a total around the £25 mark, thus coming near the advertised special. And the only way to meet our £100 rule in this place was to go for the cheap items….Anyway, since chef Randall prides himself of his unfussy, rustic, informal cuisine for which he acquired a taste as a child touring Italy with his parents (read his webpage), we thought we could still sample some fine dishes. So we skipped the more expensive items such as Scottish scallops with chilly, parsley, capers, Swiss chard and Castellucciol lentils (£13); and Handmade tagliatelle with Chantarelle mushrooms and parsley (£12) among first courses/starters; and Anjou pigeon, marinated and wood roasted on pagnotta bruschetta with English peas, pancetta and rocket (£26) among the ‘secondi’.

While we ponder, a present from the kitchen:

With a delicate olive oil and nice sweet cherry tomatoes, this was good even if a little too charred for a classy offering.

We choose for primi:

- Tagliolini al pomodoro (£7)

- Ravioli (£7)

The (six) smallish ravioli themselves were fine, with a light dough. The filling was mainly spinach with some ricotta. The spinach flavour came out nice and strong, but we were hoping for some more personality from the ricotta. The interpretation was really minimalist, with a little sage and no nutmeg that we could detect. A thoroughly average dish.

When we ordered the pasta al pomodoro (i.e. pasta with tomato sauce) we knew of course that this is possibly the simplest dish in Italian cuisine, one that we don’t think any fine Italian restaurant in Italy would even list on the menu – you can always ask for it anywhere. But, given the cheek of putting it on the menu, we were expecting some little chef touch, some surprise…a few drops of uncooked special olive oil…spectacular Pachino tomatoes…who knows? Alas, no. This was really the average pasta al pomodoro you find on millions of home tables everyday in Italy. To be fair, the tagliolini were really well made (like for the ravioli, the dough was very fine and light and elastic) and cooked perfectly so that it had a good bite. Nevertheless, we were puzzled by the fair amount of chilly in the sauce, because it completely killed the basil. We were also perplexed by the unremarkable tomato sauce itself.

At this point we notice that there is no bread basket, and we begin to panic. `Waitress, could we please have some bread?’

Puzzled look: ‘You mean…you would like another bruschetta?’

‘No no, just some plain slices of bread’

‘Ah, you mean bread with butter?’

‘No, you know, just some plain bread, as Italians do to accompany the main course’

‘OK, I can get some bread from this restaurant [i.e. not Theo Randall’s but the Café]’.

Man and Woman thank and look at each other in amazement…is it ever possible, they wonder, that during the lovely Tuscan family trips the cruel parents always hid from the young Theo the ever present bread basket, so that he grew up oblivious of this great tradition?

Anyway, here is what the (lovely) waitress brought after our plea:

Nice looking, but rather poor quality bread.

Our secondi were:

- Burrida di pesce (fish stew)(£12)

- Lamb shoulder (£11)

(the only way to go cheaper was the frittata, at £9, which maybe is to us what beans on toast is for you British readers…)

The fish stew was very rich, with a generous amount of fish and potatoes. The soup was very tasty, the fish totally exhausted and therefore tending to hard/dry, the potatoes far from exceptional. There was no plate where to put the clam shells (perhaps also hidden from young Theo in his Italian trips, together with the bread).

The lamb, also coming in a very generous portion, was tender and reasonably tasty, as you would expect from lamb in this season, but as the piece of meat was already fat, the copious amount of fat in the accompanying sauce made the dish very heavy and reduced its palatability. The root vegetables and spinach on the side were excellent, however.

For desserts we shared a Pannacotta with Grappa flavoured cherries (£7.00):

Ah, and here are two nice truffle to keep the other party busy:

Finally a really good dish, the pannacotta creamy and luscious and judiciously sweet, with the dryness of the intense cherries providing a wonderful match for the fat texture of the main component. Even for Man, not a dessert man, the most satisfying dish of the day.

Together with the usual 0.75 litre bottle of water (not cheap at £4.50), a bottle of Pecorino Terre da Vino Gran Sasso 2005 at £22, and the usual 12.5% cover charge (wouldn’t it have been a nice touch to reduce it to compensate for the much more basic mise en place of the emergency venue –absent any complimentary gesture?), the bill came at £79.31 (for, remember, a two and a three course meal).

The waitress serving us was charming, cheerful and efficient, ready to cope with the unusual setting and to improvise a response to our weird requests, such as bread to accompany the soup... . Talking about weird, the sommelier, after announcing that he would put our bottle in a cold bucket away from the table and that he would look after us, came back after confabulating with the manager of the Café, saying that he had changed his mind, and placed the bucket on the table.

What disconcerted us most was the cuisine. Our meal, while by no means bad and far superior for instance to Sardo, was overall a rather dull, unremarkable affair in the light both of our expectations about the chef and of what one can enjoy for lunch, at lower prices, in London nowadays (£15 lunches at Arbutus and Latium, for example). The possibility remains that with the (much) more expensive dishes on his menu Theo Randall changes gear. Our experience cannot encourage optimism, however (after all we had read rave reviews also for his ‘cheap’ lunches), and for that type of traditional cuisine and a similar high cost we’d feel rather safer returning to the impressive, if expensive, Locanda Locatelli. We are really puzzled that a chef of such reputation as Randall’s should allow pedestrian food to come to the table – even the cheapest of cuts, the humblest of dishes can stir real passion after all. And please don’t suspect us of nationalistic pride – after all we were ravished by the ravioli of another Brit the previous week! We can only hope it was an off day, a freak incident like the London monsoon. So we go away perturbed and pensive, in the pale and flickery post-rain sunshine.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...