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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Beddington's (Amsterdam)

The day: 27th October, Dinner
The place: Utrechtsedwarsstraat 141, 1017 W.E. Amsterdam, the Neterlands (
+31 20 6207393)
The venue: Beddington’s Restaurant
The food: French based, Far East influenced fusion
Closest Airport: Amsterdam (BA, BMI, Easyjet...)
The drinks: Relatively short, good range of prices and varieties, also by the glass and half bottle.

In beautiful Amsterdam for a couple of days, we were keen to sample Jean Beddington’s cuisine in the restaurant that bears her name. It’s in a very quiet residential street stretching peacefully between the Amstel and the shopping and restaurant artery that is Utrechtsestraat.

The interior is nicely stark, in “habitat style”, all straight lines, white and black/mahogany brown, subdivided into small areas. The tables are well spaced, in fact very well spaced, all reasonably sized, and the one we grab is just glorious: huge, and tucked at the L-shaped worktop separating the dining room from the kitchen, which is in full view! (really: not even a separation glass, you could throw the food back at them if you were not satisfied…). Man made the mistake to decline Woman’s hesitant offer to sit facing the kitchen: no way can he get her interested into any conversation now… The atmosphere is extremely pleasant and inviting, the light everywhere soft but with different intensity according to the area, the ratio of customer per square metre (and perhaps the customers’ behaviour) making for the perfect compromise between noise and excessive quiet. The centre of light and energy is, of course, the kitchen. We are quite excited.

The menu is rather short: two appetizers, three entrees, four mains (two fish, two meat), three desserts and no daily specials – well, at least it won’t be too hard to choose. But to be fair, if – as we suspect, though we may be wrong - this establishment is price wise on the higher end of the spectrum for local standards, it may be commercially suicidal to push a longer list. Indeed on a Saturday night we counted just 27 heads.

The pricing structure is also very simple: three courses for €45 and four courses for €52. In both cases they have to include desserts, again betraying cost-consciousness.

First up is the bread tray:

The picture is abysmal (we were wary of disturbing the other customers with sudden conflagrations of light), so a bit more description: two slices of (rather unremarkable) brown bread and four mini brioches: rather rich, but very good. And to accompany the bread, a good looking amuse bouche:

The trio is made up of thin slivers of roasted squid (under the fork), a tomato soup, and a home made mini sausage with aioli sauce. It was all very good, the only frown earned by the squid, a touch too hard – little did we know this was to become a bit of a leitmotif. This aside, it was a congenial mix of flavours, with sweetness, sourness, tanginess, spiciness all coming together most harmoniously. So, it was with expectant trepidation that we waited for our orders.

With very little pause, here they come. We had decided to begin with:

- Breast of wood pigeon with hickory smoked panna cotta, salad of kabocha and dandelion, and pumpkin seed oil (from the two item appetiser set), and;

- Croquettes of Irish beef with date chutney and raw sauerkraut salad (from the three starters set).

The pigeon was a very refined dish. The rather fat panna cotta was balanced by the smokiness and the bitterness of the hickory. The kabocha, a Japanese kind of squash (pumpkin), lent sweetness. In fact there were so many little themes in this dish that it’s hard to recount, but we hope you can glean some intuition from the picture. Brows raised again, nevertheless, for the pigeon, rather too dry, especially for Man, who had just recently had better executed and succulent birds at both Latium and Semplice. Overall, though, an enjoyable, interesting and strikingly balanced dish.

The croquettes were punchier, with some rich tanginess to them, possibly coming from the excellent sauerkraut salad. They had also been fried very well, light and crisp, with the cleanest of tastes. For Man perhaps the best offering of the evening. No brows raised here.

Next, our mains:

- Pan fried red mullet with a trompettes de la morte crust, pumpkin puree, le Puy lentils, fennel salad and rosemary sauce;

- Wild boar saddle and cutlet with boar cheek wrapped in bacon with ceps and shimeiji mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory and tonkatsu sauce

You can see how beautiful the mullet ensemble looks in the plate. Unfortunately, the mullet did not exactly bring a whiff from the nearby sea and, the menu not at hand, we could not figure out what the black coating was – the mushrooms definitely were not coming out in the way it was intended. The rest of the ingredients in the dish, though, were very good, especially the fantastic reduction next to the pumpkin puree, a hit with both of us, deliciously sweet and softly pungent, the effect reminding us a bit of tamarind (just to give you an idea). Like for the mushrooms, though, we could not detect the rosemary either, but overall this was all very pleasant.

What was a real disappointment was the boar, brows now fighting their why up to the skies: again, whatever was not the main ingredient was truly excellent, from the Jerusalem artichokes, to the chicory and the sauce but, o my o my, with the boar the remarkable achievement had been reached of presenting meat at the same time undercooked and very (and let us underline very) tough. As you know by now, our childhood imprinting means that we never ever leave anything in our plates, let alone send it back, so we chewed our way through this too, at times with generous helpings of water to push the pebble down. But it should never have been like that. The cutlet was a better experience for Woman, since Man had gallantly fought off the though exterior part, leaving to Woman the pink and tender flesh close to the bone. But as for the saddle, even the pink interior was so elastic and resilient that mandibles as persistent as Woman’s, known to grind even a stone to fine sand, had to give in to swallowing morsels whole… well, you get the idea. A pity, because the flavours, the ideas, the right accompaniments were all there, and it could have been unforgettable for good reasons, rather than the opposite.

We were still in for desserts, though, and our choice befell on:

- Yuzu meringue tartellette with green tea icecream;

- Quince crumble with liquorice/ wood sherbet and star-anyseed crème anglaise.

The meringue, a kind of Japanese slanted interpretation of the Key lime pie, was a winner with Man, with Woman much less convinced. So let us start with the negatives: the tartellette casing was too hard as compared with the filling, with flowing Yuzu (a citrus fruit tasting like a cross between a lime and a mandarin) custard and flowing meringue, the latter simply piped over and then flamed off at the tips. The green tea flavour was so faint in the ice cream that without knowing we probably would not have recognised (and, incidentally, we consume fair amounts of green tea). For the positives, though, the flavours were good, that of the Yuzu clear, distinctive and fresh, the lemon cress a fine and striking match, and after all its crisp taste managed to mellow Man, who is more easily moved by the sight of a steaming risotto than any combination of sweets …

Man was happy too, and Woman much happier, with the quince crumble. Good it definitely was, but once more the announced flavours eluded us: again without the menu to look back at, we thought we could discern a little bit of liquorice in the custard ... but wait, checking back once at home, the liquorice was supposed to be in the sherbet, which in fact tasted more like vanilla. So, yes, a nice end to our dinner, but (for Woman) with that slight bitter aftertaste we get when the calorie counts overtakes the flavour tally.

With a 0.75lt bottle of water at €4.50 and a bottle of Domaine Richaume 2004 (Cote de Provence) 2004 at €39, the grand total came at €133.50, i.e. around £90 (remember that unlike in London the tip here is left to your generosity, there not being the pseudo-optional 12.5% service charge).

We had overall a pleasant experience. The fun element of seeing the going ons in the kitchen (finger licking included), even if it was not too busy, added to our evening’s enjoyment. Service was professional, attentive but not intrusive, sober but welcoming and warm. Chef Beddington dares concoct some bold, original, complex and imaginative combinations of flavours which are very interesting and work well, and which we enjoyed. There is a freedom in her creations that is refreshing. The problem for us was the leitmotif of dishes that, though in general good (the thought of the boar, however, still pains us), failed to rise to the expectations set by the menu. This was particularly the issue with the game dishes and the mullet, where the deficiency affected what should have been commanding attention for the reverse motives. After all, ‘when all is said and done’, there is a central element in a dish, the main ingredient: no matter how good your ideas are around this core, for a top dish you need top raw material and top cooking. We felt severely let down in this respect.

That said, this was for instance a more pleasurable evening than at Patterson’s, whose take on French food seemed to us too bent on underlining its fat elements. It is the contrary here, where a light touch pervades all the dishes. In spite of the clear effort to ‘push the boundaries’, to strike you (and perhaps herself), Chef Beddington’s cuisine is more classical than might appear at first sight by looking at some exotic ingredients: there is a sound balance in every dish, and the search for originality is always made with elegance, restraint and respect for the basic principles. This is a restaurant that you really want to like, so much love and creative joy you see in those dishes, so pleasant the environment you try them in. A pity that the execution slipped in the ways we have described. We hope next time (if ever back to Amsterdam) will be better.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

fanatical about bread...

Ok, you may wonder why we in our reviews we keep going on and on and on about bread baskets: well, as you imagine it is not the basket itself that we have a problem with, but with the quality, amount, and variety of their content. And to accommodate a decent selection, you need a good basket.

As you see, at home indeed we have no decent basket, so we have to adapt a colander:

but decent bread, we have. Up there you see a selection of plain and sesame rolls, either white or wholewheat, and olive grissini twist, either white or wholewheat. And if you are not a rolls type, then let us go for a loaf: a white one

or a rustic one with durum wheat:

or a rye one:

Now this is not a recipe blog, nor a “here-we-go-bragging-about-how-good-we-are-in-the-kitchen” blog. Our point is simply this: if this is what we, not particularly apt at the stove, can do at home, surely fine Italian dining establishments must be able to do something at least comparable with their professional ovens.

Those who do not, beware...we will feel compelled to shame you!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Zafferano (London)

The day: 13th October 2007, Lunch.
The place: 15 Lowndes Street Street, London SW1X 9EY (020 7235 5800)
The venue: Zafferano Restaurant
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Mainly Italian, usual London mark-ups, nice range of prices and types, starting below £20
(Alloro and Giardinetto, please take note), also by the glass and the half bottle.

Could we fail to visit, sooner or later, this Michelin starred Italian Knightsbridge stalwart, once home of the great Locatelli? No, we could not. So on a fine sunny October day we make our way past the countless embassies and elegant white buildings, and we get in sight of our treat providers for today – or so we hope.

The kitchen is now in the hands of Chef Andy Needham (once Locatelli's sous-chef). The interior is an elegant space, with velvet upholstered chairs, quite vast, interestingly and variedly subdivided into areas, and definitely not stuffy. There is instead a certain air of Italian faux-rusticity. We are sat at a table in a corner by the window, where we can admire the passage of local dwellers oozing money as they stroll by. Oh my god, the tables are really tiny: we measure them (by means of our faithful A4 sheets) and they beat Arbutus by a whisker. We feel a little crammed, though the bench and chair are quite comfortable.

The amuse-bouche arrives:

It’s a bruschetta with artichokes, olives and peppers and a marinated anchovy. Good; it sets the tone for the traditional Italian fare to follow, though we are maybe a little disappointed by the lack of ‘flare’ and variety. It reminds us of Theo Randall, who also offered a bruschetta. Interestingly, the olive oil is the same as the one we had at Alloro the week before, accentuating a certain feeling of lack of distinction, of marks of outstanding originality (however, the oil is top notch). At this point we would like to remark in passing that at our fave Latium (the more we go on in this adventure the more firmly our measure for all food Italian in London), the ‘introduction to Italy’ consists of three quite different varieties of traditional ‘carbohydrate based’ Italian snacks, two types of (super-quality) olives, and a special olive oil from the Lazio region specially produced for the restaurant. Which one do you prefer, just Michelin starred bruschetta or all that? Just asking…

There is no a la carte, only set menus: starting for two courses at £29.50 add a tenner for each extra course. With additional supplements for some dishes. The offerings are surprisingly simple, with many plain classics such as Tortellini in brodo (broth), Risotto allo zafferano (saffron), and Cotoletta di vitello (veal cutlet). There is also a menu of ‘specials of the day’, but you have to pay an extra £10 over the set menu price for the privilege of getting, for example, Wild Seabass carpaccio with rocket and melon (rocket as a main side? Have we fallen back in time, to the 90’s?), or Linguine with bottarga: the latter revive Sardinian memories and make us a little sad, thinking that just the supplement here is more than the cost of a whole course there. Or, £15 supplement for wild turbot with mash potatoes and ceps. No, thanks, nothing more appealing among the specials than in the standard menu, and certainly nothing deserving the ridiculous supplement.

The bread arrives. As was easy to imagine given the size of the table, it’s not in the form of our beloved basket, and is offered from a tray. The selection is really disappointing: white, brown or grissini. The brown is soggy and miserable; the white turns out to be good and fragrant:

For primi, we are very tempted by Ravioli di ossobuco, but we go instead for:

- Pasta con le Sarde e pinoli (traditional Sicilian dish, pasta with sardines and pine-nuts)

- ‘Malfattidi patate with finferli (translation on the menu: potato parcels with mixed wild mushrooms).

The malfatti are a slightly disconcerting start, given that we are in a restaurant of this reputation. The pasta is in urgent need of resuscitation and the potato filling is quite gooey (something that would happen if you whizzed them in a blender: unless they are first boiled, the blades will turn the starch into glue. But of course they know this. So???). The reduction is very fat and thick, in fact it appears to be cream-based (are we back here? Woman screams in horror). Now, whatever you may think of cream in pasta dishes (we personally don’t like it, others may do), the problem here is that this condiment does not enhance, but instead quite kills, the wonderful flavour of the fresh mushrooms. Now you would use the cream if you wanted to take a miserable amount of mushroom a long way. But no, here you had plenty of mushrooms, and good too, so why smother them in cream? Cream which, moreover, was diffused with quite a bit of rosemary: we love rosemary, mind you, but not if it gangs up with the cream to overpower these beautiful mushrooms. To be fair (now it is Man shushing stern Woman), the dish does not taste bad overall, the reduction in fact has a nice underlying flavour, with copious herbs valiantly trying to enliven the whole. Nevertheless, we should evaluate this as a fine cuisine dish and not as a trattoria one: then it is mediocre. Sorry.

We have much a better story to tell about the pasta with sarde, though Man and Women differ a little. We were expectant to see how the chef would interpret and assemble this classic. When the dish arrives, the glistening ‘sarda’ on top of the yellow curly pasta is impressive. And why is it yellow? Because it is full of saffron (even with some visible pistils), which freshens the fat, succulent sardines marvellously. Woman, while agreeing in general, is a little less enthusiastic than Man, maybe because she was rather put off by the large piece of bone she discovered in the sardine (if we spend hours cleaning our sardines at home, so can the Zafferano commis, don’t you think?):

Now our main courses:

- Lamb with shallot and thyme puree and balsamic vinegar D.O.P.

- Pan fried red mullet with fennel and Taggiasche olives (yes, them again).

We made some harsh comments before, but from now we must say we take off to a different level. The lamb was packed with taste, cooked nicely (just a tad dry to be perfectionist), the reduction this time clear and clean flavoured, with the smooth shallot puree really acquiring a flying lightness thanks to the thyme. The balsamic was perfect in this dish. The spinach were very crispy, tending to underdone, which Man likes a lot, Woman a little less. Overall, a very good offering.

The triglia (red mullet) was moist, succulent thanks to perfect cooking, with the bay leaf towering on the dish and a light, good reduction. The fennels were quartered and, like the spinach, were barely cooked, so that they remained relatively hard. Pleasant to the bite, which Man again liked a lot, but which also made it a little awkward to eat: should one try to cut it (with the unsuitable fish knife!), or gulp the whole quarter? What does the chef think? Anyway, a more than satisfying dish.

For desserts we go for:

- ‘Bavarese’ with hazelnut and espresso coffee

- Warm almond and fig tart with vanilla ice cream

The fig tart was a good one (even if Woman would have removed the hardish skin from the figs; let’s say it was for the rustic effect), with a splendid ice cream. But what's that, is Woman having a heart attack? No, she's just overwhelmed by the goodness of the show stopper of this meal, the exceptional Bavaroise. Served ‘direct’ in the glass, accompanied by another excellent ice cream, this was, really for the first time in the meal, true and unalloyed emotion to the palate.

Finally, the petit four appeared (we had no coffee).

As almost always, we just contemplate, feeling grateful, and muse on the meal.

We had two glasses of wine, a Verdicchio 2006 Le Vaglie Santa Barbara (£5.50) and a Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo 2004 Yume Caldora, both fine. With 0.75lt water at £4.00 and service at 12.5%, the total was £108.39, in sight of our £100 rule mark.

The service was friendly, correct, informal and efficient (the front room manager might know the details of the wine list better, but is swift to call the nice sommelier when needed), with an adequate number of waiters in the room. And the cuisine? What to say, the first half did not, in our opinion, really ever manage to rise above mediocrity (even the pasta with sarde which was excellent, was unfortunately marred in execution on this occasion - remember the fish bone, though this may have been bad luck). On the contrary, the mains and even more the desserts lived up to reputation and expectations. The menu is more conservative than creative, like (why? Oh, please, why?) that of some other Italian cuisine chefs in London who are revered by official critics. This is fine, we are more than happy that pure classical Italian cuisine is kept alive by some of the masters of the trade; but then, in order to concoct stirring dishes out of simplicity and tradition, one needs total precision in the execution, a deep sense of balance, and an acute ‘feel’ for what that tradition is. We had the impression that all this was achieved, for example, at the more expensive Locanda Locatelli. We are not so sure here, though our experience was certainly a pleasant one, and immensely better and more 'profound' than at the other starred one, Theo Randall’s, where we endured dishes that look frankly quite ridiculous compared to those at Zafferano (frittata, pasta al pomodoro, fake burrida…). In summary, Zafferano offers definitely high level cuisine and guarantees a very good meal. We would class it in the same league as, and at its best even higher than, Alloro. Yet we don’t feel the same strong wish to go back and relish the flavours once more as we do after a meal at the classic Locanda L, at the ever more impressive Semplice, and at the 'home' of that more adventurous Italian master….need we say that? (OK, Latium/Morelli).


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Alloro (London)

The day: 5th October 2007, Dinner.
The place: 19-20, Dover Street, London W1S 4LU (020 7495 4768)
The venue: Alloro Restaurant
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Rather short wine list, all Italian, pricey, ridiculous price range, almost all over £30 by the bottle.

Alloro sits in that array of streets off Piccadilly peppered with art galleries, expensive shops, and the houses of the well-to-do. It offers a short grab-a-bite menu if you are happy to seat at the ‘baretto’, and a full list in its comfortable set of dining areas snaking their way past the discreet entrance. At the helm in the kitchen is an Italian chef from Turin, Daniele Camera.

We were seated in a smart room at the back with a Tapiesque palette of brown tones.

The set menus are at £28.50, £34 and £39 for two, three and four courses, respectively, although several of the items on the menu do come with a supplement – making our £100 rule is going to be quite a challenge... The energetic manager welcomes us with the list of specials for the evening, a dish of venison and a quail risotto: this revives Man, who had seen this specimen advertised on the restaurant’s webpage, but was thrown in abject desperation by its absence from the actual menu…Man takes risotto seriously.

While we wait, a waitress who is the opposite of petite comes in, and, without proffering a word, cuts across the table and deposits what will turn out to be a rather nice olive oil (made from the everpresent taggiasche olives, a species which must be by now on its way to extinction). And in a second, back she comes again, still mute, putting forward an almost empty basket of bread rolls, with two types left, both even more forgettable than the abysmal picture we took of it and won’t bother to show you. Aside: what is it with bread and Mayfair? Have Italian restaurants in London declared war on crumbs?

While pondering on the destiny of bread, here comes a welcome amuse bouche:

A gazpacho with apples, this was as enticing as well presented, a sweet gazpacho nicely contrasted with the acidity of the finely diced green apple, which in a sense was replacing the role that the (absent) garlic plays in the traditional version (garlic might not suit the elevated Mayfair tastes after all). Perhaps the accompanying grissini (did they also contain cheese?) were not the best match, but it was a classy, refreshing way to start our evening, with a perfect sweet-acidic balance.

Next, the primi:

- Quail risotto with aromatic herbs (special of the day, allow for 18 minutes and relish the wait)

- Pansotti (home-made filled pasta) with Swiss chard and Pecorino di fossa

The risotto was, in one word, a generous dish. Generous in the portions, of both rice and quail, and welcoming, with the reduction poured elegantly on one side to good chromatic effect, with the rice creamy in the right measure, and the quail also cooked just right and very moist. The aroma of rosemary (a sprig of which had been deep fried and was rather good too) permeated the rice, exalting with its resinous aroma the gaminess of the quail. This was a remarkable dish, Man is so happy that he even looks almost reconciled with the overpriced wines

To the contrary, the pansotti were rather underwhelming. Ok, we should have gone by the English translation, but you see, Pansotti are a traditional Ligurian dish, a filled pasta where the balance of the filling is tipped definitely towards ‘erbette’, i.e. an array of (possibly wild) local greens and herbs. Here the Swiss chard seemed an afterthought to the ricotta filling. Now leave our (wrong) expectations aside, we were mostly let down by the quality of the pasta itself: rather tired, it looked like it had been cooked and then passed on some kind of skillet: in this process; any gluten which might have been there had lost its soul, and the bite told an unhappy story – so much so that an evil idea was forcing its way through our mind: perish the thought, could it be that they had mis-timed the two primi, and then re-heated the pansotti when the risotto? The pecorino di fossa, though, was good – we can therefore imagine that this dish might please non-Italians, less fixated than we on the bite of pasta..

Now for our mains:

- Loin of venison with spinach and mixed wild mushrooms (special of the day)

- Veal stew with Barbera sauce and polenta

Here Man and Woman disagreed, ranking the two dishes in opposite ways. The venison, which we learned originated from Yorkshire, was good, tender, with a nice reduction, very good mushrooms, a solid though not sparkling dish. But Woman found the mushrooms, though of top quality, too salty, the venison itself a little tame, and most unfortunately dirt in the spinach. Again, the deep fried rosemary a welcome addition.

As for the stew, we agreed it was very good looking on the plate, succulent and tender, cooked impressively. The root vegetables offered an array of different flavours and textures, though Man found it overall too rich a dish. We both agreed, though, that the polenta should have been much chunkier, rather than this thin layer with a crunchy top: after all, it is supposed to help soak up the meat juices, a rather impossible task here.

Finally, the dessert menu. We were slightly put off by the presence of strawberries in October, we decided to share:

- Warm flourless orange cake with vanilla ice-cream

The ‘flourless’ indication is missing from the Italian description, and here there was definitely something ‘floury’, we suspect it must have been maize flour. Overall, the dessert was pleasant, the ice-cream good… but then we remembered there was supposed to be orange in this, and, well, if you knew you could detect it, but let us say it was very, ehm... delicate.

We also got this:

Thank you, very generous considering our cheap ordering with no coffee, and very nice looking, but we just look.

With three glasses of wine at £7 each (two of Barbera d’Asti ‘Terre Caude’ 2003 and one of Chianti Classico Castello della Panoretta 2004) and a 0.75 litre bottle of water, the total bill including the usual 12.5% service came to £97.88: amazing, we came this side of £100 after all! (but remember, only one dessert for the two of us and moderation with the wine).

Probably the most unforgettable feature of the evening was service, rather remarkable in the variety of slips and flaws, with a random selection here for you. First, the obvious lack of any interest for the food on offer. Take the specials: their description amounts to a simple list of the main ingredients, with no additional detail as to how they are assembled, or cooked, or where they come from, or anything that is so common in most restaurants (definitely in Italian ones) to try and convey just a little of the love that those slaving away in the kitchen put into it, or at least to endear the diner to at least pause to consider what is the dish specially conceived for that very evening. And what to say of the mute waitress, that leaves a bottle of very nice extra virgin olive oil without a word of comment. Leave the food, take the drinks: we’ll mention just in passing the rather outrageous prices (either you went for an entry level wine at £18, or the next one up price-wise would take you to £30 minimum for whites and £35 for reds), simply to note that the same wine was taken to us in two different types of glasses, which incidentally were nowhere near the announced 175ml (which anyway would have made a strange commercial sense, making the bottle more expensive than four glasses). The sommelier, blushing when we asked the rationale behind the two different glasses, explained that there was a lot of new staff. Mate, with wine at those prices, this is not good enough.

The food was the best part of our Alloro experience. Chef Camera.prepares very respectable dishes firmly rooted in classical Italian cuisine and based on good raw materials. Perhaps some lightness of touch is missing, no pinnacle of creativity is reached, and some imperfections creep up here and thee, but overall this was a solid, high level performance that left us satisfied. The problem, as often in Mayfair, is the value for money: although we appreciated the sense of generosity in portions and in the complimetary bits, a full Alloro experience, including wine, costs too much for the quality, in our judgement. Nevertheless, at similar prices, we prefer this to the close neighbour Giardinetto .

Monday, October 8, 2007

Patterson's (London)

The day: 21st September 2007, Dinner.
The place:
4 Mill Street, W1S 2AX
, Mayfair, London
The food: Modern English (= French)
The drinks: Rather short wine list but quite diverse, with a French slant, also by the glass and half bottle

A Scottish family restaurant in the outer reaches of Mayfair, this is an elegant place about whose cuisine we’d heard good things, even with Michelin stars being mentioned as deserved: we must pay a visit! We scoot past Via Condotti off Regent Street, and literally behind the corner is our target.

The interior, as we said, is elegant and the reception relatively formal. Huge fish tanks create a slightly surreal atmosphere, but ideal, together with the ornamental plants, to soften and enliven the stark room with black leather chairs and benches.

We sit in a nice, softly lit and relatively secluded end-of-room area, but our row of tables for couples is crammed, the tables themselves are quite small, with a largish table behind us producing excessive noise. Mrs. Maria Patterson herself takes the orders and she does indeed bring a ‘family touch’ with a welcome informality, while Mr Raymond Patterson rules the kitchen together with his son Tom.

How nice, two glasses with an aperitif appear on our table. Nose… ehm, wait a minute – the perfume is of a sweet wine, maybe a Passito of some kind. How weird, we think, to serve a dessert wine as an aperitif: is this a ‘Scottish family’ touch? We don’t think we are going to have it.

A couple of minutes later, a wine looking exactly the same appears on the table of the distinguished couple next to us who are at the end of their meal, and we begin to realise that this was simply a service mistake. We confirm with the distinguished neighbours (a very rare case indeed of interaction with other customers, we reflect), and we all appreciate the elegance by the staff of not remedying the error by simply shifting our untouched glasses to their table. In fact, those untouched glasses stuck to our already small table, despite our requests to take them away, till the first course was served a while later. Sorry guys, we just don’t want to start with a dessert wine.

The bread arrives. No bread basket, one piece from a tray, as usual in French style places in London. It is not memorable, and the picture we took was crap anyway, so let’s just skip it. The amuse-bouche looks much more interesting (though the picture is still dark – we were reluctant to disturb our distinguished neighbours with the flash):

It’s a wild mushroom veloute’ with garlic foam. The mushroom flavour is very intense, with some exceedingly pleasant, vanishingly delicate coffee traces on top of the garlic foam. An excellent start.

The short menu (six-seven items from each of three sections) offers three courses at a steep £40 with supplements for particular items. At these prices it had better be very, very good. For first course we have:

- Tortellini of rabbit, thyme butter, leaf spinach, Madeira jus split with olive oil.

- Scottish langoustine, tomato comfit, courgette flower tempura, gazpacho dressing, and to complete the dish a supplement of £2.50.

(As you can see, with our distinguished neighbours gone and only working class people like us remaining, we now feel free to use the flash).

By ‘tortellini’ in Italy we mean, as you know, pretty small pasta parcels shaped in a particular way. So we almost fall off our chairs when we are served this single mega-specimen of tortellinO filling the dish… An amusing chef surprise: we dig in to find a powerful reduction, a little too thick and gooey to our taste, on an excellent and generous spinach bed with chantarelle mushrooms. The whole ensemble provided an interesting range of flavours, almost too many of them. Aside from the amusement, we still prefer, to the bite, the traditional tortellini, due to the lack of proportion, in this mega-version, between filling and pasta. A satisfying dish, even if not one to write home about.

The langoustine was instead a thoroughly problematic dish. The frying was bad, of the dripping kind, with none of the lightness that should make it fly. This was not helped by the plate being too cold. The heavy-handed cooking destroyed the poor delicate fish, which we assume was fresh but had none, really none, of the fragrance of fresh seafood (Woman even suspected it had been reheated). Even the comfit was mediocre. Chefs, you can clearly cook well, what’s the matter? Let’s say a nice thing about this offering: it was beautiful to look at (indeed we should have just looked).

For second courses we go for:

- Sirloin of Scottish beef (30 days hung), sweetbread fritters, roasted asparagus, gratin dauphinoise, sauce bordelaise, all finished with a supplement of £3.00.

- Rolled herb stuffed saddle of lamb, terrine of vegetable comfit, and lamb fillet with mustard cream.

The piece of beef was stunning, cooked well (rare as we had of course asked), supported by a nice reduction and garnishes in a cleanly presented but very rich and complex dish. Definitely on the heavy side, especially the fried bit (do we detect a pattern here?), with ample use of fats.

The lamb dish was clearly a labour of love, with a great deal of thought behind it, pleasantly plated. But it provoked mixed reactions. For Woman it was over-elaborated, with too much of everything, too much fat, too many flavours. Man on the contrary appreciated the vast range of flavours and textures, and even while deprecating the lack of focus and sharpness in the conception, could not fail to be impressed by the deftness with which everything was made to stand together in a precarious equilibrium. Lovely colours too.

For desserts:

- Port marinated figs, honey and rosemary ice cream and cinnamon dumplings

- Coffee and cardamom crème brulee, milk foam, espresso granita and walnut biscotto

The figs were a nicely conceived, beautiful and good dessert. Particularly good were the cinnamon dumplings, and for sure we thoroughly enjoyed the ice-cream and the figs, too.

The crème brulee was quite overworked and heavy, as usual by now, but certainly not bad, with a very flavoursome coffee granite and a nice biscuit. There was a problem with the texture of the granita itself, its crystals too coarse and at times in discernible lumps. The sharp difference in texture between the creamy foam sitting on top of the more consistent crème brulee was on the other hand rather pleasant.

We had a half-bottle of Rene’ Mure’ Cote de Ruffach 2004 (very typical Gewurtztraminer from Alsace) at £14.50, and another half-bottle of Chateau de Gironville 2002 (Medoc) at £17. With water at £3.60, the whole experience would catapult us far beyond our £100 ballpark target. But we have an ace up our sleeve…a 50% reduction on the food bill. So the total of £135.68 is scaled down to a more reasonable £95.68.

The service was correct and quite efficient. That the Chefs Patterson are ambitious is obvious. They can sometimes pull off, at their best, beautiful, complex and satisfying dishes for the lovers of rich French cuisine. But, given the level they aim at, which is very high indeed, we found really too much heavy-handedness, over-elaboration and flaws in their performance, which definitely lacks the gifts of simplicity and focus. All the signs are of good chefs who are nevertheless striving much too hard, ending up beyond their zone of culinary comfort (how could they spoil a wonderful langoustine in that way, we still wonder?). The word ‘pretentious’ also insistently springs to mind...And the prices definitely betray arrogance and a confidence in their abilities that is excessive and misplaced – this cuisine just cannot command those prices. It is a pity, because had their approach been humbler and simpler, they could probably have created a most rewarding culinary experience in a pleasant and elegant environment. Don’t go at these prices unless you arm yourselves, like us, with a 50% food discount. Otherwise, if you are in the mood for real top French cuisine at reasonable prices, just take a cheap flight to Strasbourg and try Au Tilleul !


Monday, October 1, 2007

Sa Cardiga and Su Schironi (Cagliari, IT)

The day: 14th September 2007, Dinner.
The place: stradale Pula, Bivio Capoterra, Loc. “La Maddalena Spiaggia” (Cagliari, IT)
The venue: Ristorante Sa Cardiga e Su Schironi
Closest Airport: Cagliari (BA, Easyjet)
The food: Traditional Italian/Sardinian Dining (mainly fish)
The drinks: Regionally based with some interesting wines, reasonably priced.

Here's the second review from our selection of the Sardinian holidays. It's about the kind of slightly upmarket family restaurant you can find in Italy: very comfortable environment, well appointed tables with regular tablecloths and napkins (and above all oceans of space between them), a diffuse simple elegance, with a relaxed, unstuffy and welcoming atmosphere that suits the tourist, the local and the businessperson alike (all three categories were represented on the night of our visit). Well, this is what we mean:

The restaurant, as one would expect, it being practically on the beachfront, specialises in seafood: as you enter, again as is standard practice in Italian fish restaurants, a display of what is on offer on that evening is the first sight that welcomes you:

Enough variety for you? You may be able to distinguish some glistening, impaled snake-like creatures peeking from the back of the mushrooms… if not, don’t worry; we’ll have more on this story later J

As soon as we are seated we are offered two glasses of bubbly – at the same time, as in many restaurants of this kind, the waiting staff come and ask us what we’d like to have – no menu in sight. But (unlike too many other establishments) there is no need to worry about being ripped off by being pushed towards expensive dishes, as the price list is stuck outside the door. There is an enticing list of both cold and hot starters: among the former, seafood salad, fresh Tuna Carloforte style (Carloforte being on an island in the South west of Sardinia, famous for its ‘tonnare’, where tuna fish was collected, slaughtered and then processed), oysters, tuna ‘bottarga’ (cured eggs), muggine (flathead mullet) bottarga: all between €5 and €8 (can you imagine?). Among the warm starters, seafood soup and a fry up of small fish, with nothing above €7. One can also have a sampling dish choosing five starters for €11.Primi are between €6 and €8, the cheapest item being the Culurgiones (type of ravioli filled in with potatoes, a kind of fresh pecorino cheese and mint, a very poor example of which we had at Sardo), and the most expensive various other fish dishes, as for instance the linguine with bottarga. Mains propose all sorts of grilled fish (the cheapest being eel, at €30 a Kilo, and the most expensive being langoustines, at €80 a Kilo), as well as the typical sardinian grilled porcetto (suckling pig), at €13, mixed fried fish from Cagliari gulf (€12) and lobster (€130 a chilo).

In amiable conversation with our pleasant waitress, it became quicly apparent to us that we should never let the starters pass by: we go for the mixed samples, and let the waitress choose for us. But after a second, here she comes again with a trolley with all sort of goodies: a plate with four warm and oversized bruschette, pane carasau, olives, and a chopping board hosting a huge salami looking Sardinian sausage and bottarga. They do want to keep us busy!

We manage to resist temptation and pass on the sausage, but give in remorslessly to bottarga

Of course, we could not expect this delicacy (and such a huge plate of it) to be complimentary, and we start wondering whether we should be worried: but as the room is filling up more and more with customers, we decide this cannot be a rip-off, and relax. As it turned out later, we paid €9 for it: a very honest price. And it was so good: just plain and simple bottarga on a bed of finely shredded raw artichokes (where did they find them at this time of the year?) simply seasoned with salt, oil and lemon – simple but very apt combination to underlinde the rich, delicate, inebriating taste of the bottarga. Quite a promising start!

Then, the starter arrives: good we asked for a single portion. It is made up of (clockwise from top left):

- seafood salad;

- fresh tuna with onions;

- Bosana style ‘agliata’ (i.e. gattuccio di mare (of Burrida fame), but it could also be done with skate);

- monkfish with mushrooms;

- bitesize mozzarelle with smoked swordfish (in the centre)

The picture cannot possibly convey the storm of flavours these stirred: all exceedingly varied in taste, and exceedingly good. A caleidoscope of innumerable tastes, from the slight acidity of the mozzarelle (impossibly fresh) and marinated monkfish, to the sweetness in the red sauce of the agliata (very tender), the smokiness of the swordfish, the sea bursting out of the seafood salad. Pretty amazing; only criticism, since we must be able to find one, the monkfish was a tad too dry. But the mozzarelline were spectacular.

Next, our primi arrive:

- black tagliatelle ‘our style’ (€7)

- pescatora style risotto (€8)

The black tagliatelle had been prepared with squid ink, and were presented in a tomato sauce with cep mushrooms, prawns and arselle (i.e. a local type of clam). The tomato sauce was beautifully sweet: the pasta had been cooked flawlessly, well ‘mantecata’ and the overall effect of this dish left both of us almost speechless.

The risotto was a little bit too salty for our taste. It had been also cooked very well, and the amount of seafood in it was again generous. Overall very good, but no wonder, this is what you get when a competent cook works with such first rate ingredients.

Now, an interlude: did you remember the impaled glistening creatures we tried to show you at the beginning: well, now we understand the name of the place better: Sa Cardiga and Su Schironi is Sardinian dialect for “The grille and the skewer”. And the skewer we get, proudly displayed by a waiter going around the dining room with the grilled eels on it. Now, we hope you’ll agree that a giant skewer is by far preferable to a giant peppermill…(remember this)

Of course we cannot let this provocation go unchallenged, so we decide to share one eel:

Delicious, rich and succulent, its sweet meat very moist, all accompanied by a glass of red Cannonau (local grenache): we later discovered this treat (including the wine) cost us a whopping €3.50 (yes, little more than £2 – maybe we are dreaming).

Now for our secondi:

- Grilled sarago (white seabream) €16

- Castagnola fillet in ‘cassola’ (signature dish) €20

We have to apologise for the look of the seabream, but Woman had greedily lunged to clean it up while the by now slightly Cannonau-inebriated Man was still dreamily enjoying the view instead of taking a picture, so there you go (by the way, a sign of the slight upmarketness of this place is that they did offer to clean the fish for us. In more basic places you would have no option but cleaning it yourself. We say cleaning it and not boning because you will always find that the fish has been cooked with its innards. Take it as a sign of fresheness, as an old fish cooked with its innards in would smell and taste foul!). Well, there isn’t much to say: the fish was fresh, it had been grilled as it should, and it was simply perfect.

As for the signature dish, now here the hand of the cook was more visible. This was a fish hotpot which, besides the advertised fillets of castagnola (damselfish, apparently), also included arselle (clams), mussels and shrimps. It had been seasoned with saffron (also produced on the island, if you can remember e.g. S’Apposentu's menu). The sauce was good, fresh and intense, the tomatoes in it again very sweet, and the fish was as good and nicely textured as we were by now exacting. Oh, and Man could enjoy the beautiful look of this dish, too (while less aestetically inclined Woman chomps on). And for the more cheap bastards among you, the signature dish comes with a free plate, as it is the “piatto del buon ricordo” (good memories dish) – the union of the “Ristoranti del buon ricordo

gathers a large number of good quality restaurants (with all sorts of prices) which present the customers ordering the signature dish a corresponding signature plate. There is a good number of collectors of such plates in Italy

We just did not have any room for anything else, or at least we tried to behave, and skipped desserts, just ordering one coffee (€1, yes, 70 pence…in a restaurant…) to keep up appearances.

We had a bottle of formidable and interesting late-ripened white Cannonau (not commonly found, as Cannonau is usually expressed in red) ‘Leila’ 2003 Alberto Loi at €20. Add €1,50 for the water, and the total bill came at €98.

A very very honest price for a very very good place, as there used to be many in Italy. This restaurant proposes simple, unadulterated Italian regional cuisine which remain staunchly true to its core tradition: very fresh ingredients, of unbeatable quality, with a minimum of preparation. But what basic preparation is needed , it is executed with mastery – in a large restaurant kitchen (here for up to 400 covers!) even grilling can disappoint unless it is backed by care and organisation. The credit goes to the Murgia family owners, who have been going on since 1967, with two generations involved (the father Cesare having recently passed the operational baton to son and sommelier Gianluca). This format is something which is unlikely to ever catch up in the UK, simply because it is too much ingredient-driven, and traditional Italian cuisine is very regional, based on very local raw material. You’ve got to fly there to try… Sa Cardiga and Su Schironi brings you the generous and stirring soul of Sardinian fish cuisine, and it does so with professional service and at prices that leave the Londoner stunned. No wonder it is always busy, in an out of town location, and with a local customer base among the most demanding and competent on fresh fish; so much so we could not repeat the next night, Saturday, as it was fully booked! We wish the Murgia family a continued success; they gave us a completely enjoyable dinner out.


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