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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 .

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