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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).


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