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Friday, February 29, 2008

El Molin

The day: 2nd February 2008, Lunch.
The place: Piazza Cesare Battisti 11, Cavalese (Trento), Italy, tel +39 0462 340074
The venue: El Molin
The food: Creative but regionally based cuisine
The drinks: Wide choice, strong on regional producers.

When we came to Cavalese last time, it was to try CostaSalici. We could not fail to repeat the one hour drive out and up from Trento to sample the cuisine of the newly Michelin starred Chef Alessandro Gilmozzi in his restaurant El Molin.
El Molin is dialect for ‘The mill’, and the advertising standards are not infringed at all: you enter the unassuming front door of this establishment in the middle of the village, and you find yourself in a converted mill, in a varied and multilayered structure, with stairs and sub-environments, in which comfortable tables have been skilfully arranged, with long distances between them.

In fact, there are acres of space on tables themselves, well appointed and with some quiet guest for company...

While the a la carte list comprises a handful of (appealing) choices in each section, there are three tasting menus: ‘Classico’ at €47 (6 courses including amuse bouche and petit four) ; ‘Creative classic’ at €55 (also six courses with amuse bouche and petit four); ‘Surprise’ at €70 (where it is promised that the chef will display his ‘creative inspiration’). From the a la carte, starters come at €14-15, such as ‘smoked egg (‘from Paolo Parisi’, who obviously must lay signature eggs) with Polenta di Storo and Cavalese goat cheese’. Among the primi (€15) we note ‘ravioli in black of porcini mushrooms, veal tripe and Taleggio cheese’. And secondi are at €19-22, such as ‘Pork fillet in Wasabi crust, chestnusts and Rhododendron honey pearls’ (€19).

A loud and clear message comes out of the menu: use carefully chosen local ingredients, add a sprig of unusual and even exotic ones and combine them inventively, almost audaciously. We have the impression this is going to be either a disaster or a treat, no half way – at least, this is what ‘Rhododendron honey pearls’ makes us think of. Which one will it be? Well, read on!

In the meanwhile, the bread arrives:

Excellent basket, excellent bread.

While we mull on the menu, here is the amuse bouche;

It’s a ‘Polenta cappuccino’ with herring tartare in its ‘bottarga’ (eggs). Oh my. Most light, most delicate, airy consistency, great balance between sapidity and acidity (coming from quark cheese!). This being herring and polenta, just imagine what a stodgy mess it could have been. The result on the contrary is remarkable. At this very point we know that this chef is going to please us: he has laid his cards on the table, and they are good.

We go a la carte to maximise variety, and our choice of Primi is:

- Chestnut soup, tartare of squid and mushrooms, juniper foam (€15)

- Potato gnocchi, prawn in three consistencies and lentil oysters (€15)

The consistency of the chestnut soup is perfect, neither too thick nor too thin, marvellously soft on the palate. Very very tasty, with a gentle peppery undertone, and with the juniper foam doing its job with authority, lending a nice complement of ever so slight bitterness. The squids are not the tenderest we’ve ever eaten (we don’t know whether because of the cooking or because of the long journey the squid itself must have made to the snows of Cavalese), and to be frank this is a dish that we would have enjoyed even without them.

The ‘three ways’ of the prawn were these: the body of the animal almost raw, the shell pulverized, and the head mashed and made into a bisque (sauce). Unsurprisingly the flavour was incredibly intense. This was a great dish both in conception and in execution, also decidedly appealing ‘philosophically’ to people like us: we hate animal bits to be wasted. Knowing that the prawn whole was in our plate was a source of great comfort. We must admit we were so taken with the prawn that we hardly focussed on the rest (like the failure of this like all kitchens to indent the gnocchi).

For secondi we went for:

- Baccala’ (salted cod) in oliocottura, Polenta di Storo and croccante di funghi (crisp mushrooms) (€19)

- Pigeon cooked on mugo pine bark, endive and braised cabbage (€20).

The cooking of the cod was superb: tender and translucent, it looked like raw. Excellent polenta (some cheese in there?). The mushrooms were slightly more evanescent, but the rye ‘baba’ (spongy rye bread) soaked in bird jus, surprisingly soft and springy given the rye, was sensational and a stunning match to the cod.

The pigeon was a complex dish indeed, displaying a great mastery of cooking techniques. The breast was just seared, then finished ‘en cocotte’ served in bird sauce, have a look:

The thigh had been boned, then braised with pancetta (similar to bacon). The innards had been made crispy (‘in croccante’). The experience starts with the pine bark perfume, which you could fleetingly capture when the cocotte is uncovered for you by the waitress: it is a flirtatious delicacy. Then you bite into the thigh ‘cylinder’ and you are in a heaven of concentrated flavour. Only to be amazed a few instants later by the cooking of the ‘piny’ bit, the breast. The crispy innards, while lacking memorable flavour, finish marvellously an authentic tour de force of consistencies. Needless to say the vegetables were perfect, too. A dish of real technique giving real emotion.

After a while a pre-dessert arrives:

It is a Yogurt Meringue with sambuco (elderberry) jelly. The meringue is in fact siphoned cream and yogurt with meringues on top and ‘popping’ items on the bottom whose name escapes us…As playful as delicious.

And finally for the desserts:

- Strudel of puff pastry (€10)

- Our Zelten … (€11)

Traditional strudel is not made with puff pastry, but with a butterless ‘pasta matta’ (this being the name given to any ‘non-coded’ dough). This tradition is under threat though, as in shops more often than not you find ‘fake’ strudels with puff pastry (so much quicker to prepare if reaching for industrial puff pastry in the freezer), and this disrespect for tradition makes some chefs quite displeased. You need to know this to understand the provocation implicit in this innocuous and classical looking dessert. We are not sure we like puff pastry in strudel, perhaps a remnant of our own principled objection, but at any rate, this was comfort food with a great balance of flavours.

Zelten is also a traditional regional cake, a rather compact mix of sugar, nuts and dried fruits reminiscent of Certosino. The suspension points in the menu are very appropriate here, as the original is literally taken apart down to its constituent part, and re-assembled. An interpretation that won’t win over those who, like Woman, want their dessert to cuddle them, it is nevertheless an interesting and cerebral take on tradition. This deconstructed version has Man, ever the intellectual, completely falling for it: the dried slivers of fruits are intensely flavoursome, stuck in a rewarding vanilla ice-cream, the whole resting on ‘crumbs’ of short crust, lined by (if we remember correctly) sticks of dried figs. There is a lightness and elegance in the architecture of this dessert, completely overturning a much heavier preparation, that one cannot fail to admire even if he is left cold.

And now really finally, the petit four in their full glory:

We don’t know where to begin, so we won’t; let’s just say: fantastic.

With a bottle of Pinot Nero Vignolet La Cadalora (2002) (Fair) at €28, two cover charges at 6.00 (a bit old fashioned, this), a bottle of water at 3, and two coffees at 4.00, the total bill came to €130, underscoring how honestly priced the dishes are.

The service was not really put under pressure: on a Saturday, in a touristy village (ski slopes are a stone’s throw away) there was only another couple beside us in the entire restaurant. At any rate, it was friendly and relaxedly professional. The chef in fact becomes part of the service as he comes out to take orders, explain his dishes or seek reactions to them. But what about what really matters, his cuisine? This is a chef who is brimming with ideas, almost uncontainably so. There is a hint of quirkiness and over elaboration in his creativity, a desire to surprise, which we imagine he may have struggled to control; but it being supported by both a massive base of technique and an evident passion for his dishes, the result is a well-shaped and mature style. The vocabulary of regional tradition is deftly organised by the syntax of modernity. The cuisine here is playful, precise, imaginative and – we appreciate this a lot - light: no heavy sauces, none of the heavy preparations typical of the region. In a nutshell, we were impressed by chef Alessandro Gilmozzi, a ‘researching chef’ that hasn’t lost touch with the land where he lives and works and draws many of his materials from. Unless you are definitely looking only for ‘straight stuff’, we cannot recommend enough that you pay him a visit (and no, we get no royalties!).



Friday, February 22, 2008


The day: 14th January 2008, Dinner.
The place: 21, Berners Street, London W1 (020-73239123)
The venue: Latium
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Italian based list, wide price range starting from below £20 up to the hundreds, also by the glass.

(For a more recent meal, see here)

Well…if you read this blog regularly you know already how we feel about Latium and the cuisine of his chef/patron Maurizio Morelli. If not…be aware from the outset that for us it’s simply the best Italian cuisine in London: yet unrewarded by Michelin stars (though they will come, no doubt) but well-noted in the best and most competent Italian guide which covers some restaurants abroad (by this guy), and by legions of discerning customers, which makes it advisable to book in time (at least twice we found it fully booked on a Monday night!). After our review from our visit almost exactly one year ago we want to update you – we need to update you: there are changes, big changes. And there is progress.
Starting from the interior:
Beside some new benches in the smart L-shaped front room, the big news is a chef’s table in a separate room near the kitchen (in the photo you can spot in the distance the window on that room, and beyond, the kitchen, all viewed from near the restaurant’s entrance).
A closer view is here:
Many tables are round, as we like, and all are comfortable and well-spaced. On the right of the first photo, another novelty: a bar area where coffees are prepared. Mmh…you know what? Thinking of it, in the more than 50 times we’ve visited this place we’ve never had a coffee: the single item on which we cannot pass a judgment! If you have sampled it let us know what it is like.
And in the front room an almost entirely new team since our first review: Baldino has left, Alex has been joined by the new manager Umberto Tosi, and most of the rest of the young team is also new. Will Signor Umberto lead the team as aptly as it was led before? Sorry, you’ve got to wait: you know that we always talk about the (all-important) service only in the end…Here, while you wait have these lovely canapes with the compliments of the kitchen:
These haven’t changed, so we quote ourselves: they are a refined mini-take on the traditional ‘rosticceria’ fare: mini-arancini (deep fried rice balls), mini calzone (bread dough stuffed with mozzarella and parma ham) and mini pizzetta rustica, imagine a cross between puff pastry and bread dough, splashed with tomato sauce, rolled, cut up and cooked – and of course gorgeous olives.
There are remarkable news on the food front too (what did you expect?) – but for that, again, you have to be patient until the desserts to find out…more on this story later…
The menu pricing is just as it was last year (good!): £24.50 for two courses or £28.50 for three. None of those as ubiquitous as odious supplements that make a mockery of fixed price menus: whether you have wild seabass or fillet of beef or pork belly that’s what you pay. And the shorter lunch set menu is incredible for this quality of food and service (oops, we are giving the game away on the service): £15.50 for two courses and £19.50 for three. The signature dish is still there: the multicoloured four fish ravioli we photographed and reviewed here and here which epitomises Morelli’s passion for filled pasta. The rest of the list has starters such as fois gras terrine with toasted morello cherry bread, or salad of veal tongue with tuna sauce and baby leeks in vinegar; primi such as rigatoni with baby octopus, black olives and broccoli (try them, they are terrific); secondi such as pan-fried fillet of wild sea bass, candied lemon, fennel and red pepper sauce; and an entire ravioli menu, both as starters and main course, and indeed more…more on this story later...
The bread arrives:
Sardinian cartamusica, spinach and pecorino bread, walnut and raisins bread, sun dried tomato rolls and olive rolls. Serious stuff, a basket quite unique in London.
We begin with this:
This is not on the menu (come on guys, we’ve been here more than 50 times, we told you!). It is artichokes in a clear hen broth with quail eggs and prawns. Divine. With some pepper, the intense sweetness of the prawns is exalted, and a creamy explosion of flavour on your palate is triggered by the eggs. The (Sardinian we believe) artichokes are delicious and fit the prawns and eggs combination very well. Light, elegant and rich at the same time, this is already a show-stopper.
For primi we go for:
- Ravioli filled with Taleggio cheese, Swiss chard and walnuts, and marjoram.
- Tagliolini with crab meat and aubergine sauce
The ravioli make our job easy: when a dish is so beautiful to look at, and it is as delicious as it is beautiful, little more has to be said. We shall only remark that the walnut flavour makes a heavenly marriage with the chard, and that the butter condiment is flavoursome but judiciously light.
And now the tagliolini, in their velvety and luscious condiment, with the pungent aubergine expressing itself with personality. The pasta is perfect, and the sweet crab is well integrated in the sauce. The tomatoes add both a visual and a flavour finish, and an extremely high quality olive oil suffuses the ensemble. An example of a dish which is refined and at the same time appeals to your most basic gluttonous instincts: you want to just tuck in and stuff yourself, but you also want to pause and relish the flavour.
For secondi we choose:
- Poached fillet of beef with spinach, pickled carrots, toasted hazelnuts, in tomato broth
- Roast fillet of monkfish wrapped with lard, pumpkin sauce, savoy cabbage, girolles mushrooms and red wine reduction.
The fillet of beef will remind any Italian of a deconstructed ‘pizzaiola’ (beef/veal with tomato sauce, very popular in Italian homes). But there’s quite a difference here: touches such as the acidic pickled carrots and the toasted hazelnuts, the monstrously good broth (Morelli’s stocks are great), the perfect cooking of the beef (sous-vide we think), make of this amazing kaleidoscope of flavours a ravishingly beautiful modern dish of deconstructed tradition. Indeed for Man this is the best among many fine dishes, and he is forever and beyond reason imploring Morelli not to take it off the menu…
Talking about beautiful dishes, look at how the monkfish is resting on a brilliant palette of colours. Flavourwise, there is a dominant theme of sweetness, primarily from the smooth pumpkin sauce which gains structure from the wine reduction (this is a good example of how to create a 'classical sauce effect' while keeping the dish light avoiding heavy use of dairy fats). The mushroom flavour is very concentrated and holds its own assertively. The fish is cooked well, the bite through the lard into the moist meat extremely pleasurable.
And finally, the dessert:
- Three colour ravioli

Yes, here is the big novelty, a new signature dish: the passion for ravioli has finally made into dessert territory! From left to right: apple ravioli with pine kernels, raisins, cinnamon and vanilla sauce; chocolate ravioli filled with ricotta, candied fruit, pistachio, served with orange sauce; mint ravioli with pineapple in coconut sauce. Well, what to say, just read the ingredients and salivate…this is a triumph and this dish will make a mark. Just note that the apple ravioli are a delightfully deconstructed ‘strudel’, the chocolate ravioli play incredibly intensely with the orange sauce, and the final coconut sauce concludes this tour the force with a caress on your palate.
After this complex piece of work, we wanted to show you also:
- Yogurt mousse with wild berries.
This mousse is one of our long-time favourites when we feel we are eating too much (that is, always) and yet we need a dessert, and illustrates the fact that even for very basic, very simple dishes it matters a lot who prepares them, an ordinary chef or a serious chef. None of the excess acidity you might fear from the yogurt: just a perfect blend of flavours in a very light yet tasty dessert.
With the usual 0.75 bottle of water and a bottle of wine that disgracefully we forgot to make a note of and whose memory has been washed down by many more litres of the noble liquid since, but which cost about £25 (that we remember), the bill came to a supremely reasonable £96.20. We never want them because we are so full, but they are delicious and they are brought to your table as a final complimentary item:
We have tried them in the past, and if you still have space in your stomachs, they are well worth it (if you only have space for one, the lusciously decadent white chocolate truffle in cinnamon coating will linger in your memory).
The service at Latium is one of the best we know of. A team that operates unhurriedly the busy dining room like clockwork, with fresh directness but also with elegance and a touch of formality, and who act -as should always be the case- in close cooperation with the kitchen, and with an intimate knowledge of the dishes. All coordinated with towering assurance and friendliness by the charming Signor Umberto, and of course by the equally friendly and energetic Signor Alex, who continues from the old team. Chef Morelli’s cuisine rests on very sound classical foundations, yet, as you have seen, there is so much inventiveness and originality. These combine to produce a profoundly personal cuisine, not similar to any other, with dishes that strike for their ‘solidity’ going hand in hand with a supreme lightness. And for their great visual beauty (take another look). Add to this the restaurant’s new look (with few more trimmings still to come), Latium is definitely on the up. This is fine, beautiful dining - at killer prices. Maurizio Morelli is an outstanding young chef you’ll hear much more about in the future.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Michelin stars Italy 2008: questions and answers

Our reader Jan Philip asks today some interesting questions about an old post of ours on the Michelin guide Italy 2008. To raise his questions and our reply above the obscurity of the comment section of a November post, we report both of them here:

Jan's queries:

'From which sources do you know that the three stars for Germany are given too freely? Have you any dining experience with german or japanese high end restaurants? How do you think you can give a more objective view than the Michelin guide and its team of inspectors? I think you should at least do some comparison before you make such judgements
Nevertheless I enjoyed your website - keep on
Jan Philip'

Our reply:

'Hi Jan,

thanks for your comment on our blog.

We never said that stars are given 'too freely' in Japan and Germany.

We just noted what is under everybody's eyes, and made news around the world: the objective abundance of stars in Japan and Germany compared to historical standards.

An abundance which maybe is deserved, maybe not: as you note, we cannot say (though watch this space as we have an upcoming trip to Germany...). The term 'lavishness' was used by us in the plain dictionary term of: 'To give or bestow in abundance'.

Our remark was not original. This is from the Times (20 Nov 2007), for example:

'Tokyo, the neon-clad home of the pickled sea-slug and horseradish chocolate, has eclipsed Paris, London and New York to become, officially, the most delicious city on earth.'

And somebody who knows about stars and the working of the Michelin guide, Ferran Adria' himself, while fully praising Jiro (the three-star sushi bar in the Tokyo metro station), noted the 'epochal turn' of the guide.

So we are simply not naively pretending that nothing is changing in the Michelin firmament.

What we continue to find truly remarkable is that one of the great traditions of cuisine on earth, the Italian one, is so little represented in this firmament. There must be something positively wrong with Italian chefs, an inability deeply seated and genetically ingrained if, despite being fortunate to draw on such a great tradition, they are incapable of cooking at high international standards according to Michelin. This genetic inability is confirmed by the fact that, of already very few three stars restaurants in Italy, two belong to non-Italian chefs. It will be a great scientist he or she who eventually discovers the gene of Italian cooking inability.

You can see we've got a gripe...

Finally, we are not sure whether or not we can make 'more objective' judgments than the Michelin inspectors. Michelin clads its mode of operation and its criteria in such a thick veil of secrecy, that it is is hard to tell. Certainly, when details come out, they are not always flattering for Michelin, as you are no doubt aware, but we don't want to rub it in. Let's say that like for any organisation, there are some things to like in Michelin - not least its simple classification system (no silly 'x and a half' points) - and some weak spots.

The only claims we make for ourselves are these: 1) nothing, absolutely nothing, informs our judgments beside our tastebuds and eyes 2) we have lived and breathed Italian cuisine for all our lives 3) we can make detailed comparisons at all levels with the restaurants of one great city, London. 4) we are not paid professionals but ordinary paying customers, so we have a keen eye on value for money as well.

Beyond that, the culinary world is for us a big and fascinating dark theatre that we to hope to continue to explore.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Alsatian fare at Le Rapp

In one of our several Alsatian stops while crossing Europe North-South we decided to just try a place at random (a rewarding way to take the pulse of a regional cuisine - provided you are in the right region!).

We stopped overnight in the beautiful city of Colmar, and we entered a restaurant
(Le Rapp, 1-3-5 rue Weinemer - 68000 Colmar, Tel +33 (0)3 89 41 62 10 , Fax +33 (0)3 89 24 13 58, E-mail whose offerings looked firmly regionally based and the rough equivalent of an Italian trattoria, while the interior looked rustic, yes, but slightly more upscale. The prices for starters are €8 to 10, for the main course game specialties (which is what we had) around €17 (for fish and beef of course you look a little higher), and for desserts €6 to 8.

Let's give the game away: What a treat!

Well, that it was a bit more upscale than a trattoria was underlined by the fact that we even got a serious amuse bouche
Prawn (grilled or 'a la plancha') in ratatouille: sweet, fresh and delicious, the rustic presentation concealing a rather accomplished technique.

When the bread arrived and we tasted it, we were impressed, if not by the variety certainly by the quality (and, as we discovered later, it was a bottomless basket):

We continued with a 'quiche au lard maison'impressively served on a black slate, rich but not overwhelmingly so, and nicely, colourfully garnished.

Equally satisfying was the creamy pumpkin soup with chestnuts and slices of smoked duck breast:An array of sweet flavours with luscious, soft consistencies, and a perfect backbone of smoky elements. Good balance.

And of course we could not miss the classic Alsatian 'Baeckaoffa':This version, served in a super hot bowl, had wild boar and venison. This is all that plain regional food can be at its best, a multitude of flavours fully extracted from good quality meats, vegetables, herbs and spices and mellowed into harmony by means of simple but time-proof cooking methods.

To enjoy more clearly the flavour of a (much younger) wild boar we also had this:

Cutlets prepared with green pepper and red cabbage. Once again, we were struck by the balance in the richness of this food (no overwhelming grease, no heaviness), and by its true flavours.

Finally, in the dessert you also see some presentation skill at work:
Remarkable, quite some precise cooking going on here, with the cinnamon and wine infused pear accompanied by a very well made vanilla icecream; and the 'kugelhopf' shaped delice glace', the only disappointment in this latter dish being that we thought they were going to serve the kugelhopf itself: oooh.

This is the typical establishment which (we merely imagine) must have been run for ages by the family with basic home cooking, and where now, with the young generation at the stoves, probably well trained at the hotelier school, more 'scientific' in their ways and eager to show their skill and express their creativity, the transition to a different order of cuisine and sophistication is taking place. It's not an easy balance to reach at all, between tradition and sophistication: but here at Le Rapp all indications are that they have been successful indeed.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Don't they like their food in Bologna...

Bologna is arguably the Italian capital of handmade filled pasta (OK, from now on we'll need to overcome the groans of discontent of readers from other Italian regions...). Here you can find whole troops (even though thinning out) of "nonne" working their rolling pins to produce acres and acres of perfectly thin pasta for tortellini, ravioli, tagliatelle... you name them, they do them. And for starred restaurants, too! Here we show you a selection from the windows of Atti, a real institution of a shop in the heart of historical Bologna:
and here a closeup of passatelli (remember? We had them at "Il Sole")

But of course here you find tortellini by the wagon load everywhere: don't you feel like diving in?

And Bologna wouldn't be Bologna without its fair share of cheeses and hams...You find this plenty at every corner:

as well as their proud owners!
Back to Atti, there you can also find all manner of goodies to soothe your sweet tooth. Various "paste":

as well as other cakes:

including the traditional Christmas 'Certosino (panspeziale)':
(The sign says they make it since 125 years ago).
Each region has its own variation of these sweet meats of nuts, chocolate, dried and candied fruits. But in case you go through Bologna and wish to pay a visit, this is the sign you should look for to acquaint yourselves with the local produce:

But one word of warning in case you decide to buy rather than just look around: not everything is traditional at Atti. We advise you to read the labels with the ingredients very carefully. For example, we did not buy our panspeziale there; we are most allergic to the letter 'E', especially in sweets that were invented to last for quite some time on the strength of their natural ingredients...


Sunday, February 3, 2008


The day: 17th January 2008, Dinner.
The place: 27 Old Bailey, London EC4M 7HS (020 3201 0077)
The venue: TerraNostra Restaurant
The food: Sardinian
The drinks: Short list, mostly Sardinian but many other Italian regions.

We take holidays in Sardinia quite often. That we fell for the second time, after the disaster of Sardo, into the trap of trying a Sardinian restaurant in London lays bare a masochistic streak in us...The restaurant in question opened just last September in an interesting area which should be great for business, near to poles of attraction as diverse as the large Bart's hospital (as St. Bartholomew's Hospital is known to us regulars), St. Paul’s Cathedral, and about a zillion of City offices. The interior is rustic and welcoming, with a room enlivened by a curvy partition and a bar area, decorations which are easy on the eye, and plain tables:

On the menu, the few usual suspects of simple Sardinian fare: some mainly fish starters, such as tuna tartare or tuna bresaola (cured meat) and grilled baby squids (£7.50 to £8.50); for primi some traditional types of pasta and fregola (around £8-£11.00) ; for secondi, simple grilled fish and meat dishes (tuna, swordshfish, lamb, beef) (around 12.00 to 14.00). No burrida. Mind you, when we say ‘simple’ we do not mean it with any negative slant: simple regional food, as you know, can be a joy everywhere in Europe, provided it is based on good materials and is well prepared. Nevertheless, we are not off to a promising start when we probe the (charming) waitress about the provenance of the tuna :

‘Oh, we buy it here in London’.

‘Yes, we imagined that, but where is it actually caught?’.

‘We have our trusted fishmonger, we buy every day’

‘Yes, but where does the tuna come from?’.

‘I don’t know, it is really fresh, very good.’

Indonesia, perhaps?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, I would have to ask’.

OK, as asking seemed a colossal enterprise, we will not go for tuna. Anyway let’s start from the beginning. On the table, an offering of two types of olives and olive oil:

and a nice bread basket arrives:

The olives were good, and the bread was varied and OK too.

For primi we go for

- Culurgiones (potato and cheese filled pasta parcels served with tomato and mint sauce) (£8.50)

- Fregola (rice like traditional pasta) with prawns and courgetts (£8.50)

Man found the fregola a great letdown. None of the freshness and suavity of the sea you expect in this sort of dish, and not even at least the delicate aroma of a good olive oil. No, just hard, bland prawns and equally bland mussels. Nevertheless a not unpleasant mussel stock provided some support, and the courgettes were nicely crispy and abundant. Woman was more appreciative, but not all that much.

The culurgiones were not culurgiones, just like in Sardo. For God’s sake, if you guys bother to open up a Sardinian restaurant in London, something no law of the land forces you to do, can’t you make the effort of producing proper culurgiones on the premises? The pasta itself was a scandal, the filling was just a bit closer to the real thing, the trademark seal was nowhere to be seen, the sauce was acceptable. And if you want to know what the real thing should look like, check it out here.

For secondi, having been put off the tuna, we choose:

- Sardinian sausage (£11.90 – a nice little earner, this)

- Battuta di Agnello (marinated and grilled lamb (£13.90)

The lamb achieved the distinction of being both extremely thin (and consequently with a hard to detect flavour) and quite hard: congratulations. A cost conscious dish of little generosity.

The sausage was cooked well, a little dry, with a pleasant fennel flavour and much pepper. Not much to record in terms of other flavours, but not too bad. Exactly the same vegs were in the two mains: roast potatoes which Man gulped down trying not think while Woman explicitly complained on account of their greasiness, and good, crisp broccoli with on top the…culurgiones sauce (yes, really).

We decide to share a dessert from the not too inspiring list (£4.50-£5.50). There is one simple dessert for which Sardinia is famous: Seadas (or Sebadas), which we had for example in Via Condotti. You would expect to find it in the short list of a Sardinian restaurant, right? No, they did not bother. So we go for a classic

- Tiramisu (£4.50).

This was the nicest looking and most satisfying dish of the evening. Nothing spectacular, but simply a correctly made, balanced standard, proving the point that simplicity is not necessarily detrimental for taste (of course, though, the one we (meaning Woman) make at home is much better).

We accompanied this with a surprisingly good Carignano del Sulcis Grottarossa 2005 (£18.50). With a 0.75 bottle of water the total came to £76.80. The threat on the menu that ‘a 12.5% may be added to the bill’ was enacted. Maybe we did not smile brightly enough (otherwise, when the say 'may be added', which criterion do they use?). But we got a complimentary mirto in the end. Again, we don’t know if this is standard treatment or only for the customers that smile, but many thanks anyway.

The service was also smiling, and (except for the unwillingness to reveal the provenance of materials) professional. What about the cuisine? Well, the trenchant answer would be 'what cusine?' - we must admit it is always a bit depressing to come out of a place like this. It’s not that the food was positively bad or toxic (it may happen, it may happen). It was just extremely uninspiring: such a distant imitation of the fantastic flavours of Sardinian trattoria food (remember this?) which screams ‘Eat me!’ at you, that it is even hard to put them in the same mental category. We must perhaps resign ourselves to the fact that real Italian trattoria cuisine is not possible in London - you must always err on the side of fine dining to find something from decent upwards. At TerraNostra, with a full three course meal and a more expensive wine, the bill would have been in sight of the amount that would buy you fine Italian cuisine of an entirely different level, prepared by real chefs and with oustanding materials (we don’t need to tell you about our favourites…). We think the additional few pounds needed would be really well invested, especially if you want to know what Italian food can really taste and look like. Nevertheless, if for whatever crazy reason you masochistically persist in wanting to experience a Sardinian trattoria in London, we marginally advise you (just because it's a bit cheaper) to come to TerraNostra rather than go to the remarkably similar Sardo

But our firm advice is that you fly to Sardinia instead.


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