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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Brunello at the Baglioni Hotel (London)

The day: 23rd April 2008, Dinner.
The place: Baglioni
Hotel, 60 Hyde Park Gate, London, SW7 5BB
The venue: Brunello Restaurant
The food: Italian
The drinks: Rather wide list, expensive.

Warning: if you are of an aesthetically sensitive disposition and suffer of a weak heart, don’t enter here. As soon as you pass the porter-opened door of this 5 star hotel, you enter a kitsch fantasy, with water games, flat arches serving no apparent purpose, middle-eastern style decorations, gilded table mats and the like. A sort of upscale (and in our opinion less successful and humorous) version of LMNT. All a little cheap looking, however, and a lack of tablecloths, which somehow surprises us. Also in view of the fact that judging from the wine list, where you are hard pressed to find anything at a reasonable price, this place must be patronised by people who, unlike us, are not cheap bastards.

The chairs, armchairs in fact, are really comfortable, and the tables are spacious and with a decent margin from the neighbour. The menu is quite short and not particularly inspiring; nevertheless we have an open mind since, as you know, Italian cuisine can perform at its best even in the simplest of dishes, provided the ingredients are good and the skill is high. Let us check this out. For primi we note bla bla.

The room manager asks us if we want the wine list. We say yes, but that will be the last time we see him: we simply disappeared from his radar, and we had to strive to catch the attention of the (only) other waiter to get some wine at the last minute. Distraction and inattention in the service will be a theme of the entire evening.

In the meanwhile, the bread arrives.

This was ok, apart from a structural defect: this is not a basket but a board. Sadly, boards are notoriously flat. With the bread in precarious equilibrium on it, either the waiter must have superhuman equilibrium skills, or the bread will fall off the board when served,

which is exactly what happened. And now the waiter’s dilemma: touch the bread with his own hand to put it back in place (shock, horror!), or leave it on the table? In the event, our young apprentice decided to randomize, picked one up and let the other flat. For future reference, as way out of the predicament we recommend the use of bread ctongs, which no doubt the Baglioni chain can afford. But, you, know, the basket has been invented so long ago for a reason…

Our primi arrive:

- Pasta ('scialatielli') with Vongole (£9.50)

- Linguine with Crab (£9.50)

The pasta with vongole. Ohmygod. This is truly terrible. Bad oil, the pasta of an absurd consistency (clearly the dough has not been worked enough), the clams completely insipid. The only discernible taste in the dish is that of raw flour. Yes you read us right, raw flour. The clams are served in the shell, and no side plate is offered to remove them from the dish, so that we use the bread plate. We remind the gentle reader we are in a 5-star hotel.

The pasta with crab is not as bad as the other dish, but it is completely dull. The tagliolini are verging on the abyss of overcookedness, there is again a lack of flavour and the trade-mark poor quality fat.

Our secondi:

- Sea bass (£24.50)

- Grilled Sardines (£16.50)

The sea-bass is cooked correctly. But no flavour in the fish is detectable, so that the bitterness of the crispy side becomes dominant. This is because the fish is of low quality. A farmed, possibly not even fresh, fish, for £24.50, the cost of a menu at Latium. Congratulations. Oh, and the bed of greens on which the fish rests is stringy and hard, difficult to cut with the fish knife provided.

The true horror story is reached with the sardines, though the dish is nicely assembled. This dish will be enjoyed by those of you whose idea of fun is to spend an evening in the semi-darkness trying to locate and remove all the tiny bones from the fish, or from your mouth as the case may be. The sardines are in fact served just gutted but not boned. This is a hard fish to clean if you have to do it blind. We would have happily offered to fillet it ourselves in the kitchen, assuming they do not keep it in darkness to reduce expenses. Again, no plate was offered for putting the damn bones away (when we asked, the waiter looked compassionate). The vegetables (chicory with red grapefruit) were the only relief from this misery.

We share a dessert:

- Cannolo Siciliano (£7.50)

Incredibly, this was good. Good flavours, decent materials. At last! Maybe, given the low cost of a dessert, here the chef has a freer hand.

With a bottle of Muller-Thurgau Girlan 'Valzer' 2006 at £ 30.00 (good) , a very expensive .75 litre of Panna water at £4.95, and the steep food prices the dinner is going to be not only bad but harmful for the wallet, too. But as always when we go overexpensive places we deploy our secret weapon: a 50% discount, which brings us to a total bill (including 12.5% service) of £77.30 (the total would have been £102.45, having skipped, remember, a dessert).

The service was a disaster. Apart from the disappearing manager we told you about, several other small episodes followed. This is one of those places where staff insists on keeping your bottle away from the table. Fine. But then we don’t want to spend long minutes waving in the middle of our meal because our glasses are empty: just give us the bloody bottle! And, for a place with a wine list that pompous and that expensive, we demand (something we normally could not give a damn about) that the wine is served correctly: for example, bottle held visible and forward when they make you try it, instead of held sloppily almost behind the waiter’s back. Sorry mates, if you want to play the ‘high class’ game with your wine prices, you’ve got to hire a proper sommelier, or at least to train your waiting staff properly, or (what we suspect is the real problem) to motivate them and to support them adequately.

If the service was a disaster, in beautiful symmetry the cuisine was a disaster, too. Nothing redeems what we ate there, which was not worth a cheap Italian trattoria, let alone the 5 star prices here. We imagine the chef, Andrea Vercelli, must be highly constrained by the management in what he can buy and what he can do, because no self-respecting chef would willingly serve such sub-standard food, in such a venue, of his own will.

This restaurant cannot possibly continue in this way. Something has gone horribly wrong. Probably a classic corporate management cock-up where, instead of trusting and enfranchising the professionals in the room and in the kitchen, some bean-counter wants to micro-manage everything. At the moment this establishment is good only for wealthy show offs with tumescent wallets, plastic taste-buds and a complete ignorance of what Italian cuisine is about. All the others, avoid.


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