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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cala Caterina

The day: 3 September 2008, Dinner.
The place: Via Lago Maggiore 32, Villasimius, Cagliari
The venue: Cala Caterina Hotel

Closest airport: Cagliari (British Airways, Easy Jet)
The food: Fine Regional Italian Dining
The drinks: List strong on regional wines, but far more expensive than the local average, and vintages not indicated on the list of national wines.

What a start. The first dinner of our 2008 Sardinian holiday –let us not make you wait with bated breath- was a letdown. This restaurant is part of a luxury hotel (which looks actually quite nice) situated in the breathtaking Southeastern Sardinian coast. The room is spacious, in light white/yellow colours, a mixture of rustic (floor) and formal (upholstered chairs) environment, with very wide tables.

There is a fixed ‘tasting’ menu (five courses) that costs €50 which, as we shall see, is much more than you need to pay locally for excellent food. And thinking of it, it is even more than what you need to pay in London.

The waitress comes to our table and asks what changes to the menu we want. She looks amazed when we say we don’t want any change. But yes, we want it just as the chef has designed it.

The bread arrives:

Decent, but the really bad omen is the unrequested and dreaded giant peppermill, with a giant salt mill in addition:

And here is the antipasto:

Terrina of ricotta with walnut olive oil, courgettes in ‘escabece’ (marinated) and swordfish carpaccio.

This turned out to be the best dish of the evening, so pay attention…The Carpaccio is cut thickly, a bit of a hatchet job but let’s say it’s a rustic style and we can appreciate it that way. The main problem is the excess acidity from the lemon. The ricotta is good with excellent walnut flavoured olive oil on top, but neither we nor the waitress could identify the accompanying sauce. And the courgettes, though looking horrible, were in fact really good, overall softly textured but with some crispiness left, and expressing a concentrated and balanced sweet/acidic flavour.


Pasta with vegetables and basil, and potato gnocchi with red mullet sauce and saffron.

The pasta looks horrible and it was in fact scandalous. It had clearly been reheated (the waitress refused to confirm or deny…), with mediocre vegetables artlessly assembled and especially a cringing, chewy aubergine, all skin. Far better to focus on the gnocchi, with the ragout sauce just slightly salty, but satisfactory, not too fat (contrast with Refettorio) and yielding a pleasant mullet flavour. It was very strange, anyway, to have these two dishes in a single plate.

Then we have a:

Tomato cream soup

As you can see, it is served smudged (not that anybody seems to care in this place), but otherwise it is an OK soup, pleasantly acidic, very light (no excess cream as we feared), and leaving a good flavour on your palate.

Here come the mains:

Beef with cannonau and shallot reduction, Monkfish with candies tomato and olive oil.

The fish has a defrosted consistency, which is unbelievable and a real shame in an area where (more on this story later) it is so easy to eat fantastic fish. Bad. The beef was better, though the reduction was lacking the promised intensity and did not look very professional, and the cheese, what was the point of the cheese. Another strange combination in a single plate.

We are asked if we want desserts now. We say yeas and five seconds later they appear, making us feel really rushed.

Crepes with chocolate and strawberry pudding, passion fruit sauce and red wine reduction

The strawberry mousse is acceptable flavour wise and texture wise, and the ‘crepe’ (crespella) was positively good. The whipped cream looked unnecessary in this dish (both the crepe filling and the mousse were creamy already). You could have played cricket with the chocolate muffin.

Overall, with a bottle of Ruinas Colli del Limbara Depperu IGT 2007 (but advertised as a DOC 2006) at a steep €33 (very inflated by local standards) and water at €4 (inflated by local standards), the bill comes to €137. We leave no tip.

What to say of this place? It is overall mediocre and far overpriced everyday hotel food, and should be left to the hotel guests, who at least don’t pay the outrageous prices (given the quality) that external guests have to fork out. It’s ridiculous to try and attract customers from outside pretending they have the kitchen to provide dishes worth a trip on purpose. They just don’t. How they got on the ViaMichelin with a positive recommendation is a profound mystery to us. We repeat: this is NOT a restaurant; it’s just a hotel which provides food. The moment you arrive, the waiters, who could not care less for what is in your dish even if they ask, can’t wait to have you out of there. We arrived almost at 9.00, and we left before 10.00! By the end, we were almost the only customers left, and breakfast service for the next day was being prepared in front of us, while we were finishing the meal:

At least we snatched a few breakfast cereals on our way out…

We drove back to our apartment in a disappointed and perplexed mood, but thinking of the crystal clear sea and white sandy beaches waiting for us on the following day. Avoid this ‘restaurant’, as for the same money you can have fantastic meals nearby, and think twice the next time you consult ViaMichelin.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Clerkenwell Dining Room

The day: 23rd August 2008, Dinner.
The place: 69-73, St. John’s Street, London EC1M 4AN
The venue: The Clerkenwell Dining Room
The food: Modern British
The drinks: Interesting shortish list, with a good range of prices.

After the slight disappointment at One Lombard Street and above all the shameful experience at Refettorio, another try for a good dining experience in the City. Quite unassuming from outside, inside it has two rooms on the ground floor, and another one upstairs. The décor is stark black/brown against cream and white, the white mostly coming from the tablecloths (Refettorio, please take note) on the well spaced and comfortable tables.

The menu is short and sharp, with eight starters and eight mains. Surprisingly given the location (near the Smithfields meat central market) it is unbalanced towards fish: of the eight starters, four are fish (e.g. smoked eel salad with Jersey royals and horseradish at £8 or Salad of crab and avocado as the most expensive item at £9.50), two meat – which we’ll go for, and two vegetarian (e.g. beignet of courgette flower, provençal vegetables and buffalo mozzarella at with ricotta at £8.50). As for mains, in the £15-£22 range, the vegetarian option (Potato gnocchi primavera, green asparagus and shaved parmesan, at £15) sits together with three fish dishes (e.g seared salmon with crushed new potatoes and beurre rouge at £16) and four meat dishes (including the Cote de boef for two, with hand cut chips and béarnaise sauce, at £22 per head).

Not a second after our orders had been taken, here comes a very welcome amuse bouche: cucumber ‘shards’ with salmon salad and dill sitting on top.

Very pleasant, fresh, the cucumber tangy with lemon fighting off the pleasant richness of the salmon salad.

And a nice bread basket to help it along

And yes, you may say that there are just two types of bread, and just three half slices per type. But this is not an Italian restaurant, and the bread is good, and in case anyone from Refettorio is reading, please note that bread comes for free…

Ok, so now for our starters:

- Country terrine of Pork with pickles an toast (£8.50)

- Barbecue quail, pickled cabbage and chilli mayonnaise (£9)

As for the Terrine, we remember now that it was advertised with toast: well, as you see from the picture there was no toast. No matter, it was really very good: the pork was chunky, moist, very flavoursome, each rich mouthful balanced by the acidity of the pickles. These perhaps a tad too salty, but overall this was a delicious dish.

The quail was also remarkable. Cooked through but plump, juicy and tender. Nicely and joyfully presented, with the crunchy (fried?) root vegetable slivers on top of the chunky stewed cabbage, with the sweet-and sour barbecue sauce rounding this dish off nicely.

For mains, we opted for :

- Roast monkfish, chorizo, broad beans, peas and green lettuce (£18)

- Rump of lamb, creamed sweet corn, fondant potato and rosemary and tomato jus (£18)

The monkfish came with a superthin ‘crispified’ slice of chorizo, which works out much better than other versions (these days the fish and chorizo pairing seems to be all the rage -see e.g. here - for some reason that especially Woman cannot make out). The vegetable broth was very flavoursome. The less successful bit of this dish was the monkfish itself, slightly sullen and chewy (maybe not top quality), and too salty.

The lamb, instead, was really something to write home about. Besides the very generous portion (definitely too generous for the lady at a neighbouring table, who was having real trouble in politely finishing her dish not to offend her host), the flavours were really clear and intense. The lamb simply excellent; the fondant potato, with a beautiful texture, had nicely soaked up the rosemary from the potent jus, very concentrated and counterbalanced by the sweetness of the creamed sweetcorn. If we had to find a flaw, the spinach, while good, erred again on the salty side.

Of course we could not let the puddings go unnoticed: so we passed on the Ricotta lemon cheesecake with pine nuts and raisins (£6.50) and opted for:

- Rum baba, tropical fruit and coconut (£6.50);

- Chocolate fondant, malt ice cream (£6.50)

Here again we cannot recall malt ice cream with the fondant, rather a red berries ice. And rather good it was. The fondant, so very intensely flavoured, was accompanied by an almost solid chocolate mousse (indeed, it felt like the mellow core of the best chocolate brownies you’ve ever had), deeply chocolatey, and all this intense chocolate really wanted some fresh and tart ice cream to complement it. Superb.

The baba was in fact more of a savarin. Too airy, perhaps, and the rum far fainter than in the Italian version, but overall a very nice dish, light on the palate, with the fluffy savarin quite a contrast in texture and flavour to the coconut ice cream, and the wide assortment of fruit lending some extra moisture and freshness to the whole. A perfect way to end the dinner.

We skip the coffee as usual, but nonetheless a little tray of homely chocolate salami squares generously appears:

With a bottle of Momo Pinot Noir 2006 at £30, our final bill would have come to £112 including service. Here again we deploy our weapon (it is enough to book online to get a 25% discount), finally ending up paying a very reasonable £84.38.

Yes, we finally spent a very pleasant evening in the City. Service is attentive, smiling, laid back but precise under the careful watch of the very charming she-maitre … it could be that of a well run Italian restaurant ;-)

Chef Andrew Thompson operates his skill on relatively plain ingredients, but bringing out of them as much as possible with work, imagination and, we think, passion. This is something we like very much; it is another living proof that simple materials can be turned into enticing dishes in the hands of an able chef who doesn't overstep the mark (remember Patterson's). And the sense of welcoming and generosity offered by the room staff extends to the dishes. True, we would hesitate to pay the full price, skilful though Chef Thomson is, and you know that we could eat even better, and more cheaply, elsewhere. But to be fair The Clerkenwell is good comparative value and a notch more enticing than other joints in this area, and especially if you were heading for Refettorio, don't, and stretch it one mile further north, and let them pamper you at the Clerkenwell instead.


Saturday, September 13, 2008


The day: 20th August 2008, Dinner.
The place: Crown Plaza Hotel, London, The City
The venue: Refettorio
The food: Italian
The drinks: Rather short wine list, Italian, good range of prices and wines.

To an Italian, the word ‘refettorio’ does not exactly conjure up images of fine food, but rather the pap you get at the school canteen. However, this ‘refettorio’ is associated with the great Locatelli (whose book greets you right at the entrance), so we are hoping for something a little better…

This is a hotel restaurant, but we have had decent experiences in London with hotel restaurants (e.g. Addendum) and even excellent ones (Number Twelve). The set up is quite nice. This is the entrance

And beyond it a glorified ‘refettorio’, with a rather stark, dark wood environment. No tablecloths, only tables where the grease of the previous service cannot and has not completely disappeared. Some tables for two are tiny and crammed together, others (like ours) are much larger and better spaced. The luckiest couples of all get one of the tables for four in a recess.

The menu offers plain Italian food, e.g. among starters (around the £10 mark) Mosciame di tonno (air dried tuna) with green beans, dried tomatoes, oil and lemon (£9.50), among pasta dishes (around £10 as a starter and around £12 as a main) ‘Paccheri’ with shellfish tomatoes and garlic (i.e. ‘in guazzetto’), at £10/£12, and among mains (around £20) Bread crumbed lamb cutlets, mash salad, pan-fried courgettes and semolina gnocchi (£19.75). No set menus at the moment, but there will be a ‘porcini mushroom special menu’ in a little while, and there are a lot of small dishes (fried stuff, pickles, salami, cheeses etc…).

At this point we normally tell you ‘The bread arrives’. But this time:

The bread does not arrive.

The waitress asks you if you want to buy the bread basket. Pay £3.60 for bread? In an Italian restaurant? You must be joking!

We buy it:

It is not described to us (maybe it is described to non-Italians), anyway we note a Focaccia pugliese, a ciabatta, a non-descript brown and a non-descript light pink (we suppose with tomatoes but they were not detectable in flavour). We’ve had better, but also worse, although in the latter case, at least, we did not have to pay.

As usual, we refuse the regulation olive oil cup, but the waiter asks if we want balsamic vinegar instead. What kind?, we ask. ‘It is from Modena’, he replies. Wow. It may have been from Modena, but could have been from the nearest discount supermarket, thin and lacking sweetness. Rather than serving this ‘balsamic’ vinegar, better not to serve it at all, we think.

The amuse bouche does not arrive.

Nothing here is complimentary. Nothing. Rather, we get pressured to buy some side dishes. No.

For primi we choose:

- Prawn filled Ravioli with courgettes (£9.75)

- Courgette flower Risotto (£10)

The ravioli are good, well-presented, with a good pasta and generous, tasty filling. The tomato sauce underneath comes as a surprise and is very intense, but unfortunately very, very heavy handed in terms of grease.

We had waited for the customary twenty minutes to have the risotto prepared, but given the result it might have simply been a show, with the rice reheated at the last moment. It was an amorphous, solid mass lacking any bite. There were plenty of fats in there, including cheese, but not much flavour and even less courgette flowers (essentially a decoration rather than an ingredient). On the other hand the courgettes themselves were present, and they were in fact the best thing in this regrettable dish.

For mains we have:

- Pan fried red mullet with potato cake and Mediterranean sauce (£19.75)

- Chargrilled swordfish with cherry tomatoes and rocket salad (£16.75)

The mullet is tasty, cooked well (very crispy, very moist), and the ‘hash browns’ on which it rests are pleasant even if a little salty. But once again the condiment is greasily heavy-handed, leaving your mouth too oily. And the peppers are watery and tasteless.

The thin slices of swordfish are also cooked well, tender despite being cooked through, and of good quality. The dish overall however is really basic and inelegant in the extreme, with a bunch of raw tomatoes simply chopped in half and some rocket thrown in. It’s a non-dish, what you might get in the most rustic of trattorias (at a small fraction of the price).

We think we have seen enough of this place. We share one dessert:

- Pastiera with ice-cream (dessert of the day) (£ 6.50).

It’s very ‘low’, unusual but interesting (aside form the fact that it is half portion compared to what you get, e.g. here). A little too sweet, but OK.

With bread at £3.60 (bread!), a bottle of water at £3.80 (steep), and a white from Marche (Roncoglia) 2006 at £24, the total comes to around £106 (for a two course and a three course meal). So a three course meal for two would set you back £115 inclusive of service (but, as usual in these overpriced venues, we deploy our bill-destroying weapon, a 25% discount, allowing us to comfortably meet our £100 barrier).

The service has a problem here. The sommelier is of the kind who looks over his shoulder and doesn’t show the bottle while you are trying the wine (should take a course at Boka). The dishes always have to wait too long when they come out of the kitchen. We noticed a dish served when the cutlery wasn’t on the table.

The dishes at Refettorio are very basic indeed, but, alas, the prices are definitely not basic. The standards do not stray too far from mediocrity, and often there is some unpleasant heavy-handedness: that’s why even the tables felt greasy! Moreover, this restaurant completely lacks the sense of hospitality good Italian restaurants offer you. You get instead the sense of being in a passionless enterprise in which you are just a victim. In other words (just in case it wasn't clear), they skimp on everything but wait for you to open your wallet wide. While you won’t be poisoned here, you don’t come here for the cuisine. You might even get an occasional glimpse of good cooking (especially the fish), and find edible food as a background for a business conversation (unlike, for example at Brunello) at steep prices and provided you do not look for lightness: but we regret we cannot find a single positive reason (not value for money, not cuisine standards, not pampering) to recommend to anybody to go to Refettorio. Even considering its money-spinning function, we are slightly disconcerted that the great Locatelli wants to associate his name with this operation.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When All Is Said and Done...

We like going to fine dining restaurants.

And yet ...and yet... we confess we get as much sheer eating pleasure, sometimes, in those simpler places with no pretense of fine dining but which offer you good materials traditionally prepared.

This is true in Italy, of course, where we are familiar with the tradition of the cuisine, and where simple food full of flavour is a staple. But also elsewhere, we more or less always discover something in this vein. When in Chicago
our favourite local when when we were not in our fine dining mode (see Naha and Boka) was in the nearby historical (and university) village of Evanston. The Little Mexican Cafe', where your guacamole is prepared on the spot by a skillful lady

who asks you what you want in your guacamole, and the correct answer is 'everything' (tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro -fresh coriander-, lime juice, jalapeno peppers).
Basic, delicious and beautiful:

Why is it impossible to find such good Mexicans in London? This shows that maybe even these things aren't as basic as they look; that you need balance (e.g. to find the right proportion of lime to avocado) and good quality materials.
We went there almost every day, and we exhausted their avocado stocks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

One Lombard Street

The day: 15th August 2008, Dinner.
The place: 1 Lombard Street
The venue: 1 Lombard Street
The food: Modern French
The drinks: List impressive on French, more sketchy on other regions, e.g. Italy

Convenient if you happen to work at the Bank of England (you just need to cross the road), the Michelin star glow of this informatively named restaurant is guaranteed to attract other punters from further away. Like us, for example, eager to stray every now and then from our mainly Italian restaurant itinerary, to sample one of the many fine French cuisine examples our capital offers. We have hopes that the culinary imagination of chef patron Herbert Berger and chef de cuisine Tim Richardson is stronger than that of whoever conceived the name for the restaurant.

When you enter, the room looks gigantic and impressive: but it is the brasserie, which offers simpler food in a less formal environment. Crossing the entire room you reach the more intimate restaurant proper at the back. When we say more intimate, bear in mind that the ceiling still touches the sky, and you could move a warship through the windows. The colours are light and neutral; the atmosphere feels elegant but relaxed, especially considering we are in a French restaurant.

On the menu, two gastronomic set offerings, a nine course one at £45 and a five course one at £32. A la carte is, as usual, much more expensive. Our dietary and budgetary constraints thus combine to make us choose the five course option.

The bread arrives, offered from a tray.

In this department there is ample scope for improvement.

But here is an amuse bouche:

It’s described by the waiter as a ‘carrot and fennel cream with liquorice’. However, the thing you smell three meters away is truffle: it is in fact garnished with a few drops of truffle infused oil. It is really excellent. The consistency is dense, with a cheesy undertone supporting the other flavours, none of which is dominant: you cannot in fact detect the carrot, but the sweet colour comes from there. On this flavour layer, liquorice and fennel are gently propped against each other. Sorry for taking so long on a little amuse bouche, but this is promising indeed.

Next, the first item on the menu:

Carpaccio of Tuna with oriental spices, ginger and lime vinaigrette and black radish:

The tuna is cut in superfine slices. There cannot be more than a few grams of it in the plate. It is supremely tender, but with the flavour a little muted, or hard to detect in such a small amount. On the side, we find very strong flavours, ginger, what appears to be soy, and some herb, which we are not sure are a great match for this evanescent cut of the fish. Not bad, interesting ingredients, and we understand the chef’s desire to start without a bang, but perplexing.

And here is:

Feuillete of smoked Finnan Haddock with quail egg, and Colman English mustard sauce:

The supposedly main ingredient, haddock, has been classily miniaturized into insignificance, to produce beautiful little cubes which are too small to satisfy any wish for a decent bite, and on the other hand are (in our opinion) too salty. This dish is a quail egg dish, not a fish dish. Rant over. The dish is nevertheless cleverly constructed, arriving in a strong whiff of smoky perfume, with the glazed phyllo pastry on top, under which lies the creamy egg, and then a very nice mustard which cut beautifully through the fatty, creamy flavours. The egg worked very well with what little fish was there. This was a relatively complex, multilayered dish, offering interesting flavours and luscious textures, and balanced too (although Woman found it a little too fat, a sort of glorified comfort food). Yet, for how good and technically accomplished it was, it felt restrained, it lacked some memorable note, to our taste: maybe the tininess of the portion, depriving us of any satisfactory bite, contributed to this impression.

Here comes number three:

Salad of artichokes, wild mushrooms, French beans, pumpkinseed oil and old (how much?) balsamic vinegar.

A welcome vegetable interlude. The artichokes come in two guises, boiled (or steamed) and fried, and very nicely too. Then the girolles and the crunchy green beans offer a very pleasant consistency and beautiful flavours. A pity, but once again we found little control on the salt, which was too much. And the dishes had been assembled sloppily: the amount and sizes of mushrooms in one was amazingly larger than in the other: not that it made a difference to us, as we share everything…but still it violates the first rule of plating!

And here the big shot:

Pave’ of Angus Beef, morels in vin jaune a la creme, beef reduction, baby leeks.

The beef is excellent tastewise but it is surprisingly dry. The morel reduction is not as pleasant as expected, and it almost feels a little burned. Well, for a beef dish, we were finally expecting potent and wowing flavours, but we are severely underwhelmed. And, sure it is a tasting menu, but come on, that piece of meat is single-bite-sized. The prospect of death by starvation is looming on us!

Finally, the dessert:

Feuillantine of caramelised Granny Smith, Guinness ice-cream and glazed hazelnuts.

The feuillantine is rock solid. It does have a nicely toasted buttery flavour, which goes well with the toasted hazelnuts and the sweet apple. The Guinness ice cream is good though not ravishing. Man remarks that this dessert is difficult to eat (how do you break the tough crust without squashing the entire, meagre content?) and looks a little sullen. Down to earth, it is a blob of ice cream with a wafer and nuts, not quite thrilling enough for a starred tasting menu. A detail that would pass unnoticed if the flavour took your mouth by storm, but alas this is not the case. This dessert does not meet the high expectations, we have to say.

The advertised petit four are not brought, and now it is Woman looks sullen…It doesn’t really matter to us, as we normally just take a little bite of them, but it concludes a night of sloppy service (see below).

With two glasses of wine each (Josmeyer Pinot Blanc 2006 and Barbera Avvocata 2004) at a total of £27.80, plus water at £3.75, plus 12.5% service, the total comes to £107.49.

The service was far below par for a starred establishment. There was clearly no focus, no energy and no concentration. Cutlery fell more than once (once what sounded like an entire tray just past the kitchen door), forks were touched by the waiter’s finger (at the eating end), the bread was more or less thrown on the plate, the desserts were brought by the waiter with his thumbs deeply inserted in the plate, the dessert plate was taken away before it was finished (and before the cutlery had been replaced in it) and the plea by Man to leave it was ignored by the spaced-out waiter (which also goes to prove that, when an Italian and a French communicate in English, some miscommunication is bound to happen).

What to say of the cuisine? Good but underwhelming would sum it up well. The menu was elegantly constructed, and we found much technical skill on display, treating with assurance a great variety of interesting ingredients; but we did not find this skill ever translating into anything really memorable, and sometimes we even encountered some imprecision. Overall, all these elegant dishes didn’t stir any emotion. Maybe it was a bad night, but while this dinner was by no means unpleasant, it compared very badly for example with our recent French cuisine experience at Chapter One. The £32 menu we had is a special offer (though there always appear to be some kind of promotion at this restaurant) and it may look like good value for a Michelin starred venue in the City of London. But, considering that when we went home we had to cook ourselves some pasta 'aglio e olio' to quell our hunger…well, enough said.

(Added on 18 January 2009: they have just lost their star: in the light of the above, this seems justifiable, whereas Chapter One just got theirs)


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