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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.


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