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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Locanda Locatelli (London): 'Nice' but not 'Wow!'

 (Visited: 28/12/2011)

 Many say that Locanda Locatelli is expensive for what it offers. But consider this: what's the price for time travel?

Because through the Locanda cuisine you step back a couple dozen years, and find yourself engaged by dishes whose conception would not have surprised our parents in their youth. And we could have exchanged today's lunch with the one we reported on five year ago without being able to tell from the dishes which one was had when. Preservation rather evolution is the philosophy here.

This is not meant as a negative! We are certainly not going to object to preserving intact our great culinary tradition. But then, everything is about execution. How did they fare in today's lunch?

The bread and parmesan grissini (unpictured) arrive and they are majestic: impressively well-made. In particular a 'rosetta' was airily empty inside exactly as it should be. One of the best, perhaps THE best bread basket in town, rivalled only by Koffmann's.

We skipped the truffle dishes:

as it looked a bit sad in comparison with the one we had recently had here (incidentally, at a fraction of the price: 4 euros per gram there, 9 pounds here - this is London for you).

One of the primi was essentially the same we had five years ago, Pheasant ravioli with rosemary jus

and once again was near perfect: quite well filled with intensely flavoured pheasant, the jus powerful but not overwhelming the pheasant, with a luscious dense texture.

But less convincing was the other primo, Chestnut tagliatelle with wild mushrooms

Of course making a dough with chestnut will always create a texture problem for the pasta, making it brittle, and that's expected, but the reward for this should be a superior flavour, which we did not detect. The sauce, boozy and creamy in a really retro style, was also too liquid in our judgment, but it was pleasant (no more). However, because the pasta was too smooth on the surface, there was a slight feeling of sliminess. Not pleasant.

The two mains are chromatically appealing thanks to the beautifully coloured sauces.

The Veal with lardo di Colonnata and fine herbs, parsnip puree, pumpkin, hazelnuts.

had an enticing assortment of ingredients, of which surprisingly the least impressive was what we expected to be the star, namely the lardo. However, the parsnip puree' was a joy, one for the glutton with its sticky consistency absorbing the jus, of reasonable (no more) depth. The hazelnuts were of high quality and they shone. The veal itself, ever so delicate, just managed not to be overpowered.

On the other side of the table, a Roast English partridge, grapes, chestnuts, black cabbage with pancetta.

Nice touch, the grapes, but the pancetta had no punch (so it was not a punchetta), and neither had the chestnuts, leaving the cavolo nero, and us, a bit underwhelmed. What happened? We don't know, but certainly larger quantities of these ingredients were needed in the dish to make a mark. The partridge was cooked with great precision, and had good flavour. Once again, while very far from being a poor dish, and while holding well as a whole, it failed to really enthuse.

What was spectacular was one of the desserts. This 'torte of the day', a 'Frangipane' with pears and stracciatella icecream 

was good, the three textures (crumbly top, soft middle, and compact base) well balanced and the almonds commanding beautifully, with plenty of moistness and interest added by the pears and the icecream.

But even this paled near the  Cassata 'Locanda' style,

a 'deconstructed' cassata made with superb ricotta, superb canditi, superb everything, all spread out for your pleasure. This was  a masterclass in Italian flavours.

The petit fours were nice, too, though we have had better espressos (again, good, but just).

The service today was a little uneven, a little distracted, with a large number of waiters wandering around to not too much effect and without showing any genuine interest - and although this is for the cuisine, let us mention that the  pacing of the dishes was also very unsatisfactory, with firsts and mains brought in record time, and then taking an eternity to clear the empty dishes and get our dessert orders. It took fifteen minutes from firsts to mains and fifty minutes from mains to desserts.

There is also a chance of a bullshitting attitude by a senior waiter or maitre d' who, when asked where the wild mushrooms came from in this season, told us they came from France. Very unlikely. We also noticed that after we asked a couple of questions like this, this maitre d' started steering well away from our table.... Maybe he didn't want to be bothered any longer. Or maybe we stink.

So, all in all, Locatelli continues to deliver good, on occasion very good (especially when it comes to pasta and desserts), but always very conservative, Italian cuisine. It is in a sense the Italian analog of Koffmann's, although we have to say that unlike at Koffmann's at the Locanda only few dishes managed to stir really deep emotion on this occasion, and there are also fewer sparkles of wit and original twists. Several times one says 'Nice' instead of 'Wow!' It is pricey, true, but as we remarked after our first visit there is also a sense of generosity in the portions, the non- rapacious prices for water and coffee, the rare absence (in London) of the gratuity automatically included in the price. With two glasses of wine at an (outrageous as usual in London) total of £27, and good coffees at a correct £2.50, each, we paid about £150 plus a tip.

We'll keep taking a peek at this institution every five years or so, at this quiet sort of date when it's incredibly easy to book, the room is only half full, and celebrities are scarce around to support the restaurant. Even if not always thrilling, Italian institutions need support nowadays.


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