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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Briciole ristorante gastronomia (London): great new Italian

 (Added October 2012: some more recent comments are here)
This is what you could be doing on a lazy week-end morning: read your papers while nibbling some fine mortadella just sliced off the Berkel (or go the whole hog and stuff a nice rosetta with it).

Those who read us regularly know how much we care about Italian cuisine, and how frightened we are by the horrors and even more by the mediocrity (more insidious because less obvious) of so many so-called Italian restaurants in London. Well, we'd like to welcome a lovely new place that we suspect will make many food lovers and wine lovers happy.

Briciole is five minutes walk from the Edgeware road tube station, in Homer street, in the space previously occupied by the Honey Pot pub. The people behind the enterprise are Maurizio Morelli and Umberto Tosi, respectively Chef patron and manager (in the photo) at Latium.

The concept here is very different from that of Latium: a gastronomy/cappuccino area in the front, a rustic, warm, spacious, bright restaurant area at the back. The food is simple Italian trattoria style: straightforwardly cooked dishes, in which great produce and care in execution combine to deliver the authentic pleasure of Italian cusine.

For the bread, they imported not the bread but a specialist breadmaker (a human, we mean) from Italy, and the results are apparent. His focaccia is light as air and superb, all breads in fact have great lightness and springiness, and flavour. On a first visit he was still struggling with the different temperature, water, and humidity conditions so that the most sensititive type of bread, the 'rosette', still did not come out with the typical 'void' inside. On a seond visit, it looked like he'd sorted it out!

We tried many dishes, maybe TOO many...of which here's a selection.

Vitello tonnato

We know that some Brits find this disgusting but if you tolerate it, be advised this is a very fine example, the veal melting in the mouth, the sauce copious, creamy and intense but not overwhelming, the capers adding that extra dimension, a fine demonstration of that balance which is, in spite of what some people believe, the hallmark of Italian cuisine. (£5)

Tagliatelle with artichokes

Tagliatelle, like most pasta, is made at Latium and cooked similarly here. Since at Latium you eat one of the best pastas in London...and here it costs £8, draw your own conclusion...

Salsiccia with sprouting broccoli

A true Italian salsiccia (£8), aromatised with fennel, hearty and gentle, dangerous because we could eat too much of it. Notice the cooking and the browning and compare, please, with the sorry, careless version at Sardo . See why even simple dishes can differ in execution?

Polpette (meatballs) al sugo di pizzaiola

Accompanied by generous and excellent tomato sauce, we are not sure exactly what mix they put it in, certainly some pork and some cheese. Wonderful.(£5). On another visit we tried the same polpette in a splendid chicken broth. But as we like our veggies, more sprouting broccoli "ripassati" (i.e. sauteed in the pan with chilli and garlic - yes, the rosetta is empty as it should be!)


To conclude,
Tiramisu and Cannolo

 also were as they should be and would pass grandma's test with flying colours.

We also tried a goat prosciutto which was both lean and melting in the mouth, and some beignets with chantilly cream, and a ricotta tortino, and... we just could not stop, it's that type of place - on diet for a week after that meal.

The service is sweet, and the prices kind, very kind: both primi and mains between £5 and £8, desserts just over £3, espresso £1.60.

A special mention is deserved by the wines. The wine prices, ohmygod, are simply eye-popping so low they are, completely out of line with London markups. If you like wine and Italian wine in particular, just go, really, as the list (still under construction) is very interesting and you'll find bottles you've probably never seen before, in a price range from £15 to over £150, if you really want your Sassicaia (and if there's a place where you don't feel ripped off having a Sassicaia, this is it). 

 For us this experience was almost moving, as we found true Italian flavours combined with the professionalism of an experienced team who's worked in the UK for decades, the end result being (sad to say, but true) that we ate and felt better than in 90% of Italian trattorie.  Go try it for yourselves, if you don't like it, wine is on us!


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rocca Grill (St Andrews, Fife): pleasant surprise

 (Visited 1st February 2012)

A few years back we reviewed the Rusacks restaurant. Restaurants being far more ephemeral creatures than hotels, now in the same premises we find, with the Rusacks hotel more or less unchanged, a revamped restaurant, with different name, management team, and chef. Let's check if it was a change for good.

There is an Italian theme in the menu of which we are of course deeply suspicious (we'll soon see an example of a disastrous marriage between Scotland and Italy at another venue). We confess that last Summer we desisted from booking here, frightened to death by some potentially lethal pasta items we spotted on the menu.

But introductory breadsticks and olives are of good quality and we personally are more pleased with that than with butter.

We begin to relax.


Surprisingly there is no olive oil cup, unlike in 99% of italian restaurants in the UK, but as  a matter of fact the olive oil cup is seen far less often, if ever, in Italy: so its absence is in fact a sign of authenticity.

A Cullen Skink

is very classy, look, a million miles away from the basic versions (which we still like, mind you!). It features, beside the compulsory smoked haddock, a tortellino of excellent making (hey, after the breadsticks, and the bread which we didn't mention but was also good, now this - could it be that they have somebody clever at working with flour?), buttered leeks and potato cappuccino. Creamy and delicious, only marred by the fact that the leeks had been salted by somebody who had gone berserk in the kitchen.

Our other starter was a Seared red mullet with dived scallops

where very good, very fresh mullet and scallops were almost overpowered by a strong vanilla puree, while the roasted fennel and the crisp salsify were apt accompaniment (and for Man, they would have been enough in the dish). The mullet and scallops were cooked well, the latter ever so slightly under, while the foam, as so often is the case, served in our opinion only to instill the doubt that a snail had crossed the plate.

This was a rather flavour-busy dish for a starter, a theme that returns with our main: a Poached and roasted corn fed chicken

precisely cooked to succulence and softness, whose wings had been stuffed to attain a sort of boudin blanc effect (to give you the idea). A long series of lovely items, apart from the thematic corn, smoked pumpkin gnocchi (not really gnocchi but still good), white beans, chorizo (the fine chopping a nice touch),  and even a tempura, were all screaming for attention in this dish, but they ultimately managed to avoid cacophony: they stayed together and play as a team, helped by a very very well made (gastrique) sauce based on sherry vinegar.

Less stunning but still more than satisfactory was the other main from the grill,

a 28 days ribeye, whose depth of flavour wasn't memorable, but which was accompanied by a delicious tangy Bernaise (you could choose between a few sauces). The potatoes (interestingly, arranged exactly as in our previous visit of a few years ago) were too soggy for Man but OK for Woman, the tomatoes with oregano bringing a nice Mediterranean touch.

For the desserts we take advice from the Maitre d' who, we learned, was previously a pastry chef who worked in excellent restaurants, including our favourite in Fife. So, secure with such a guide, we go for a crunchy lemon cream 


and a Dark chocolate ganache

which, both, prepared the palate by pleasing the eye first. But the palate they did please too! This is serious patisserie work. Beautiful variety of textures, strong, assertive flavours, a touch of playfulness (see the banana-like slices of parfait) and, importantly, a certain lighteness of hand. Yes, banana and chocolate, not an innovation, but with the right balance as on this occasion, boy is it good!

Service was not under pressure (only two tables) but both the Maitre d' and the waiter were impressive and very professional, informed, efficient. It was not too cheap at £133 but look at the ingredients, and we had a £49 bottle of Tuscan Pinot Noir, Pomino Rosso by Marchesi di Frescobaldi (big mistake, not worth the price in our view). Moreover, there was also the option of a very good value looking Winter menu at £22 or £25 for two or three courses respectively.

A pleasant surprise, this Rocca Grill. There is thought, effort and ability in those dishes, both pastry and savoury ones. The Italian touches, far from being the disaster we feared, added that original twist.  We believe in the virtue of simplification: its application would help some of the dishes to get to the point in a straighter and more effective way...but even so, they were never less than good, and sometimes excellent. A return is due within the year. This is assuming we can find a table among the million golfers who can walk straight in from the Old Course, which is just in front of the dining room.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

2 Camini (Trento): always warm, always nice

(Visited January 2012 - and many times before)

If you pass through Trento, we recommend you take an energetic stroll on the Altopiano di Pine' (1000m above sea level) and then head straight for Franca Merz's cuisine at her warm joint

Man in particular goes crazy for her Rufioi, a traditional cabbage-stuffed ravioli original of the Valle dei Mocheni, livened up with sweet spices and doused with excellent butter and hard cheese (the local Trentingrana).

But for those more inclined to meat than vegetables, also the polenta gnocchi with Lucanica sausage (there are variations all over the North East called with similar names, 'luganega', 'luganeca' etc.) and porcini mushrooms, again with butter and cheese, are just that kind of harmonious comfort food that makes you hhmm with pleasure and call for more.

We also tried a novelty, the 'farinoi', a recipe strongly based on terroir. Made with polenta flour, filled with cabbage, potato and local cheese, and topped with smoked ricotta and cumin. Quite a flavour feast in such a simple looking dish!

So far a triumph of primi. Just to demonstrate how enticing the mains were, after recovering from the shock of the beloved stuffed rabbit not being on the menu, we just plunged into our plates forgetting to take any pictures...Anyway, they were a venison, mildly flavoured, cooked to great tenderness, and aromatised with a juniper sauce and berries; and a totally delicious pork in mustard crust.

We had to drown our sorrow for the forgotten photographs by taking a deep sip of this very well crafted Lagrein from Alto Adige (Franca will well advise you on wines)

But certainly we are not forgoing desserts, a hard hike awaits us the day after. A gelato alla crema di latte (oh, don't ask us for an awkward translation) with chestnut twirls has an intensity of the primary flavours that many a dish in fine-dining venues fail to achieve - just imagine concentrated chestnut on cream:

And to conclude, the eternal chocolate torte

the soft core always a winner in our hearts.

This is true home cooking, local cuisine with a highly personal style and, crucially, based on ingredients sourced with great care. No great culinary innovations or fancy presentations here: just damn good, rich, clear flavours.
This fare fueled us to this peak the day after, a steep walk with 1000 metre ascent which Man is sure he would never have made without the Rufioi and all the rest: thanks Franca!


Monday, February 13, 2012

Plateau (London): unspectacular views, good food

 (Visited January 2012)

This place is billed as offering spectacular views. On the fourth floor in Canary Wharf, we thought this was a little unlikely. 

We were right. For views, go to Galvin at Windows instead (or, even better, to one of the many restaurants located at serious heights in business districts all around the world). 

But who cares. The real question is: how spectacular is the food? Well, with a menu du jour at £25 for three and £22 for two courses, we had some doubts.

Yet the ooh and mmh from Woman suggests that a Jerusalem artichoke veloute' with parsley oil is on the right track. In fact it surprises immediately for the intense presence of unadvertised scallops. And it's a lovely veloute', justly creamy, just a touch salty.

In the meanwhile, we also enjoy two slices of well-made bread.

As another starter, here's a Tarte fine of violet artichokes, confit lemon zest, sliced black truffle

Man truly appreciates this well formed set piece, which has some complexity in its simplicity and shines for lightness and good seasoning. Woman is slightly less bowled over but still appreciative. 

Main courses go down just a a notch, especially with a Roast Yorkshire Moore pheasant, Puy lentils and Toulouse sausage

which somehow manages to be less succulent than the sound of is ingredients, the pheasant itself a little dry by overcooking and not well trimmed, the creamy sauce nice but heavy, the Toulouse sausage lamer than expected. On the positive side in this disappointing dish the lentils are well-cooked.

A pot roast hake, spinach, caper and parsley butter with lemon

has excellent cooking going for it, but the slob of cream on the side is heavy indeed and while the crevettes are in principle a nice addition they turn out to be less than memorable in this nevertheless very eatable main.

Petit fours are brought with coffee and tea (good)

and the jellies certainly give more pleasure than the Madeleines.

Service is not charming but efficient and matter of fact.

It's very hard for a £22 lunch to impress unless it is mainly composed of 'cheap' and full-flavoured cuts and produce (the Arbutus formula) - with nobler ingredients, one can only go so far, and this lunch only went so far. But despite some downs, there were hints that the full priced a la carte menu has the potential to offer an interesting meal. There are serious professionals behind these stoves and at its price this lunch was perfectly respectable. If we were local workers we'd probably ascend to the fourth floor more than once, and not for the views.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Morgan Arms (London): Gastropub not so gastro

(Visited 20/01/2012)

After the amazing Viajante, let's check if there is another little gem, in a different category, tucked away in the East End of London. We head to (near) Tredegar Square, the heart of the conservation area north of Mile End.

We are glad we haven't booked in the pub section as it is (for us) unbearably noisy. The restaurant section is quieter, cosy, simply but pleasantly furnished. But when people start coming in we note with angst that we dramatically increase the average age in the room.

The only problems with a mackerel pate' are that it doesn't taste of mackerel (faint undistinguished fish flavour), and that it is not a pate' (too soft). Ah, and the lemon overwhelms everything else.

The only problem with a cod and leek fishcake is that it tastes neither of cod nor of leek. Given that cod has a strong flavour, this is a remarkable feat, achieved we assume by being mean with the fish. Apart from total blandness, however, not bad and reasonably moist.

A grilled rib-eye of Scottish beef is better, though it reminds us that one thing is for a steak to be good and tender, another to be deep flavoured (like the one recently had at at Drovers Inn). This one was good but lacked depth. It had also been raped (flavour-wise) by a mega-portion of a heavy cheesy sauce thrown, unrequested, upon it (and removed by us).

And finally, a dish of seabass with chorizo was intensely greasy, the fish clearly farmed and not wild, but cooked well and fresh.

We decide to skip desserts because we are unable to anticipate anything positive.

The service was the best aspect of the evening, with really sweet guys in charge, professional and polite, in a venue which is part of a large group of unbranded pubs, and which clearly aims at achieving mediocre but just good enough standards to be identified as a gastropub instead than an ordinary pub. But for us, gastro it ain't. Again, the recent comparison with Drovers Inn in Angus puts this experience, while not unpleasant, in a poor light. We spent around £80 for two courses with a £20 bottle of quite drinkable Barbera and tap water and a tip, and we think this is the last money they will see from us. But in our student days we might have thought otherwise; we might have thought that this place had something going for it, and our mostly young fellow diners seem to think so, too. Maybe we are missing something just by virtue of our being boring old farts. So if you are young, go and check. All the others, we suggest you go elsewhere.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Drovers (near Forfar, Angus): a little gem

 (visited January 2012)

A walk in beautiful Angus...

Looking for a second home...


Tempted to shoot our lunch ourselves...


Those pheasants only saved by our spotting a proper Inn...

 (by the way, the weather is always like this in Scotland). The interior is warm, metaphorically and literally with a live fireplace. 

The bread felt homemade and was fresh, but there is only so much you can get out of this type of bread, and as you know these two hardened Italians are tough to impress on the bread front... 

But a starter of Seared Orkney scallops, sauce vierge and crispy punchetta (i.e. the punchy pancetta we love), as well as a Crab, smoked salmon, prawn salad with rosemary crostini immediately win us over with the absolute excellence of the produce. 

Oh dear oh dear, we wonder why so often we find ourselves in stiff, expensive restaurants eating mediocre, not really fresh, produce, when there exist simple, inexpensive places like this where true flavours so gallantly assault your senses. The scallops and the crab especially, really bursting with the sea, but also the chunky salmon which, while not wild, impressed for the quality both of the meat and of the smoking. The scallops were cooked well even if not uniformly on the outside, and rested on the lovely, tangy sauce, perfectly seasoned. The crostini accompanying the crab did not really taste of rosemary (yet again those evanescent herb flavours that chefs find so difficult to capture in the finished dish), yet served a meaningful textural function.

Only a madman would expect to eat bad beef in Angus, but this sirloin, once again, was superior

The cooking was very good even if not superlative, and the seasoning was also very good though you need to like pepper, and anyway there's no arguing with such a deeply flavoured piece of beef (the supplier deserves to be named: Kennedy butchers of Forfar) - one almost feels like saying: who cares about the rest! But no, we appreciated a certain lightness of hand in preparing this dish, nicely displayed in the clear flavours of the wine jus and the potato rosti and the vegetables coming from their garden and the farm up the road.

Similar feelings for a Roast rump of lamb

where, while the lamb was perhaps  not so quite so spectacular as the beef (still, very good), it was cooked well (pink) and the creamy mash was again classily light. Quite lovely also the herb crusting of the lamb, the savoy cabbage with bacon very assertive. And just look at the sauce. Good stuff.

We had a cheese dish

A French Brie, an Isle of Mull cheddar, and the favourite of the chef (so the charming waitress says), and ours too, a Blue Monday Very well made chutney and oatcakes, and an interesting touch: frozen grapes which eventually defeated our initial skepticism. The only blemish was that the cheeses were a touch too cold (oh yes, the grapes were frozen, for added texture we were told).

The other dessert, Valrhona chocolate torte with raspberry sorbet

summarises the style of cooking here: great produce prepared simply, well within the comfort zone of the chef, but with great care (nice sponge under the chocolate) and effectiveness. This may not be haute cuisine but it is very far beyond your standard inn cooking, and when you get such beautiful, pure, explosive chocolate and raspberry flavours, it is great eating indeed! 

Oh, and two truffles to finish:

Everything about this inn is charming. The building was redeveloped a couple of years ago with obvious intelligence and care. The restaurant section where we were (there is also a pub section) has as we said a live fireplace, beautiful views on the countryside, and is furnished and decorated in a sleekly rustic style. 


The young waitress was competent and pleasant. In its genre (i.e. simple but refined rustic) Drovers elevates itself high, contemplating from far above the sea of mediocrity of pubs and inns (we'll soon see a London example), to reach the peaks of that category. It is also very sweet value for money. With a £33 Cote du Rhone (the cellar is very interesting and very, very well priced, with markups below 100% on retail and sometimes well below) and two coffees, the cost of our three course meal exceeded £100 just because we had some of the most expensive items on the menu. It is possible to eat, and probably as well as we did, for much less. You have to drive a bit to reach it, but on the other hand  stretching your limbs in the lovely countryside around, before or after, or both, is one the most pleasant activities imaginable.

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