Dining room tasting menu at £58/person and wine pairing at £40/person
I had wanted to go to Fifteen for a long time after it first opened, but then sort of forgot about it as it is not on my side of town and there were so many other restaurants to go to. Then, a few months ago, I saw Jamie’s Kitchen on replay TV for the first time and got very interested in going again. So, without further adieu, I booked a table. I asked for a table in the Dining Room, which is the more formal area that is located downstairs in the basement, and which has a set menu (currently £58/person), where you can choose between 4 options for each of the 4 courses (insalate, primi, secondi and dolci/formaggi). The less formal Trattoria area on the ground floor has an a la carte menu which is more reasonably priced. Quite uncharacteristically, I didn’t read any reviews or canvass for any opinions about the place before going (maybe I didn’t want to tempt fate?) – so I really had no expectations whatsoever.
The Opening – Upstairs
Our table was booked for 9.15pm as this was the earliest time I could get, even more than a month in advance. Despite a very warm day, it was pissing down a little bit and quite overcast, so the exterior impression of the place was not so amazing and the little street, which is just off City Road, seemed to be rather deserted. But, not to worry, all of that changed once we stepped through the front doors.
For those of you who haven’t been there, just after you enter the building, you are confronted with a wonderful cornucopia of smells emanating from the open kitchen that is straight in front of you. There is a nice little bar to your right, and the tables for the Trattoria on your left – with a bar area at the very back on your left. The initial impression was good, there was a nice general buzz about the place; it had a very convivial atmosphere.
We were greeted promptly and offered a drink at the bar as we were about 15 minutes early. It was quite empty at the bar although the Trattoria was pretty full, and after a few minutes a number of diners joined us in the bar and it became much busier. We chose 2 drinks from the cocktail menu, which has various homages to Italy and a regularly changing range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (they say their bar staff meets once a week to decide on the cocktail menu for that week…). My wife’s non-alcoholic concoction was very fresh and more-ish – she drank it in about 1 minute – and my drink, which was served in a chilled martini glass and featured fresh strawberries and limoncello, was really tasty too. An excellent start, then. After just about finishing our drinks, we were led down the stairs to our table…
The Main Event – Downstairs
The Dining room has its own little reception area (with a desk made out of a beautiful wood carving) and also has its own staff. We were greeted and seated by a very warm and friendly Turkish waiter. It turned out that we had been given a great table for 2 (table #11, fyi) which was all the way in the back and very private. It was like our own little half-open cocoon, with the walls of white leather squares making it feel like sort of like we were inside a fancy handbag…but in a good way. We were afforded a view of the whole (and full) dining room from there, and it is a nice space – well laid out and decent acoustics that make it vibrant but not overly loud.
After pondering the very appetizing-sounding menu, we eventually came to decisions on our respective dishes. We then asked for some help from the sommelier in trying to find out what wines we could try to complement the meal. He was a very nice and personable Australian guy, and was extremely helpful throughout the course of the evening in explaining the wines in detail and also having a good deal of knowledge about the food we were eating (which is not always the case). I ended up going for the wine pairing (£40/person), which included a glass of champagne, 3 125ml glasses of wine for each course, and then a 100ml glass for dessert/cheese. My wife opted for 2 glasses spread over the 4 courses. Wohoo, so off we went.
After ordering, the sommelier came back and poured my champagne (Gosset Brut Excellence, NV – Ay, France), which was nice – I am not a big champagne drinker but I thought this one was delicate and pleasant. Mr. Turkey came back quite soon with Fifteen’s version of an amuse bouche – a selection of salamis, olives, focaccia and dipping olive oil. The salamis were truly exquisite – I honestly cannot remember having better, whether in London or in Italy. They were quite soft in texture (which is not usually my preference), but the flavor…man, the flavor…was so bold and beautiful. There were apparently 4 different types, although we weren’t informed about this until afterwards (?!) – one with porcini, one with truffles, one with wild boar, and another which escapes me. Anyway, they were divine, and that is that. The olives were also very good (reminded me of those served in Duke’s Bar, which slightly trumped these), and the olive oil used for bread dipping was really nice too – great depth of olive flavor with a good piquancy. So, would this be a precursor of things to come?…
For my insalate, I had ordered the ‘Bruschetta of freshly picked dressed crab with zucchini, salsa rossa piccante and fennel tops’. I have to say that this was one of the best things I’ve eaten in recent memory. The crab was extremely fresh and perfectly seasoned, and the salsa rossa was delicious and had a warm, mouth-coating heat. The bread was nice and crunchy and it worked beautifully together. My wife had the ‘Incredible mozzarella di bufala Compagna with Italian flat peaches, mint, heather-honey roasted almonds and funky leaves’. It also tasted as ‘incredible’ as it sounded, with all the flavors being brilliant individually and also working in concert (the bufala was particularly excellent), and it became very clear to us at this point that the produce and quality of raw ingredients at this restaurant was truly excellent and at the forefront of Fifteen’s ethos.
So, would the primi (pasta) course disappoint after such a great initial course? I am pleased to say the answer was a resounding ‘no’! My choice was the ‘Risotto bianco (vialone nano) with girolles, flat leaf parsley, chilli, garlic and truffle pecorino’. The risotto was cooked perfectly – with the rice grains having the right firmness and just a tiny bit of gooey-ness – and the other elements of the dishes worked really well together. The mushrooms lent an excellent flavor and the cheese and garlic flavor was well infused throughout each bite, with a little hint of truffle always in the background. I am usually disappointed by risotto dishes as it is often too much of the same, but this one really hit the spot; the portion was also a perfect (not too big, not too small). My wife had ’The lightest potato gnocchettini with a rare-breed Cumbrian pork and beef ragu, parmesan and Fontodi olive oil’. It was also a very successful dish, and the ragout was honestly one of the best I have had – perfect in every way. The only complaint I had from my small taste of this dish was that the gnocchettini were a bit too soft for me and weren’t chewy enough – they sort of dissolved in your mouth – but maybe this is what they’re supposed to do. It was also a nice sized portion that left enough room for the main course…which, by this time, we were very eagerly anticipating.
For the secondi, I had opted for the ‘Slow-braised shoulder of Pete Gott’s rare breed pork (cooked in apricot, white wine and rosemary) with borlotti beans, spinach and pan juices’. For me, this was the standout dish of the meal – and that is saying something, given how glowing my commentary has been so far! I don’t know who this Pete Gott is (I am going to learn), but his pork was the best I’ve tasted in the UK so far. And it was slow-cooked beautifully, with the white wine giving it a good kick of acidity and the apricot flavor providing some sweet fruit with tang of bitterness. It was tender, the beans were a perfect partner, and I loved every bite of it. With the pork, the wine pairing was the 2006 Vesevo ‘Beneventano’ Aglianico (Campania, Italy), and it was by far the best wine we had during the meal. It was a great expression of the Aglianico grape (one of my favorite Italian varietals), and was rich, smooth and fruity with some tannin and a little bit of acidity to keep it balanced. It was an excellent choice to go with the pork. (I haven’t mentioned the other wines because while they were all very nice, none stood out in my memory, so not worth further lengthening this wordy review ). My partner in crime had selected the ‘Char-grilled English asparagus with poached organic hen’s egg, shaved parmesan and dried porcini <macaroni cheese>’. While somewhat less exciting than the pork, it was a very worthy main course: the asparagus was fresh, the hen’s egg was a nice flavor and runny, and the porcini mushrooms were tasty. Suffice to say, we were very, very happy and content diners at this stage. And very much looking forward to the desserts!
Right, so let me tell you about the dolci. I had been in the mood for tiramisu for a few days before eating at Fifteen, so when I saw ’Tiramisu semifreddo – our version of the classic <pick me up>’, I didn’t even look at the rest of the options (well, I did, but that statement was just for effect). It was out of this world. The white part of the tiramisu had been slightly frozen as advertised, and had an unbelievable burnt caramel sauce on top of it, and a deep, rich chocolate ice cream on its side. Put them all together and we are talking dessert heaven – I can still taste that burnt caramel-ey taste now. The accompanying dessert wine, a 2005 Anselmi I Capiteli (Veneto, Italy), was very pleasant, sort of like an Italian version of Sauternes, and to my surprise went pretty well with the tiramisu. Mrs. Laissez Fare had the ‘Basil panna cotta with first of the season strawberries (marinated in limoncello and balsamic) and shortbread’, which was very fresh and satisfying, though nowhere near as memorable as the tiramisu.
If you’ve actually gotten through all of this review, it goes without saying that I pretty much fell in love with Fifteen (at least the Dining Room). We kept on getting wowed by each course, which is quite hard to pull off over 4 courses plus a teaser to start with. The quality of the produce, meats and cheeses was second to none, and it is obvious that the selection of these ingredients is done in a comprehensive and painstaking manner. All of the food that we had was also very well seasoned. For me, Fifteen’s Dining Room came the closer to re-creating all that is good about eating good Italian food in Italy than any other restaurant I’ve been to in London…and there are quite a few very good Italian restaurants in London. The only other thing that comes close in that sense is River Cafe (I have been there twice and it is also excellent), and I have also always been a fan of Ristorante Semplice. People will always debate (and I’m sure others have other favorites), though after my first visit to Fifteen, I think it stands out. The other thing which you completely forget about in the midst of all this good food (well, at least I did) is that everything has been prepared by chefs that are in various stages of training and development, which is extremely impressive. If you don’t know about the Fifteen Foundation, you can read more about it here. The restaurants – there are now Fifteens in Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne – are also registered charities that “exist to inspire disadvantaged young people – homeless, unemployed, overcoming drug or alcohol problems – to believe that they can create for themselves great careers in the restaurant industry.”
The service was excellent throughout – friendly, efficient and genuine. The courses were also timed well, coming out in regular intervals with a little break in-between. In particular, the sommelier did a fantastic job of spending time with us, answering our questions and explaining the various facets of the wines. He was very personable and acted relaxed and natural throughout, which is impressive as it was very apparent that he was in constant demand from the rest of the tables, and when he did leave us each time he kind of sprinted to the next table or to fetch some wine.
I have to hand it to Jamie Oliver and everyone at Fifteen. It was one of those rare occasions where everything went perfectly. We left so happy and satisfied. I am now eager to return to the Dining Room, try the Trattoria, and get to one of the Jamie’s Italian outfits that are starting to sprout up around the South of England. Unfortunately, my expectations are now pretty high.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only been to Fifteen Dining Rooms once.*