Last one to the party
Just what everyone needs, another review of Bocca di Lupo, right?
I know other London-based food bloggers have claimed that they were the ‘last serious foodie’ to try this supremely hyped, moderately priced Italian in a small backstreet of Soho, but no, surely this supreme honor must now rest with yours truly (?).
Well, whatever the case, I tried to eat at Bocca di Lupo (BDL) a few times over the past few months, but my plans always seemed to get scuppered by something or other. I finally did take the missus for our first meal here last weekend for a very late lunch. And I must say I am becoming much fonder of long lunches than drawn-out dinners as you have the rest of the day to digest the food and the experience.
We didn’t eat too much that morning in order to be nice and hungry for our 2.30pm reservation. As we arrived, the restaurant’s facade was basking in the afternoon sunlight (see below) in what is a fairly nondescript little street that juxtaposes some of Soho’s more, shall we say, ‘juicier’ institutions. It turned out we didn’t need a reservation after all. Upon arriving, the gorgeous long marble bar was pretty much deserted and the square formal dining area in the back was two-thirds full at best. A waiter found us standing near the doorway after a minute and took us to the back, where our table awaited.
I rather like the interior design of the restaurant: soft tones on the walls and ceilings; wooden tables with not cloths and matchy brown chairs and benches; nice down-lighting; and a striking, enormous circular chandelier. It is sort of like a bowling alley, but a very well appointed one at that, letting you know at once that it is a casual place, but one that takes itself seriously. The only real niggle I have with the decor are the three large paintings that hang along the wall I was facing for the entire meal. They don’t really seem to mesh with the other elements of the space: while they are paintings of food, they are quite somber, recalling old master paintings. I would have imagined the walls to be covered with classy old viva Italia ads or something a bit more vibrant and present-day. But I am a diner, not a designer, so I will leave that to the experts.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
After being seated, we were given copies of the little paper menus, which are A4 sheets folded in half. As most of the other reviews of BDL have already commented on the menu, I will keep mine minimal. As others have noted, there are more dishes than you’d expect for the small physical size of the menu and it is great and fun that (a) you can have nearly all of the dishes in a ‘small’ or ‘large’ portion and that (b) it provides you with a broad if brief tour of some of Italy’s more interesting culinary regions, with ingredients that are meant to be well sourced.
I do have to say that if there are only two of you dining at BDL, it is quite hard to make your mind up about what to order, because there are so many possibilities. But this of course is pleasant quandary. After about 20 minutes of concentration and a few heated glances, we finally decided. As the meal would mostly be sans red meat, I opted for a glass of the waitresses’ recommended 2008 Terre Di Franciacorta Bianco (a Chardonnay/Pinot Bianco blend from Lombardia at £4.70 per glass). It was perfectly quaffable and not bad value for the price.
Before the food began arriving, we were served some bread along with a small bowl of beautiful, large green olives with some smaller brown ones. The green olives were definitely some of the best I have tasted, and had a very buttery and rich taste which provided a nice counterpoint to the inherent acidity. They were so good I have forgotten how the smaller brown ones tasted. The same goes for the bread: the focaccia was quite tasty, being warm and full of rich sweet onions, but I can’t for the life of me remember the other bread!
Our first dishes arrived a little while later. We started in Campania, according to the menu. I ordered this dish because it sounded like a combination I hadn’t tried before. And I think that is part of the fun of BDL – you can try a lot and if you don’t particularly like something, it won’t be a £30+ mistake you’ll regret for a long time. Sort of like more substantial Italian tapas.
Of the fried elements, I preferred the eel, which was meaty and moist, and the brittle, bittersweet orange. The soft shelled crab was not that crispy on the outside and neither here nor there on the inside, while the shrimp was quite dry and not particularly flavorful. The bed of polenta bed was however very nice and the sharp notes of orange integrated very well with it. A fun dish but a bit of a mixed bag. 6/10.
I liked my plate of pasta better. The butter and sage sauce was rich and toothsome, and the pork and veal were a good combination inside the agnolotti. It was real comfort food, and a plate I would have normally eaten way too quickly, except for one thing. The pasta itself, while it seemed to be made on site, was a bit too thick and hadn’t been cooked through properly around the thicker edges. Therefore, the hard texture and taste of slightly undercooked pasta slowed me down. Don’t get me wrong, I love pasta done al dente, but it just wasn’t right this time, which is a shame as everything else worked. 6.5/10.
Luckily, Mrs. LF’s gnocchi were light and fluffy, and we both liked the texture. The sausage itself had a wonderful deep flavor, and all together the sauce was the closest thing Mrs. LF has had to homemade Italian food she was accustomed to eating in Southern Italy when she used to travel there frequently and ate at many a nonna’s table. The problem here was that all of this loveliness was floating in a sea of oil. No exaggeration, the sauce was way too oily and just off-putting. We fished all the bits of sausage and gnocchi out, but left the ocean of oil to be washed away in the kitchen sinks. Also, the chosen variety of grated cheese was very salty, which on top of the already well seasoned sausage made the whole thing too salty. 6/10 (but probably an 8/10 if it wasn’t for the oil…really gross).
For some reason I really fancied quail. And it was pretty good. The bird was very tender and slightly pink inside, with a nice crispy skin. I liked the sweetness and softness of the tomato-soaked bread as a partner with the quail in my mouth too. A simple and well executed little plate of food. I guess the large portion contains two whole quails (?), but I thought this was substantial enough and pretty good value at £8. 6.5/10.
The side of spinach was fine. Very fresh greens with not that much too them, which is what we wanted to balance some of the richer dishes we had ordered. It did seem quite tannic though, as it left a distinct coating in the mouth. 6/10.
After debating between this dessert and the Cassata Siciliana (ricotta, orange and chocolate layered with sponge cake & marzipan), I got excited when I saw four of the bitter chocolate sorbets being served to another table. I am a sucker for big ice cream desserts (remember, I am American), and this really tempted me to the dark side. I asked the waitress if it was preferable, and she said it was really nice, so the deed was done.
Oh, fate is sometimes cruel. It turned out to be an utter disappointment. I don’t know how to put it any more elegantly, but the sorbet just didn’t taste nice. It had none of the bitter chocolate flavor I had wanted, and just kind of didn’t taste like anything. It certainly didn’t taste homemade, and if it was, that was certainly not a good thing in this case. The almond ‘granita’ was just a soft and fluffy amaretto tasting affair, and was too sweet for me. I had expected it to be sort of icy, but no luck…and I certainly didn’t detect any ‘burnt’ almond, just sweetness. We were both disappointed to leave on such a low note, and I guess I ordered an espresso just to have another taste in my mouth before heading out (it was perfectly fine, by the way). 3/10.
Not the next big thing, but not bad
I had tempered my expectations before dining at BDL, but I still felt sort of let down. Perhaps this was because so many respected food journalists had opined with such flattery about its merits and virtues. Or perhaps it is because we just didn’t order right. I do hate the notion of not ordering the ‘right’ thing, though, as restaurants just shouldn’t put ‘wrong’ dishes on the menu. But I don’t think it was this either. I think it was just the feeling that, with a few minor adjustments, the food could have been so much better. So maybe it was just an off service in the kitchen, who knows. That said, what is clear is that BDL certainly serves up decent Italian food at reasonable prices (for central London) in a very appealing and comfortable dining space. And the menu is good fun too.
The staff were all very pleasant, but we did find ourselves waiting around for long periods of time for someone to notice that we wanted or needed their attention. These often long gaps were all the more strange given that the restaurant wasn’t even half full for most of the time we were there. Maybe they just lost focus as it was the end of the lunchtime service, but I can’t imagine them being so lax in the middle of a completely packed out restaurant.
Despite all of these niggles, I still did like BDL and would return, but certainly won’t expect the world. For me, BDL is just a good, casual Italian restaurant serving reasonably priced food in a fun atmosphere – not the ‘wolf’ the press has made it out to be, devouring all other Italian establishments in the city of smoke.
As a final note, I find it amusing that they added ‘Two Spoons’ to our bill for the shared dessert – luckily the cost was £0.00.
Wine List: 6/10
Wine Selected: 6/10
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only dined at Bocca di Lupo once.*