On Friday night, after the end of a rather long week, I met up with the missus and a dear friend near Piccadilly. We decided it was high time for a drink, and maybe a bit to eat (well, I was hungry, so I insisted on going someplace that had food – but what else is new).
There was one place I had walked by probably over 100 times, and had always been curious about, but never ventured into. Cecconi’s is a posh looking Italian place just behind The Royal Academy of Arts on Burlington Gardens. Mrs. LF had been there once for a drink aeons ago and said it was pleasant, so we said what the hell. And thus, we stepped into the classy jade green and black interior and rolled the proverbial dice.
Unfortunately, we didn’t spot Madonna, so you can stop reading now if that was your only interest in this post :). Cecconi’s is apparently one of her preferred hang-outs, but I suppose the poor girl must have more pressing issues on her mind these days than going for an Italian (meal, that is). The restaurant was originally set up in London in 1978 by Enzo Cecconi, the youngest-ever manager at Cipriani in Venice, who came to the capital to introduce the British to a taste of Italy, including the now world-famous Bellini from Harry’s Bar. Also interesting to note is that they have now set up another branch of Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, California earlier this year. So they can’t be doing too badly. But I digress…onto the food and vino.
After they noticed we had walked in, we were met by a slightly preoccupied but brusquely pleasant young woman, and we told her we would like a table for three. She immediately asked if we had booked, and when we said no, we tried to tell her we just wanted to have some light bites and wine near the bar (this area looked far more pleasant than the back of the restaurant, and also more casual as they hadn’t put table clothes and the full works on the nice black tables yet). However, she went away and began discussing this annoying request with one of her colleagues. We just about caught her before she had managed to get through the trauma of setting a new, unexpected table, and told her we just wanted to sit at one of the big round tables in the bar. At which point she seemed to relax a little bit, and said “oh, well you should have told me that”…I think you kind of get my drift.
The Food & Wine
So we were eventually seated, and then promptly met by a young Italian waiter who wanted to know what we wanted to drink, after just having given us the menus. Okay, this is one of my pet peeves (that’s American for ‘pet hates’), so I’ll just get that out there in the open. Why do waiters – pretty much everywhere – ask you straight away what you’d like to drink? Personally, I like to peruse the food menu, look at a cocktail or wine list and then decide after a few minutes. I guess a lot of people actually know what they want straight away – perhaps they normally order a gin and tonic – but I never know before having had a think and a look around. But anyway, I digress again. We told him to give us a few minutes.
Before we went in, we noticed on the menu posted outside that they had a range of cicchetti available, which quietly excited me as I have not come across another place in London which serves these Italian version of tapas. After many trips to Venice, I really have come to love the idea of having a glass or two of wine in the afternoon and munching on some of these simple yet tasty morsels. We decided to get the House Selection of cicchetti (£15), and also one order of anchovy crostini (£5). For drink, we choose a 500ml carafe of 2005 Rioja Crianza (£23). It was a bit more complicated than the way I’ve described it, though, as the waiter couldn’t really tell us what was in the House Selection (he said it changes by day depending on the whim of the chef) and we wanted to make sure we didn’t order double of something if we selected things on top of the House Selection. As a side note, he also tried to pull a fast one on us by adding dishes and trying to up-sell us. But we got there in the end!
As far as the food went, it was generally pretty good. Some of the cicchetti stood out as being particularly good, and others were just sort of ho-hum. One of the really good ones was the chicken liver crostini; the pâté was rich, creamy and fully flavored, and the little toast very crisp. The other excellent plate was the Umbrian sausages with red pepper. There were two little dark sausages, which were packed with a lovely, authentic flavor, while the red peppers were roasted perfectly and had a round sweetness to them which was complemented well by the relatively thick balsamic (they probably would have been better without the skins, though, as this creates a better melt-in-the-mouth texture). The anchovy crostini were well executed, though their simplicity (literally anchovies on a small piece of toast with some olive oil) means you could do it at home just as well. The more average of the bunch were the quail’s eggs with tonné (the eggs were served cold and bit bland, but the smooth sauce underneath it was very satisfying); the mozzarella with basil & tomato (just not memorable); and crostini with diced tomatoes (same comment). The Rioja was perfectly pleasant, as usual, but maybe we should have opted for an Italian wine?!
Our waiter came by after we had finished, and by this time we had established a very tongue-in-cheek rapport with him (though we worked hard to get there!), and he actually became quite fun and pleasant to deal with. We followed these up with a full order of the chicken live crostini, some grilled asparagus, another Umbrian sausage and also two salads: roast chicken with saffron, almonds & parmesan and Dorset crab with avocado and little gem lettuce. We also topped up our livers (both chicken and human) with a carafe of 2007 Nero d’Avola / Sangiovese (£15). The asparagus was very fresh, flavorsome and well cooked, but a little pricey at 5 short sticks for £6. The salads were crisp and fresh but pretty unremarkable. The chicken was tender but not that flavorful (I certainly didn’t detect saffron), and the crab was okay but not worth having again. That said, they were £10 and £12 respectively, so not ridiculously expensive for a place like this – where you are definitely paying top-dollar for the scene – compared to £4-£8 for the cicchetti. The wine, which was the cheapest on the list, was actually very enjoyable: easy-drinking, delicate and rich, red fruit on the palate.
We topped this off by sharing a lemon tart served with mascarpone ice cream and a vanilla cheesecake with strawberries (both at £7). The tart was more than acceptable, with a good lemon sharpness and a well cooked pastry base, and the marscapone ice cream was okay, but not very strong in the flavor department (I don’t think I would have known it was mascarpone ice cream specifically if I had been blindfolded). However, it was the cheesecake that stole the show. It was a truly remarkable slice of joy. It was very creamy and rich, but with just enough firmness to hold its shape, and the biscuit bottom was superb. When you combined the strawberries with it, it was really delicious – and this is coming from someone who is not usually that big of a cheesecake fan (I know I am probably slightly odd in this regard, don’t worry).
Well, overall, we had a very enjoyable experience at Cecconi’s. The place looks great, and I can imagine it must be a favorite with locals who can afford to go there after work, or for business breakfasts. It is definitely a destination restaurant, in the sense that I think people must go there for the scene and the atmosphere (which is fine), and from what I could make out there is a slightly style-over-substance bent to the place. The food was good, but not amazing (although a few dishes did stand out as being very good – and the cheesecake was amazing), and is generally quite expensive for what it is. The service was very Italian (that’s the best way I can describe it), as they were a bit off with us to begin with – possibly because they didn’t know us and/or we had just walked in from off the street? – but eventually became friendly and efficient. The food also came out quickly and at a good pace. We did not have any of their ‘proper’ food, so I cannot attest to how good the pastas, meat, fish, etc. are, although the few pasta dishes that I did see at tables next to us looked and smelled very good. I don’t think I’d make a point of going back to try the full menu, although if I were in the area and needed a place to eat with some friends, I’d certainly consider it. But I think what we did – informal drinks and snacks in the bar area – was perfectly pleasant and a good idea for a small group of people. It was a very convivial, comfortable and fun place to be.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only been to Cecconi’s once, and only had the cicchetti, not the à la carte menu.*