- Dinner menu: starters & salads £4.50-14, pizzas £10-14, ‘primi’ £9-20, mains £18-30, sides £3.50-5.50, desserts £7-10
- For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal
The phantom floor
So that’s it, we’re officially residents of New York.
Given America’s love affair with all things Italian – especially the food – I thought I’d start off my Stateside blogging with a little review (‘little’ by my standards, I suppose) of a restaurant run by Italians and managed by a London-based restaurant mafia boss.
That would be Il Baretto on Blandford Street, just off Marylebone High Street and seconds away from a trio of restaurants beginning with ‘L’ (L’Autre Pied, La Fromagerie, Le Relais de Venise) and other interesting places such as Trishna and The Providores.
The location has, so far as I am aware, been an Italian restaurant for a number of years (I think it was called Giusto in its last incarnation). Arjun Waney is the man behind Il Baretto, who decided to add the restaurant to his growing portfolio of higher-end eateries in 2009 – he is also behind the likes of Zuma, Roka and La Petit Maison.
Il Baretto apparently means “the little bar” in Italian – at least according to Google Translator – and not a type of gun, as I had first envisaged, which screwed up my original choice of title for this post (I can hear your sighs of disappointment). And a little bar it is, on the face of it at least. The defiantly dainty but certainly swanky small ground floor room does have a little bar at the back, as well as a few close-to-the-floor tables and a row of stools along a small counter that face the window looking out to the street. Perfect for a glass of prosecco and a snack – maybe a pizza or some cicchetti – but not much more than that.
You will almost definitely be met by Italians when you check in at the little reception desk immediately past the door – so far as I could tell, there were only Italians in the front of house. And the ones at reception will probably be very tall and glamorous looking women.
While I had sampled some of their pizzas on a previous occasion in the upstairs room – it was my good friend the Phantom Medic’s birthday, and he really likes it there, you see – I had never been to the underground lair that lay below. As one of the aforementioned Italian models led us down the narrow staircase, I was surprised to find a rather large and pretty slick formal dining room in the subterranean space, replete with a semi-open kitchen. I was told by the Phantom that it tends to be quite a scene down there at night. And I can confirm that during our meal an A-list Hollywood star was indeed sitting in the corner near our table – so the good doctor doesn’t tell a fib.
As it happens, I had been invited to dine that evening by said doctor as a sort of send-off before moving to the US. It is one of his favorite haunts and he had wanted me to try it out for some time.
Confusing menu, simple food
After being greeted by a slew of Italian waiters – each one welcomed Dr. J as if he was their long-lost best friend and asked after him, his family, his cat – all par for the course when dining out with this guy – while I waited in the recesses, wondering when we could sit down and order some food!
I found the menu at Il Baretto to be slightly odd. There was one page of ‘Starters’, which included a fairly random assortment of dishes (many were not your typical ‘antipasti’) and a selection of salads; then there was a page with ‘Carpacci’ at the top and ‘Primi’ below (were the carpacci Starters or Primi, and what exactly was the difference?); then a page which I assumed to be main courses, which included the sub-headings of ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Robata Grill’ (hmm…rolling concepts out horizontally across the group, are we…Roka anyone?). Anyhow, I found it difficult to figure out how many of what type of dishes to order and so forth, but luckily there wasn’t really a problem as the Phantom knew the menu well and we devised a tasting regime of sorts for ourselves, with the help of the friendly and proficient waiter.
Once we had ordered, we briefly chatted with the sommelier to select a bottle of wine that might suit the rather fishy direction the meal had taken and ended up with a bit of a gem.
A special meal deserved a special wine, after all, and I was very happy to be drinking Terlan‘s 2007 Sauvignon ‘Quarz’. It is a wine from Italy’s Alto Adige region and is named after the quartz which runs through Cantina Terlano’s vineyard. It had a remarkable aroma, a striking acidity, a very long and sophisticated finish, and was a refreshing companion to the savory part of our meal. It retails at just under £35 a bottle and I believe it was marked up to about double that at the restaurant.
First up was one of Il Baretto’s burrata platters, on which you can have the plump orb of cheese and cream accompanied by Parma ham, grilled courgettes or cherry tomatoes. As you can tell from the photo, we chose the tomatoes. This was simply outstanding. The quality of the mozzarella was excellent and it was gloriously creamy inside. I thought it went really well with the simple pairing of sweet cherry tomatoes. It was probably the single best thing we ate that night. I would order it again without thinking twice. 9/10.
The tuna carpaccio in the second dish of the preamble was itself very good, although it wasn’t completely raw – it seemed to have been quickly seared on the outside. This is a trend in many Italian restaurants as of late, where the term ‘carpaccio’ (which means raw meat or fish) has been elasticized to include seared and partially cooked items as well. The accompanying sauce was, to use that god-awful word, ‘interesting’ but not necessarily in a bad way…I just couldn’t quite decide whether it worked or not. The toasted hazelnuts were good (when do they ever taste bad?), but again, I wasn’t sure they were the best accompaniment for the fish. Like George Clooney, I was up in the air…about this dish at least. 6/10.
The rosemary bread however was fantastic. I believe it was essentially a version of their pizza base sprinkled with a bit of very good olive oil and dressed with some sprigs of rosemary. It was the perfect vessel for scooping up the lush burrata and worked really well with the cheese and tomatoes (which worked just fine on their own too, but this added a nice extra dimension). 8/10.
By the way, the Phantom is a huge fan of their pizzas, and having sampled a few during his birthday shindig, I can attest that they aren’t bad at all – the thin-crust dough (basically the bread mentioned above) is a good one, very light and crispy.
We were brought out an extra course on the house – I told you the good doctor is well known and liked here! They were perfectly seared and the ‘Venetian’ crumbs were the perfect partner for them. There was nothing too fussy about them, but they were delicious (I squeezed a tiny bit of lemon on top to give it a tiny dose of acidity, which I thought enhanced the taste a bit). 7/10.
We shared two primi pasta dishes. The first was a bowl of pasta that I don’t think was on the menu, and was made up of linguine, lobster and a tomato-based sauce. The pasta itself was excellent and, if I were a betting man, I’d say it was homemade. The sweetness of the lobster came through well, possibly because the tomato sauce wasn’t overpowering. In fact, my only gripe with the dish was that the sauce was sort of lacklustre, but maybe this was on purpose so as not to drown out the star of the bowl (?). It was a good pasta dish but nothing that interesting. 6/10.
I preferred the second bowl of linguine, which was one of the specials that day. The main ingredients, besides the identical scrumptious pasta itself, were some large prawns and sliced courgette (do I have to say zucchini now that I’m back in the States, and also because it’s Italian food?). And while the sauce here was lighter still than the tomato base in the lobster pasta, I preferred it – it was vibrant and I think I surprised the Phantom by liking this more. It was very good but not quite up the level I would call excellent. 7/10.
Unfortunately due to the small size of our table – even though the bill revealed that we were seated at Table #1! – our waiter was not able to perform the usual table-side presentation and prepare the salt-baked wild sea bass that we were going to share in front of us. Nevertheless, it tasted the part. The fish itself was soft, firm, flaky and the remnants of the salt lived on mildly in the flesh. It wasn’t a knock-out, as a similar version I had from Francesco at L’Anima was (I actually made one there myself with his help one Saturday) but it was tasty and satisfied my seafood cravings that evening. 7/10.
Although we had ingested quite a bit of food by that point, it had all been pretty light so we still had room for dessert. We were intrigued to hear about the dessert of the day, and had to do a triple-take to ensure we had heard the waiter’s description correctly.
It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.
At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert. 7/10.
Unfortunately, while the lemon tart looked like it might be a winner – and I am usually a sucker for any half-decent lemon tart – it was very average and was probably the most disappointing thing we ate during the evening. I was too sweet and didn’t have that bracing sour streak you need to balance this dessert well. I picked at it nonchalantly but was, in truth, more interested in my sticky wine. 5/10.
As a side note, I found the dessert pricing to be rather punchy at £7-10 each.
Ah yes, how could I forget to mention the dessert wine? As you will know if you read this blog regularly (there must be some people who do, right?), I just love my sweet wines.
So when I spied a Donnafugata Ben Ryé on the menu, I couldn’t resist it. I had tried it once before at Launceston Place a while back on the recommendation of @Gastro1 and remembered that I liked it quite a bit. I tend to agree with my tasting note from the original glass I had:
“It had huge peach on the nose and on the mid-palate, with dry nectarine on the finish, with very good acidity. It was a syrupy and quite oily (it coated the glass nicely when swirled) intense nectar. I thought it was almost like drinking an alcoholic peach nectar…amazing it comes from grapes!”
Wonderful stuff, but not for the faint-hearted.
I sipped on my glass of the Ben Ryé as we leisurely came to the end of our pleasant dinner. I’m gonna miss this guy. But then again, he seems to sprout up everywhere – a doctor that’s a disease? – so I’m sure I’ll see him Stateside very soon.
Pedigree, my dear Watson
Overall, the food at Il Baretto was very competent and we had an enjoyable evening. The service was professional and efficient and the waiters definitely have distinct personalities (hey, they’re Italian). Although the menu seemed to be slightly discombobulated, most of the food on offer is pretty straight-forward Italian cuisine and the skill in the kitchen is evident as many of the dishes we ordered were simple ones on the face of it, but are also very easy to botch. The pedigree of Mr. Waney’s collection of kitchens, then, is there to be seen, even if the dining room itself is not as intriguing as some of the other rooms within his famiglia.
Things that stand out in my mind are the buratta, the rosemary flat bread, the quality of the pasta itself, and the skill in cooking the fish, plus the somewhat alarming though disarmingly delicious aubergine dessert. But there were a few question marks, such as the sauce on the tuna ‘carpaccio’ (which wasn’t raw) and also the completely lacklustre lemon tart. Nevertheless, if you stick with the more classic dishes, you are likely to eat well at Il Baretto, and it is a good place for people-watching too, at least when we were there.
While Il Baretto doesn’t quite make it into my current group of top Italian restaurants in London – which includes Ristorante Semplice, River Café and L’Anima (the caveat being that I have yet to visit Locanda Locatelli or Zafferano as well as some other perennial London favorites) – the food seems sure-footed and they can charm you if they are so inclined.
Also, while on the subject, I recently revisited Bocca di Lupo, which I originally had lukewarm feelings about, and it impressed me much more this time around – it’s definitely worth a try, especially given the prices, which are not what I’d describe as cheap but are not expensive either.
PPS – pardon the poor quality of the photos, it was a very dark dining room and until @catty and @londoneater recently showed me how to utilize some of the key features on my camera, I struggled getting decent shots in dim light, dim whit that I am.
Wine: the mainly Italian wine list (there is a short French section) is a good size – not too many, and certainly not a tiny selection – and there are some classics on the list as well as a few more interesting prospects. The sommelier was very knowledgeable and helpful, and the wine we had was marked up about 2x from memory. The prices for their by-the-glass wines are all between £6-8.50 per 175ml serving, which is appreciated, and there are a number of wines at under £40/bottle mark, which is welcome given the pricing of the food seems to be a bit more ambitious. They also have a Fine & Rare section on the list which is purely made up of Italian wines and comprises some heavier weight names such as the “aias”, i.e. Sassacaia and Ornellaia.
*Note: I have been to Il Baretto twice, once for pizzas upstairs and once for formal dinner downstairs. In case there was any doubt, the Phantom and I paid for the meal, except for the extra dish of scallops which was sent out by the chef without us requesting it.*