Il Baretto – The Little Bar That Could

Il Baretto
43 Blandford Street
London W1U 7HF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • 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

Il Baretto aims to project a sleek and modern image, which it pulls off just fine in terms of aesthetics, but the food underlying its somewhat perplexing menu groupings is generally classic Italian fare. Overall, the dishes we had were fresh, well prepared and some were bursting with flavor (it’s all about the burrata), although none of it – save for a rather unusual dessert – was particularly adventurous. It is a nice place to go if you fancy a fancy Italian meal and don’t want any surprises, and the staff is generally very welcoming and professional – plus you may find it interesting for people watching. I liked it and appreciated the skill in the kitchen, but wasn’t bowled over.

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.

The little bar in blue and white

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! 🙂

Decision time in the little bar with a big dining room

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.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano

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.

Burrata with Cherry Tomatoes

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.

Tuna Carpaccio with Toasted Hazelnuts

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.

Rosemary Bread

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.

Oven Baked Sea Scallops, Venetian Style

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.

Linguine with Lobster & Tomato Sauce

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.

Linguine with Courgette & Shrimp

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.

Salt Baked Wild Sea Bass

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.

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries

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.

Lemon Tart with Amaretto and Berry Sauce

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.

I’m never one to let a good Ryé pass by

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.

2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata (Sicilia)

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.

It was time to cough up & head out

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 SempliceRiver 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.

Another enjoyable Italian restaurant in London – just don’t go expecting something new

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.

PS – the title of the post references a classic US children’s story, and I used a reference to Sherlock Holmes in the last section title only because the restaurant is so close to Baker Street! 🙂

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.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

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.*

Il Baretto on Urbanspoon

Fifteen Trattoria – The Ingredients of Success

Fifteen
15 Westland Place
London N1 7LP
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Lunch menu: Antipasti platters from £7.50-12.50, Primi from £9-15, Secondi from £18-22.50, Sides at £3.45, Dolci from £4-6
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal (there are a lot more photos there)

Our second meal at Fifteen was at the more casual Trattoria. We much enjoyed our leisurely weekend lunch and were again very impressed by the sourcing and quality of ingredients and the technical competence of the kitchen. While a few dishes didn’t whet our appetites as much as the other plates of food (some of which were stellar), we liked the laid-back vibe and I would thoroughly recommend Fifteen to anyone who lives in London and hasn’t yet been.

Four for part two

As readers of this blog may remember, Mrs. LF and I dined at Fifteen’s more formal restaurant (the downstairs ‘Dining Room’) shortly after entering the world of food blogging. Unfortunately, these were the days before I began taking photographs of our meals, so we don’t have any images to remember the meal by – but it remains an extremely memorable evening. This was largely down to the sourcing and quality of the ingredients, which was exemplary, and they were handled with the utmost care, with the kitchen bringing out the best of what the produce had to offer.

We have always wanted to return, and finally did a few weeks ago. This time we opted for the more casual ground floor Trattoria as we had Baby LF and my mother in tow.

Building up

It was a funny old day, as Jamie might say, with very English weather – meaning that it was hot then cold, rainy then dry, light then dark, and so on. I did manage to get a decent shot of the building that Fifteen inhabits.

If you have seen the TV series Jamie’s Kitchen, you will most likely recognize Fifteen’s facade. A huge financial risk at the time, luckily the venture – which pairs a commercial business with a good cause (more on that here) – seems to be thriving, with four branches now open in London, Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne.

The bustling trattoria

We got a table adjacent to the bar at the back of the room and made ourselves and Baby LF comfortable. Our waiter had a quite a unique personality, but more on that later.

Getting prepared

We found it difficult to order as so much of it sounded tempting, and we weren’t sure whether to do the traditional Italian thing of having four courses (Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Dolci) or not. My mother had just come from spending two months at The Italian Project (now completed, by the way) in Umbria, so we decided we might make like The Eagles and take it easy. Somehow the best intentions (i.e. jut ordering a few dishes) never seem to materialize into reality with my family…at least when it comes to food! 🙂

Eight was all we could manage

Although the appropriate aperitif to order would have been Prosecco, I wanted my mother to try out a glass of English sparkling wine as they had Nyetimber on the menu and they are one of the better producers.

Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée 2005

And this ‘classic’ English sparkling wine was a good way to start off the meal. It had tons of tiny bubbles and was quite crisp and refreshing with a medium body and a little richness to it. Mrs. LF, not a fan of English wines (hey, she’s from Northern France), said it tasted cheap to her, but I (mostly) begged to differ on this occasion.

Assortment of Breads

The white and brown breads were okay, but nothing special; however, the spongy soft focaccia had been lined with onions and was excellent. 7/10.

Cerro del Masso Olive Oil

The olive(r) oil, on the other hand, was fantastic, bursting with virgin freshness (no, not in that way) and a lovely gentle heat. We had a few refills. 9/10.

I would like to point out however that I think it is very cheeky to charge separately for the bread and oil (in this case £3.25), especially when the restaurant’s prices are high enough to absorb this cost. I know they bake them on the premises, but I still always feel insulted in the UK when they ask you to pay for bread, when this is never (or very rarely) the case on the continent.

Antipasti for Sharing: Mixed Salumi, Mozzarella & Verdura Mista

We decided to opt for the shared antipasti plate, and this was pretty good bang for the buck. The mozzarella in the center was one of the stars of the plate and was excellent both in texture and flavor; the green olives were also of the highest quality (and reminiscent of the ones served at Dukes Bar); the beetroot had been seasoned and cooked to perfection; the salami was one of the best I’ve had; and the bresaola (at least that’s what I think it was) was also fantastic. The marinated vegetables were also very good. 9/10.

My share of the antipasti

I decided to artfully arrange a selection on my little plate, as of course I had to take some more photos! 🙂

This platter was a great start to the meal, and a perfect insight into the food at Fifteen: nothing was overly complicated, but everything was executed very cleanly, allowing the produce to speak for itself.

Risotto 'Al Limone' with Roasted Amalfi Lemon, Goats Cheese, Basil & Chilli Pannagratato

The risotto ‘al limone’ certainly sounded like an interesting combination of flavors, so we couldn’t resist ordering it. It came very prettily presented, and it was interesting in taste too – well, in a way. First, your palate was assaulted by lemon, then there was no flavor at all in the middle (you were just left to chew on the perfectly cooked risotto, which did have a lovely bite), and it finished with a bit of muted goats cheese in the background. If you caught a bite with some of the crispy flakes, they were infused with a serious chilli kick, which also added a strong flavor. The thing about the dish was that each taste sounded a unique note, but none of them integrated with each other, and somehow the overpowering sensation was that it was a very bland dish, as there was definitely something missing in the middle. Possibly it needed a main ingredient, such as seafood or a vegetable to tie it all together. So in sum, it sounded great, looked beautiful and just tasted sort of odd. 6/10 (due the technically perfect cooking of the rice itself and sumptuous texture).

Mafalde 'Fatte in Casa' with a Rich Pork Ragù alla Napolitana , Flat Leaf Parsley & Fontodi 2009

The only other dish which didn’t meet with universal praise during our lunch was this ragù served with mafalde pasta (which my mother says is referred to as the ‘ugly’ pasta in Italy). I thought the pasta itself was excellent and must have been homemade, but the sauce was a little too bland; it didn’t have that richness and deepness that you expect from a good, slow-cooked ragù. The pork itself was pleasant in flavor, aided by just the right amount of fennel, but overall it was merely a good plate of pasta, not a great one. 6/10 (due to the quality and perfect texture of the pasta itself).

Risotto 'Ai Frutti di Mare' with Seafood, Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine

My seafood risotto, on the other hand, would have had a good case for being the dish of the afternoon. The rice was again perfectly cooked, just creamy enough and with great chewiness. The first thing that hit me was the flavors of the sea, which had been infused marvellously throughout. There was salmon (cooked to the perfect texture for this type of dish), a variety of shellfish, and the lovely infinitesimal spheres of golden grey mullet roe scattered everywhere – inside, outside and on the rim of the plate for decoration. At first, I thought they had used too heavy a hand with the white wine, but after the first bite, it all worked together in chorus, with the garlic in evidence as well. This was about as good as a seafood risotto as I’ve had in London. Stunning. 9/10.

The remains of the risotto

The only issue I had with this dish was that they had made the mistake of giving me the main course portion, not the starter portion. But I ended up eating it all anyway, of course.

Glass fifteen full, but still empty

My glass didn’t stay empty for very long after arriving. But I thought I’d wait to describe the wine we had with the Primi until after describing the food.

2008 Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, ‘Aulente’, San Patrignano

The wine I had to accompany my seafood risotto was exactly what you’d expect to find in a 50/50 mix of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It had a very expressive and insidious nose, with citrus notes and some of that typical Sauvignon zing. On the palate it was quite dry and exhibited both the apple flavours of Chardonnay and the grassiness of a New Zealand Sauvignon, with the former grape contributing a nice body and roundness and the latter grape bringing balance through its acidity. It was a very good match for the risotto.

We were pretty much stuffed by this point, and couldn’t really endure all of the main courses we had originally ordered. We asked our waiter if we could cancel them, but it was too late for two of the three, so we ended up having those anyway.

Oh yes, I promised more on that waiter…he was very nonchalant throughout the whole meal and had no problem giving us his honest opinions and direct feedback on the dishes. For instance, when we told him what we thought of the lemon risotto, he replied with something like, “Yeah, I know. 9/10 customers love it, but I don’t think it works, it’s too weird.” Then he volunteered that he also didn’t like one of the other combinations of ingredients that was used in a dish they served in the previous month (I believe it was strawberries and balsamic, which is obviously a tried and tested dessert combo). We found him amusing and it was both interesting and refreshing to have a waiter who didn’t tow the corporate line but actually interacted with you on an individual basis.

Crown Prince Squash Parmigiana with Sage, Parmesan, Seasonal Leaves, Balsamic & Crème Fraiche

Even though we were only sharing two fairly light-sounding main courses, it still seemed like a big ask to finish them. Nevertheless we persevered, and thank God we did. This squash dish was delightful in its simplicity. The sweet orange squash square was complemented perfectly by the crème fraiche and the balsamic that had been drizzled on the salad leaves was heaven. Every taste worked together and nothing was awry on this wonderful (vegetarian) main course. 9/10.

Seared Yellow-fin Tuna with Panzanella (Tomatoes, Ciabatta, Volpaia Vinegar, Red Onion & Capers)

My main course of seared yellow-fin tuna was one of the better tuna dishes I’ve had. The fish itself was seared perfectly – take a look at the photo below – and again, simplicity was the order of the day. The panzanella was to die for, the tomatoes being exceedingly sweet, buoyed by the same balsamic, and then cut through by red onions and capers.

Seriously seared

It was such a fresh, vibrant and moreish plate of food, I just had to finish it all…yet again. 9/10.

Technically speaking, we didn’t have room for dessert, but in my family, THERE IS ALWAYS ROOM FOR DESSERT! Given the circumstances, we decided to share one between the three of us, and opted for one of the simpler sounding choices.

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto

Let me just say this up front. The quality of the pannacotta itself was just mental. It was so creamy, so full of delicate vanilla flavor, and so delightfully wobbly while at the same time retaining its form when shaken or portioned up on our plates. It was the best example of the dessert I can recall. I would have been perfectly happy having that by itself on a drip for a few hours, but it was very well paired with some surprisingly sweet raspberries (not the ‘raspberry compote’ that the menu advertised, by the way) – my hunch is that they were from Secretts, but I didn’t ask – and a really wonderful homemade pistachio-laced biscotto (not the biscotti that were promised on menu). In short, Italian food heaven on a plate.

And that was the perfect end to a very long and very lovely lunch. 10/10.

The other side

It was so good, I decided to include two pictures. 🙂

Closing time

The room had pretty much emptied out by the time we finished, so I took one parting shot.

Waistlines & wallet weights are inversely proportional

After a small adjustment to the final bill (they charged us for the starter portion of seafood risotto we had ordered and not the main course portion we received), it worked out to about £120 for three people including service, which I think was reasonable for the quality of the food, although we only had two mains and one dessert. Put it this way, Fifteen (even the Trattoria) ain’t cheap.

I’d like to give fifteen a ten

We all really enjoyed our time at Fifteen’s London Trattoria. It has a fairly random and funky design, which works well with the vibe of the neighborhood and the fact that it is Jamie’s baby. In fact, on balance, I probably prefer the upstairs dining room to the downstairs one – unless you get one of the booths at the back downstairs which then makes you feel as if you’re eating inside a very expensive purse and is quite cool. Anyhow, the Trattoria has a good atmosphere and is a fun place to hang out for a leisurely lunch. One quibble was that the music was very loud when we arrived. This is one of my (and Mrs. LF’s) pet peeves, as music that is overly loud doesn’t allow people to engage in conversation easily, which to my mind is one of the main points of going out to eat with family and friends. That said, we told our waiter this at the outset of the meal and he happily adjusted the volume to be a tad softer, which made it much easier to hear what we were saying to each other.

I see the mantra of both dining rooms as being: “it’s the ingredients, silly.” And that’s the way it should be, with Italian food especially. At Fifteen, you just know that you are eating very good food that has been sourced very methodically and with bags of passion. The way these ingredients are cooked is also nearly always technically very good, although I’m not sure about all of the flavour combinations (but at least they give their kitchen trainees room to experiment). And sure, there may be the odd inconsistency (both in the food and the front of house) given the turnover of staff I imagine that they have due to the ambitions of the venture, but these certainly didn’t deter us from having memorable two meals there, the first being and exceptional, and the second being very good.

For whatever reason, so far as I can tell, the restaurant doesn’t seem to attract much attention in the food blogger world (maybe it’s not new enough any more?), but I would say it’s one of my favorite Italian restaurants in London, right up there with the likes of Ristorante Semplice, River Café, L’Anima and maybe Il Baretto (I am somehow yet to visit Locanda Locatelli as well as some of the newer entries). It’s certainly better than Bocca di Lupo in my book, but I’m visiting that restaurant again soon, so will report back.

If you haven’t been to Fifteen, I would recommend trying it out. Oh, and if you’re curious, it runs circles around Jamie’s other Italian offering based on my meals there at various branches around the country, though it is definitely more expensive.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the Trattoria wine list comprises a relatively small selection of well-picked whites and reds (about 10 of each), of which about half are available by the carafe of glass. There are also a few sparkling, rosé and sweet wine options. The wines are mostly Italian and English, although there is the odd Spanish or French one thrown in. It’s nice that prices by the glass start at less than £5 and don’t exceed £9.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Fifteen London twice, once for dinner in the Dining Room, and once for lunch in the Trattoria.*

Fifteen Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Polpo – Sohopeful, So Good

Polpo
41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB
Website
Map
Reservations are taken for lunch: +44 (0)20 7734 4479

  • Cicchetti & Crostini £1-2, Bread Dishes ~£4, Meats Dishes £5-11, Fish Dishes £5-7, Cheese ~£4, Vegetables & Salads £3-4, Desserts £2-5
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr account (Meal 1, Meal 2)

A Venetian bacaro meets Lower East Side Manhattan bar, Polpo has a lovely buzzy atmosphere and relaxed but professional service in the middle of London’s Soho. The food is simple, with most dishes employing five ingredients or less, and is executed very well on the whole, with some real standouts. It’s also not overly expensive if you can reign yourself in from the tempting offerings. I really wanted to like Polpo, and after two long lunches there, am pleased to say that it is a place I really enjoy being at, and intend to frequent in the future.

Getting ready for cicchetti

Having just written about another Soho restaurant that offers good value for money, I am happy to be scribbling about another one which I recently discovered. Somewhat to my surprise, I was not the last London food blogger to visit the rather new and ever-popular Polpo. Indeed, it appeared that a twitter ‘friend’ I had communicated with virtually for some time had also not been (I know, the travesty), and it seemed like an apt time and place for a lunch with @KaveyF, the woman behind Kavey Eats.

I had a lot of preconceived notions and high expectations about this place. Firstly, the response from bloggers that I generally tend to agree with had been decidedly mixed. Secondly, having been to Venice a number of times and understanding the bacari that Polpo presumably purports itself to be modelled after, I was cynical about how well they would be able to carry out this concept in central London, without the ethereal magic of the Venetian canals and architecture. (As a side note, it is quite a neat coincidence that Polpo does happen to sit right beneath the plaque marking the spot where Canaletto, the Venetian painter, lived in London – see photo below).

It may not have Venice’s canals, but Polpo does reside below Canaletto’s plaque

There are very few places in London that offer proper cicchetti (pronounced ‘chi-ket-ee’), and I went to one just after starting this blog, which was a posher incarnation of the concept but wasn’t half bad (just a bit pricey). At their heart, cicchetti are very small plates of simple food that Venetians typically have from anytime in the very late morning through to mid-to-late afternoon at local bars (bacari), and they are normally accompanied by a small glass of wine. From my own experience, they are typically eaten at the bar standing up, or possibly on a stool or outside the bacaro if it is a warm day, maybe overlooking the canal. In fact, the icon that I use for my online avatar is the shop-front of a very nice little bacaro that I happened upon while staying in the relatively quiet and peaceful Accademia neighborhood on my last visit to Venice. It’s mostly frequented by locals and is quite traditional. They sell wine on a retail basis, offer some by the glass and a range of snacks to eat with the small glasses of wine they serve. I love the whole concept and ethos of snacking in Venice, so was hoping that Polpo wouldn’t screw around with the simple and successful formula too much.

Polpo’s proprietor, Russell Norman, was formerly Operations Director at Caprice Holdings (Richard Caring’s dining empire, which continues to expand rapidly…and internationally as of late) and, as such, has a lot of experiencing opening new restaurants and making them successful. He says that his two main inspirations for the restaurant were the bacari of Venice and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Tribeca and Soho, where he saw a particular type of place to eat and socialize that didn’t exist in London.

The place certainly opened with a bang, and much was made of Russell’s proactive use of twitter right through the time leading up to the opening, and then during the eventual launch of the restaurant. Despite the reservations of some bloggers and critics, I was still excited to see what the place would be like, especially after having looked through the window many times on visits to other nearby haunts – one of my current favorite hang-outs in London is Bob Bob Ricard, which is literally just across the narrow Beak street.

Made for Manhattan?

I arrived at Polpo just about on time, as is my wont. Kavey had already arrived, though, and it turned out she had come prepared. Now I don’t just mean that she had read a few blog posts, reviews and looked at the online menu and therefore had a good idea of what she might want to order. No, the girl had a very large Excel spreadsheet in a very small font size which cross-referenced the dishes on the website ample menu against what some of her trusted bloggers thought of each dish. I was impressed, but also slightly scared 🙂 and we had a good chuckle over it…but it did prove very useful.

Polpo, Inside n' Out

The menus were the place-mats, so we didn’t have to undergo the often annoying wait for menus to be given and explained to us. And I have to say, it all sounded very appetizing.

The menu of the day – loved the font and crinkly brown paper

We asked our lovely waitress how many dishes she recommended ordering and I was slightly surprised at the number of dishes she thought we should have (basically a lot). Having said that, my dining companion was happy to go along with it, and I was eager to taste as much as we could, so we went with her advice of 3 cicchetti and four larger plates.

2008 “Polpo” Pinot Bianco (Valle) & San Bitter Red

For drinks, Kavey ordered a beautiful little red Italian soda drink called San Bitter Red (yeah, you guessed it, from the folks at San Pellegrino) while I opted for a 1/4 liter of their house white (it literally seems to be bottled for them). The wine was crisp, acidic and refreshing, and certainly wasn’t over complex. I realized I had misread the wine list as I actually wanted the one listed below the house wine (a Trebbiano-Garganega white) but couldn’t be bothered to change as the Pinot Bianco was perfectly quaffable. The wine list is relatively short and all Italian, but the great thing about it is that you can have any of them in a quarter or half liter carafe, in addition to the bottle. It’s clever business also, as they don’t serve wine by the glass so probably take a better margin overall.

Our plate of cicchetti

Our plate of cicchetti

The cicchetti arrived and looked appetizing, although I think we were both surprised by how small they actually were, particularly the arancini and grissini. But we didn’t have too much to worry about (literally).

Arancini, Chopped Chicken Liver, Salami & Pickled Radicchio Grissini

My favorite of the lot was the chopped chicken liver, which was spread across a slice of nice crusty bread. It was rich without being overly irony and the texture was perfectly smooth and moist. From what I understand, the kitchen has a general policy of not having more than 4-5 ingredients in most of the dishes, and here this purity worked well, as the prime ingredient (the liver) came through nicely. 8/10.

The arancini were also excellent, nice and crisp on the outside and nearly grease-less. Inside, there was a creamy risotto center, with enough bite left in the rice and what seemed to be a morsel of melted mozzarella, along with some herbs. Although it was only one or two bites, I enjoyed it a lot and could have probably had 5-10 quite comfortably. 8/10.

The grissini was definitely a bit of a letdown by comparison. Firstly, it was truly a paltry portion for £2, and I didn’t think the ingredients worked that brilliantly together. In fact, although the meal wasn’t that long ago, I am struggling to remember what it tasted like. 5/10.

Rabbit, Sage & Apricot Terrina

The terrina was a solid plate of food. The flavors all came together nicely – with the sweetness of the apricot complimenting the slightly gamey richness of the rabbit – and it had a nice spreadable yet chunky texture. It was a good portion size for the price too, and I liked the little side of pickled cucumbers and onions. 7/10.

Fritto Misto

I was pretty impressed with the fritto misto, which is often done very badly. These were not greasy at all, and very crisp. The seafood all tasted fresh, the prawns were sweet and the squid was moist and not at all chewy. It was a lovely little pile of fried fish and, while it doesn’t compare to the real thing in Venice (my favorite is at Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana) or even the excellent version of it at L’Anima, it was very good. 7/10.

Pork Belly, Radicchio & Hazelnuts

The pork belly was somewhat surprisingly my least favorite of the larger plates we had. I found the pork flavor to be too strong, but maybe this is just a personal thing for me (?). I understood what they were trying to achieve with the bitter (radicchio) and sweet (hazelnut) combination, but it didn’t quite work for me. The textures and the cooking were good, but I just didn’t enjoy it all that much and have struggled to put a finger on it, so to speak. 5/10.

Cuttlefish in its Ink & Gremolata

The cuttlefish on the other hand was a bit of a revelation. I was always scared of ordering this jet-black dish when in Venice, and when I finally did, it was a horrible rendition that put me off the idea for a long time. I am very glad I braved it on this occasion, as Polpo’s version is superb. I found the sauce to be very delicate despite its rather thick consistency, and the cuttlefish had also been handled with the same care. I found it a bit surreal to be so eagerly scoffing something that looked like a pile of prawn sick District 9 (well, that’s not quite fair, it was ‘pretty’ with the strong black and bright green gremolata contrast, but just not all that appetizing for an uninitiated non-Venetian like me). Anyway, it was a great dish. 8/10.

Roast Potatoes & Rosemary

Another revelation was their roasted potatoes. These were simply and masterfully done, thick and crunchy on the outside, soft, fluffy and flavorsome on the inside, with just the right amount of rosemary hit. A great side of carbs. 8/10.

Flourless Orange & Almond Cake with Mascarpone

It kept getting better from there. The flourless orange and almond cake was one of the best cakes I’ve had in a good while, full stop. It was moist and bursting with flavor, and when eaten in concert with a dollop of mascarpone and a bite of the candied orange peel, it was heaven. I think it was those crispy, candied numbers and thick syrup that made the difference. For me, this was the best dessert you could hope for in a casual restaurant like Polpo, and I don’t even usually like this type of thing to finish a meal. It certainly ran circles around a similar dessert I had at Jamie’s Italian. 10/10.

Galani Pick-me-up

After enquiring as to what the Galani Pick-me-up actually was (I knew galani a type of crisp Italian dough, but not much more), and being informed that it was “sort of like a crisp tiramisu with coffee flavored cream and chocolate sauce,” I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I’m glad I had asked too, because this was nearly, if not equally, as good as the cake. The most interesting thing about this dessert was the intenseness of the coffee flavor in the cream. The rich yet slightly bitter cream was the perfect foil for the sweeter chocolate sauce and the crispy fried dough provided the necessary crunch to hold it all together, and to hold interest. The portion was humongous and I did find towards the end that it had become a bit much of the same to eat, but still managed to polish it off, from memory. 9/10.

Single Espresso

I needed an espresso before heading back to the office, and it was very good, with a nice crema and served warm and not too tight (condensed). I noticed that they ground the beans each time they made a coffee, which was a good sign, and the flavor of the espresso was nicely balanced between floral and caramel.

I needed another ‘pick-me-up’

Over the last bank holiday Monday, Mrs. LF and I were getting quite hungry and felt like going out for something to eat. We couldn’t decide on where to go, but then she recommended “that Italian place in Soho that you’ve been going on about” and that was that. I knew there was a reason I married the woman – she consistently reminds me of my own brilliance. 🙂

Green Apple Juice, Mint, Ginger & 2008 Pieropan Soave

We got there in the middle of lunch service without a booking, but I still couldn’t believe it was so packed on a bank holiday. We managed to get a seat at the bar straight away, though, luckily. The bar stools were very comfortable to sit in and I always think it’s a nice way to eat when there are two of you. Like Kavey, Mrs. LF ordered a soft drink (hers consisted of apple juice, mint and ginger), while I splurged on a slightly fancier wine this time, the 2008 Pieropan Soave, a producer I know well. Although it is their entry-level wine, it is still a good one, and went down well on the sunny afternoon.

Our selection of cicchetti: Arancini, Salami & Radicchio Grissini, Potato & Parmesan Crocchetta, Chopped Chicken Liver, White Anchovy & Tapenade Egg

We ordered a bunch of cicchetti to start with. The arancini and chopped chicken liver were equally as good this time around. New items included a potato and parmesan crocchetta, which Mrs. LF found to be very “moreish, rich and satisfying – exactly what you want in a croquet.” She gave it a 9/10.

Of the white anchovy, tapenade and egg, Mrs. LF said that “…it was nothing to get excited about. It was basically chopped green olives and an anchovy set on top of a boiled egg. While the egg had been boiled recently, maybe the dish could have benefitted from a different cooking of the egg, with it being slightly runnier, for instance. Also, the tapenade wasn’t a tapenade (as advertised on the menu) in the sense that it was just chopped green olives and didn’t deliver in flavor what a real tapenade could have done. To me, it was kind of a waste of space on the menu as it’s not something you’d come back and re-order, but rather something you order by mistake – and the title of the dish should probably be changed as it can be misleading.” 5/10.

Despite my previous experience, Mrs. LF wanted to order the salami and radicchio grissini. She thought that the combination of salami and the pickled radicchio worked really well, and enjoyed it more than I had on the previous occasion. However, she did agree that for £2 there should really be at least two served on the plate. She gave it a 7/10 for the taste.

Arancini

I thought I’d include another photo of the lovely arancini as l liked this image a lot. 🙂

Bittersweet Mackerel, Pinenuts, Raisins

We both liked our first bite of the cold mackerel dish. It was definitely more bitter than sweet. It seemed everything had been pickled to some extent as even the raisins, which I had expected to provide the ‘sweet’, were vinegary. It helped that the sloppy little pyramid lay on a base of toasted bread, which lent some necessary contrast to the sharpness of the other elements. The problem for me with this dish was that, after about six or seven bites, it was just too sour and too sharp, and I had trouble finishing it off, even with the bread. While we both enjoyed it to some extent (Mrs. LF more than me), and there was nothing wrong with it, we felt it would have done much better by being served in smaller portions. Mrs. LF said that “It would be great to have this kind of dish as finger food, when you have a little bite now and again over an hour or two. But as a larger dish it’s too vinegary, and you lose interest after a while.” 6/10.

Fritto Misto

I’ve already commented on the fritto misto above, and it was also good on the second visit, although the squid were slightly tougher than the first time I had them.

Grilled & Sliced Flank Steak with White Truffle Cream

Mrs. LF had ordered the flank steak, which came grilled and sliced on a bed of rocket and was dressed with a white truffle cream. She said: “It had a really good steaky flavor and had been cooked to my specification (unfortunately, medium as I am pregnant!). However, the meat was a bit tough and I had to chew it for a long time to break it down before swallowing the steak. The white truffle cream was absolutely delicious and made a perfect accompaniment for the red meat and salad. I must say that the rocket leaves themselves were very fresh, especially for a bank holiday Monday. I am always slightly suspicious and paranoid about salad leaves not being washed properly in restaurants, especially on bank holidays, and also hate when they are soggy and/or old. For example, on the last bank holiday, I ordered a Caesar salad at a well-known small burger chain in central London and the leaves were brown, soggy and clearly not fresh – but my fears were allayed straight away at Polpo. The dish was really good, apart from the meat being a little too chewy.” 7/10.

Flourless Orange & Almond Cake with Mascarpone

I had to have the orange and almond cake again as I had been dreaming of it some nights (literally). Mrs. LF was not let down either, despite my copious amounts of hype. She said it was “…amazing, such a memorable dessert. In fact, I can still taste it now if I close my eyes and can feel the texture in my mouth.” She said that the next time we have a dinner party she’d like to go into the restaurant and ask if they can make a whole cake for us! I wouldn’t stop her, it is bloody fantastic. My only quibble was that, on this occasion, it was severely lacking in the crisp, candied orange peel bits that had been sprinkled generously around my previous slice a few weeks before. These are really important to the dessert, so I would urge them to ensure they are consistent in this department.

Affogato al Caffé

I was tempted to have the Galani Pick-me-up again, but after remembering how big it was, opted for the more modest affogato al caffé, which provided roughly the same flavor combination (sans the chocolate) in a pretty little package. There’s not much to say about it; it was a perfectly fine affogato, though I would have preferred a smidgen more ice cream, but hey, I’m greedy. 6.5/10.

Getting ‘it’ right

After sampling a number of dishes over two long lunches at Polpo, I must say that really enjoy being in the place. They have gotten a lot of things right. The atmosphere is vibrant. The design is funky and spot-on, with loving attention to detail evident through features, such as the choice of hanging light-bulbs and the little sink behind the front bar. The service is relaxed and friendly yet at the same time attentive, informative and professional. And, for a very busy restaurant, the staff are remarkably efficient, keep their energy up and don’t seemed phased by anything. The food is generally very good also. I didn’t have any truly ‘dud’ dishes on either occasion (though some could use some tweaking), and some of the food was downright spectacular – in fact, Mrs. LF and I have been getting hungry looking back at the photos as we write this post.

I think it’s very important to remember that this is a casual Italian eatery serving very simple food and, on that basis, I think it succeeds marvellously. It is certainly better than what you’ll get at other places in London serving similar fare within the same price bracket, and the fact that it has a sense of individuality, purpose and integrity about it makes Polpo stand out for me against other such offerings. Speaking of integrity, it is certainly not a true Venetian bacaro as it is primarily a sit-down restaurant that has a lot of thing besides cicchetti on the menu, and in truth, the design does lean more towards the Lower East Side of Manhattan than the backstreets of Venice, although there are some Venetian features which have been sympathetically rendered.

Oh, one more thing, it’s not very expensive either. My lunch with Mrs. LF ended up being £26 per head, including one of the pricier carafes of wine (£10 for a 1/4 liter), and my lunch with Kavey came in only slightly higher at £29 per head. In the latter lunch, we had three cicchetti, four larger plates, one side dish, two desserts, a soft drink, a carafe of house wine and an espresso (and this included service) – not bad in my estimation.

It’s no surprise to me that there are plans to open a second restaurant in a similar vein in the very near future. It is to be called Spuntino and you can follow the developments on twitter or on the new place’s blog.

If you haven’t been to Polpo, I highly recommend it for a nice casual place to go and have a good time. But don’t think it will be more than that and don’t expect complicated, nuanced, high-end food – that’s not what they’re there for.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: a small but carefully chosen little all Italian line-up, and as mentioned above, the best thing about it is that everything is available by the quarter or half liter, as well as by the bottle.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Polpo twice, and both times it was for lunch.*

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Jamie’s Italian – The Essex Cowboy Rolls ‘Em On Out

Jamie’s Italian
Unit 17
2 Churchill Place
Canary Wharf
London E14 5RB
Website
Map
Reservations: the restaurant operates a no reservations policy

Antipasti from £2.50-6.50, pasta from £5.95-11.25, mains from £9.95-16.95, sides approximately £3, desserts £3.95-4.95

The Essex Cowboy tours the US of A on his current TV series

The Essex Cowboy tackles the US of A head-on in his current TV series

You certainly can’t fault the sourcing of ingredients, the fun décor, the vibrant atmosphere & the prices, but the food didn’t live up to our expectations. For this price bracket, though, I don’t know how much better an Italian chain restaurant can get.

You certainly can’t fault Jamie's Italian's sourcing of ingredients, the fun décor, the vibrant atmosphere & the prices, but the food didn’t live up to our expectations. For this price bracket, though, I don’t know how much better an Italian chain restaurant in the UK can be.

Jamie, take two

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that I was pretty much blown away by the meal we had in the Dining Room of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in East London a few months back. The painstaking sourcing of ingredients and the way they were showcased on the menu was simply fantastic. Since that meal, we have wanted to return to Fifteen to eat at the less formal ground floor trattoria, or alternatively at one of the cheeky chappy’s Italian joints, which have begun sprouting up around the Southeast in the last year or so. So, when the first London branch finally opened up a few weeks ago in Canary Wharf, we thought we’d head down there and check it out.

Steel, Glass, Oliver

Two Sundays ago, we needed to walk. We had the pleasure of a five-hour lunch at a certain plump bird in Bray the previous day (I will eventually post about it, but still want to digest the experience for a bit longer), and just needed to get out and do something. A decision was made to drive to the East end and explore. It was a much overdue trek as there are so many interesting things going on in this part of London, and I don’t have a clue about most of them, besides the virtual insight and tips I receive from the twitterati.

After walking around the City for a few hours, eventually the inevitable happened (drum roll please): we got hungry. We wanted something simple and satisfying. After the experiencing the wonders of intricate little plates of perfection the previous day, and being somewhat frustrated that there wasn’t more of each course (but in a good way), we just wanted a big hunk of British pork, or something along those lines. We just missed our window at St John for this type of fare, we skipped Albion as it seemed a little to snacky, and decided to head to the little island along the Thames, where you need a security check to get in.

I hadn’t been to Canary Wharf for a good few years, and it was much as I remembered it. On a weekend, it is pretty eerie: glass, steel and silence. It is also a bit confusing driving there if you’ve never done it. As you follow the signs with the blue box and the white ‘P’ inside, you seem to go around in circles and never actually find the parking garages. But eventually we did, and then discovered the hidden underground mall which is impressive, with a huge Waitrose and a number of the usual shops. We saw a big pink sign on one of the columns which we thought would lead us to the restaurant, which we had seen from our car, but annoyingly it had no directions on it. It just stated the address again, which is useless if you’re not a resident of Canary Wharf.

Hot on the trail...

Hot on the trail...

Eventually, we found our way back up to street level, and walked over to the restaurant. As you can see, it looks rather imposing from afar, but in reality, it only occupies a small portion of the space within the black steel and glass shell.

Jamie's Italian - Exterior 1 Jamie's Italian - Exterior 2 Jamie's Italian - Exterior 3

A rather imposing facade

Inside, you quickly realize that the theme is wood, not steel and glass. Just check out those bar tables that are made out of mongo tree trunks. We were quickly and warmly greeted by the hostess and seated at a table near the entrance of the restaurant. This was because, despite it being just before 5pm on a Sunday in Canary Wharf, the place was heaving. Lots of couples, lots of groups and lots of families. At least we didn’t have to queue!

Jamie's Italian - Wood Stump Bar Tables Jamie's Italian - Kitchen Towell Napkins

A very wooden theme – the kitchen cloth napkins with “Jamie’s Italian” inscribed on them are a nice touch

P9060236 Jamie's Italian - Pasta Machine Jamie's Italian - Meat & Veg

The place is huge, vibrant, colourful & fun

Big menu, but can we have some more mains please?

The menu is the same at all branches of Jamie’s Italian, and it is huge. I am certain nearly everyone can find something that sounds appetizing to them, and there are in particular a lot of antipasti, pastas (all of which come in small or large portions) and side dishes. The only thing that struck me as sort of odd was that there are not really that many main course options in comparison, and a few of them don’t seem that Italian (i.e. there are two types of steak and one hamburger out of the seven non-salad main courses). In any case, there was a lot of deciding to be done, and we eventually got there after asking our waitress a few questions.

“Truffle tagliatelle: finely shaved wild black truffles folded with butter, parmesan & nutmeg, a real luxury” (small portion, £5.95)

“Truffle tagliatelle: finely shaved wild black truffles folded with butter, parmesan & nutmeg, a real luxury” (small portion, £5.95)

I started with a simple dish of pasta, which was cooked al dente and had a decent flavor to it. The mild summer truffles came through a little, not a lot. I think there was truffle oil within the butter sauce as well as in the tiny little bits of shaved truffle that I could see in the dish. The portion size was perfect for a small pasta course, and while it didn’t blow my socks off, it was a satisfying opening to the meal – and I suppose at £5.95 you can’t complain too much about a decent butter and truffle pasta. 6/10.

“Sausage pappardelle: slow cooked Italian sausage, tomatoes, red wine & parmesan with crunchy herby breadcrumbs” (small portion, £6.45)

“Sausage pappardelle: slow cooked Italian sausage, tomatoes, red wine & parmesan with crunchy herby breadcrumbs” (small portion, £6.45)

Mrs. LF described her sausage pasta dish as “satisfying comfort food.” She said that while it didn’t make her say “ooh, ahh, or wow”, it was a decent dish of pasta. The sauce didn’t have enough of that sweet, rich tomato flavor you expect in a good ragù and was a little too bland. It certainly didn’t hold a candle to the flavor of a similar dish we had at Bocca di Lupo a few weeks ago (the caveat there being that BDL’s pasta was bathing in a pool of oil, while this one wasn’t), but it wasn’t a bad effort overall. 5/10.

“ ‘Spiedini’ Sicilian pork skewer: free-range British pork fillet stuffed with Italian cured meats, breadcrumbs & parmesan – served with lemon, garlic & oregano dressing” (£11.95)

“ ‘Spiedini’ Sicilian pork skewer: free-range British pork fillet stuffed with Italian cured meats, breadcrumbs & parmesan – served with lemon, garlic & oregano dressing” (£11.95)

Somehow I think I missed the word “skewer” on the menu when I ordered this for my main course. I had been imagining a big hunk of pork stuffed with various Italian treats. But that’s my fault, not the restaurant’s or menu’s. The dish was presented nicely on a wooden tray, and it tasted good too. The outside layer had been deep fried in bread crumbs and parmesan and contained a variety of cured meats inside. My two main thoughts were that (a) it was a little too salty overall as some of the cured meats stuffed inside the balls were quite salty themselves, and (b) it wasn’t a particularly satisfying main course as there were only 6 little spheres, and you could eat them in one bite each if you so chose. The side dish, which I guess you were meant to use as a dipping sauce, was a mixed vegetable paste which had a smoky ratatouille taste to it, but unfortunately that’s not really my bag. 5/10.

  “Lamb chop lollipops: grilled Welsh mountain lamb chops, cooked ‘al matone’ under a brick with a special minted sauce, chopped roasted nuts and soft herbs, ‘delicious!’ ” (£13.85)

“Lamb chop lollipops: grilled Welsh mountain lamb chops, cooked ‘al matone’ under a brick with a special minted sauce, chopped roasted nuts and soft herbs, ‘delicious!’ ” (£13.85)

Mrs. LF found the wooden slab to be very impractical for her lamb dish. It was too narrow and the lamb kept falling off the sides. The lamb itself was overcooked, with no pink at all left inside, and also had too much of the black, brittle char from the barbeque on the surface of the meat. The meat didn’t have a particularly striking flavor, and when Mrs. LF tried to chew on a bit of the fat (unseemly for a lady, I know), she said it tasted kind of weird so spit it back out. It came with three sauces on the side, and none of them really complemented the lamb all that well, which they really needed to do in order to lift this dish to be worthy of its £13.85 price tag (there were only three chops, so not a big portion). Unfortunately, they all failed. The weirdest one was the “special minted sauce” which in fact barely tasted at all of mint. When we asked our waitress if it was supposed to be a “mint sauce”, she went to the kitchen and relayed the message that it was actually “an herb sauce with a little bit of mint.” The problem was that you didn’t get that nice refreshing taste of mint that the menu alludes too, and that the sauce itself was too oily and too bland. We were disappointed with the dish as Mrs. LF can make lamb chops at home that taste better than these did by a mile. 4/10.

  “Gennaro’s salad: fresh broad beans, rocket, mint, salted ricotta & pecorino” (£3.25)

“Gennaro’s salad: fresh broad beans, rocket, mint, salted ricotta & pecorino” (£3.25)

The salad, presumably an inspiration from Jamie’s original mentor in Italian food, Gennaro Contaldo, came in a deep bowl and was huge and fresh. The little broad beans were the best part for me, and I wish there had been a few more sprinkled throughout.

“Our special tiramisu: classic Italian coffee flavoured trifle with mascarpone & chocolate” (£4.75)

“Our special tiramisu: classic Italian coffee flavoured trifle with mascarpone & chocolate” (£4.75)

I didn’t hold out much hope when the tiramisu was placed in front of me. I guess, to me, it just didn’t look like tiramisu: a bit too cakey with a chance of being overly dry. But I was pleasantly surprised. It actually tasted quite good, with the coffee flavor coming through clearly and a strong chocolate taste. It wasn’t too dry and there was a dollop of mascarpone on top and also a layer of it within the Italian “trifle.” There was also a nice surprising hint of bittersweet orange throughout the dessert, which I thought complemented it well. Imagine a shot of espresso in Italy with a little sliced peel of orange in it, and I kind of see where they got their inspiration. 6/10.

Gennaro’s Amalfi orange tart: crisp pastry filled with ricotta, orange & candied fruit, served with mascarpone

"Gennaro’s Amalfi orange tart: crisp pastry filled with ricotta, orange & candied fruit, served with mascarpone" (£4.95)

We were also both surprised at how the orange tart looked. We had literally been expecting a “crisp pastry” (i.e. thin and flaky) and that it would be “filled with orange & candied fruit” (i.e. stuffed full of ricotta), but as you can see, it appeared to be a rather dry cake instead, with only a tiny bit of filling. Despite our initial misgivings about the appearance, it tasted good, and was a fairly generous portion. It had the same bit of mascarpone on top and bittersweet orange running through it. The pastry itself wasn’t anything special, though, and in the middle of the tart Mrs. LF discovered a huge solid bubble of pastry that came from either the top or the bottom, which meant that there wasn’t enough of the filling inside. When she thought about it, Mrs. LF realized that she has had this dessert a number of times before in Italy – apparently, it is eaten a lot around Easter time – and said that this version wasn’t particularly good. 4.5/10.

Jamie's Italian - From Above Jamie's Italian - Grafitti in Stairwell Jamie's Italian - Kitchen Window

The dining area and the kitchen are big – so’s the graffiti on the stairwell walls

Jamie's Italian - Male & Female Jamie's Italian - The Venerable

Jamie's Italian - Bathroom Mirrors

Jamie's Italian - The Real Crapper

The toilets are pretty cool, I loved that the bogs themselves are actually “crapper’s” and that the rim said “The Venerable” on it

Il Verdetto

We had high hopes for Jamie’s Italian adventure, and really wanted it to be good given that we loved Fifteen and are generally fans of what Jamie Oliver is trying to do (i.e. get the country to eat better). But maybe our hopes were too high. After all, this is a casual chain of Italian restaurants that he wants to roll out across the UK. And generally (but not in all cases, i.e. the lamb main course) it tastes just fine for a mid-priced chain of Italian restaurants.

I think it’s also important to mention that these restaurants seem to be a great place for families; they were very child friendly from what we could tell from our vantage point. And maybe that’s the point. He is consciously opening these restaurants in mid-sized cities where the family element will be much more important than in places like central London, which will attract tourists and couples more than family bookings. I suppose the Canary Wharf location is clever in that it caters for the still massive amount of workers there, for whom it makes a wonderful pit stop for lunch or a quick meal after work.

But put simply, Jamie’s Italian ain’t Fifteen, and I don’t think I’d hurry back as the options in London are simply too great and Canary Wharf is a big trek from both my home and work.

One final note: if you drive to the restaurant, you will have to pay for parking in the nearby garage – I believe it was £3.50 for <2 hours and £5.00 for ❤ hours.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 5/10

Wine list: 6/10 (some good, reasonably priced wines, almost all of which you can have by the glass or a 500ml carafe)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Jamie’s Italian (Canary Wharf) once.*

Jamie's Italian (Canary Wharf) on Urbanspoon

Bocca di Lupo – A Good, Reasonably Priced Italian in Wolves’ Clothing

Bocca di Lupo
12 Archer Street
London W1D 7BB
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Approximate pricing: small plates from £4-14, large plates from £9-22 & desserts from £5-7

A welcome addition to the London dining scene with a variety of good Italian dishes at reasonable prices – but as my cynical side expected, it certainly didn’t live up to the initial hype that surrounded its launch...on this occasion

A welcome addition to the London dining scene with a variety of good Italian dishes at reasonable prices – but as my cynical side expected, it certainly didn’t live up to the initial hype that surrounded its launch...on this occasion

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.

Bocca di Lupo - Facade Bocca di Lupo - Chandelier Bocca di Lupo - Interior
Transforming a rather awkward space to a very appealing interior – the grand & contemporary chandelier is particularly lovely

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.

Amazingly tasty, buttery green olives

Amazingly tasty, buttery green olives

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!

Fried eel, soft shell crab & red prawn with polenta & orange (small)

Fried eel, soft shell crab & red prawn with polenta & orange (small)

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.

Veal & pork agnolotti with butter & sage (small)

Veal & pork agnolotti with butter & sage (small)

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.

Potato gnocchi with sausage ragù (small)

Potato gnocchi with sausage ragù (small)

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).

Grilled quail with tomato panzanella (small)

Grilled quail with tomato panzanella (small)

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.

Chilled spinach with lemon & oil (side)

Chilled spinach with lemon & oil (side)

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.

Burnt almond granita with bitter chocolate sorbet

Burnt almond granita with bitter chocolate sorbet

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.

It could have been worse...

It could have been worse...

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. 🙂

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 6/10

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.*

Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

Cicchetti at Cecconi’s

Cecconi’s
5a Burlington Gardens
London W1S 3EP
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Pleasant surroundings, very Italian service, decent eats & wine, but a bit overpriced

Pleasant surroundings, very Italian service, decent eats & wine, but a tad overpriced

The Background

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.

The Preamble

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).

The Verdict

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.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 6/10

Wine: 7/10

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.*

Cecconi's on Urbanspoon

Fifteen Dining Room – The Best Real Italian Experience in a London Restaurant?

Fifteen
15 Westland Place
London N1 7LP
Website
Map
Online Bookings

Dining room tasting menu at £58/person and wine pairing at £40/person

The best re-creation of what is good about Italian cuisine I've had in London

Quite possibly the best re-creation of all that is good about Italian cuisine I've had at a restaurant in London

The Background

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.

The Verdict

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.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 10/10

Wine: 7/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only been to Fifteen Dining Rooms once.*

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