Spuntino – An Englishman in New York (in London)

Spuntino
61 Rupert Street
London W1D 7PW
Website
Map
Note: no reservations, no phone line

  • As the name implies (‘spuntino’ means ‘snack’ in most of Italy), the menu consists of small plates, all of which are priced well below £10, aside from a dish or two
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr

The latest, smallest & funkiest Soho outpost from Russell Norman, Spuntino has a great ambience & is a lot of fun. They have concocted some great cocktails and the food is simple, satisfying & just that little bit different for London. It is a great place to drop by for a drink and/or a quick bite, but you could easily find yourself there many hours later, even if you came alone.

In search of some comfort

I was in London. I was working. It was late. I was alone. I needed food. I wanted comfort.

Soho’s Rupert Street has traditionally offered a certain brand of ‘comfort’, although I wasn’t in the market for that. Luckily, the same street now offers culinary contentment too, thanks to Russell Norman’s third addition to the neighborhood in less than two years.

Continuing the Italian language conceit – his first two restaurants are called Polpo and PolpettoSpuntino is really not very Italian at all, aside from the name and presumably the kitchen’s pedigree. Russell described it to me as a “diner,” although this is diametrically opposed to those shiny aluminum-clad monstrosities that cater to the elderly by day and drunk college students by night, and have at least 30 pages in their menus. No, Spuntino is achingly hip; lower east side (LES) Manhattan hip. It is self-conscious of this fact, yet not in an annoying or condescending way, which is not very LES.

The bustling bar

Despite the efforts of its raised ceiling, Spuntino is a very small space, and easily gets cramped in the evenings. Ajax, the imposing yet soft-spoken restaurant manager who used to run the bar at sibling Polpo and is the progenitor of the creative speakeasy-inspired cocktail menu, informed me that since they opened the doors, it has pretty much been busy the whole day through (they open at 11am and close ‘late’), every day. On my visit, they had been open for about three weeks and he hadn’t had a day off yet.

Spuntino is essentially one large u-shaped bar, which has a beautiful nickel-like metallic finish. There are 24 stools and a long makeshift corridor along the long side of the ‘u’ that leads to a small backroom, which has a table that seats six. When they took over the space from a non-noteworthy Indian restaurant, they discovered original tiles buried deep beneath the plaster. These, as well as the extra feet of space they uncovered above the previous ceiling, add considerably to the charm of the room, as do other countless little design details such as the choice of hanging lights.

At night, the place is dark, the music is a slightly loud and infatuating collection of mainly American classics, and it is populated by the type of people who tend to know about cool things before others do (present company generally excluded). The staff all seemed to be tattooed somewhere or other, and almost in spite of their appearances also tended to be very professional, especially given that their computer system had broken down on the night of my visit and all the tickets had to be done by hand.

As I was dining solo, and as the bar has an even number of stools, I was seated straight away despite the hulking mass of onlookers who were sipping cocktails and waiting for a spot to sit. Score.

Bramerican bites

As with Polpo and Polpetto, the menus are printed on a stylish thick rectangular piece of paper that serves as your place-mat for the evening. The food is somewhat of a mish-mash of things (sort of like a diner, I guess), but everything sounds appetizing and much of it seems downright naughty if you have any airs about being at all healthy. But this was fine. Given the day I had just had, and the week I was about to, I felt the need, the need for greed.

Sazerac cocktail

Before consuming any food, I decided I should try one of their cocktails, which all sounded interesting. My initial tipple was the Sazerac, which was poured from a silver teapot into a beautifully engraved antique silver teacup – cutely in-keeping with the prohibition-era theme. There was no getting around it, the drink was d*mn strong. In addition to the main ingredients (Sazerac rye whiskey, Peuchaud’s Bitters, lemon peel and definitely some kind of sweetener), it apparently contained a splash of Absinthe as well, so I knew this was going to be a walk on the wild side. Though it was strong, it was deftly balanced, and I enjoyed sipping on it – as I would a cup of tea – while perusing the familiar-looking menu that was full of unfamiliar dishes.

Mug o’ Popcorn

After ordering, they brought me a mug of complimentary popcorn fresh from the little machine they have behind the bar. It seemed sort of incongruous, but the Absinthe was kicking in, so I really didn’t mind.

In yet another social media coincidence, it turned out I was sitting next to someone I follow on twitter but had never met in person, the writer of the beautifully written and carefully considered blog Twelve Point Five Percent, @HRWright. His glamorous companion, who I later realized was @mrstrefusis, informed me that, for her, the food at Spuntino was really there to soak up the potent cocktails, and I think she may have had a point. Thank goodness for everyone that food began manifesting in front of me before I got a second cocktail in me…

Eggplant Chips & Fennel Yogurt

First up was a dish that perfectly illustrated Spuntino’s schizophrenic identity. ‘Eggplant’ (American for aubergine) ‘Chips’ (British for fries) and ‘Yoghurt’ spelled the British way. Despite the cross-cultural spelling, my verdict on the dish couldn’t be clearer: it was great. Perfectly light and crispy, the richness of the chips’ breading and the eggplant itself was balanced by the cool, creamy ‘yogurt’ (I am American so spell that way, except for the occasional unintentional intrusion from Microsoft Word’s spell-checker, which is for some reason permanently set in UK English on my computer). Simple and delicious; ‘nuff said.

Ground Beef & Bone Marrow Slider

I also enjoyed my little slider. Essentially a ground beef meatball, they are apparently cooked in butter and, after they have reached the desired level of done-ness, they mop up the juices in the pan with the soft and slightly sweet miniature buns. The beef itself was a nice consistency, and combined with the remnants of butter and marrowbone, this was a great little bite (or two), with some tang from the pickles steering it away from being too rich and providing some welcome crunch. Nothing life changing, but very satisfying indeed.

Truffled Egg Toast

I had read rave reviews of the simple-looking truffled egg toast. From what I could make out, this was basically a thick slice of decent crusty white bread that had been hollowed out in the center to make way for oozy orange egg yolk, on top of which had been added a generous layer of cheese (which was either all or part Fontina) and a healthy dash of truffle oil. There was a very pleasant and distinct resonance from the truffle oil, and the textures all worked. It was nice, but not quite as good as I had expected given the comments I had seen. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected the world though…after all, it is white bread, cheese and eggs.

Polpo Prosecco ‘08

As I was taking a breather, and pondering what to order next, Ajax decided to make me a follow-up cocktail on the house. This was after I had ordered and began drinking a glass of Polpo’s own-label prosecco, which is supplied by Dal Bello from Treviso, and is particularly nice, with the slightest sweetness to it. The cocktail was also very good, although all I can remember about it now was that it was orange in color and sort of sweet and sour. Like my first drink, it was more balanced than I was becoming.

Duck Ham, Pecorino & Mint

I wasn’t quite sure what to order next, but felt that I needed some enzymes to dismantle the deviousness of my first trio of dishes. Ajax strongly recommended the ‘duck ham’ salad. They make their own ‘ham’ by aging the duck for 10 days in the Polpo kitchen. This might have been my favorite dish. It was a really great salad, with a zippy dressing, and the duck itself was divine. The pecorino gave it that little bit of salty and nutty richness while the mint kept things fresh. Once again, simple but excellent.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

For dessert, it had to be a peanut butter and jelly ‘sandwich’. The trick here was that the bread of the sandwich was in fact peanut butter ice cream. This was downright delicious, and the size wasn’t too small either. The berry sauce was rich and the heap of crunchy peanuts and toffee made for the perfect topping. I enjoyed every bite. And with this, I offered my sweet surrender.

A diner refiner

While I have enjoyed meals at both Polpo and Polpetto, Spuntino is definitely a bit of a departure. While the décor is roughly of the same ilk – perhaps a bit broodier – and the food is arranged in small plates, it is definitely not Venetian (or for that matter Italian). It is comfort food, up with a twist. This makes it fun, especially when the cocktails are as good as they are.

The little things

Beyond the gratifying food and innovative libations, Spuntino is a vibe, an atmosphere. It is just a really fun place and you can’t help but be in a good mood once you step in from the colorful amusements on the other side of the frosted glass. If I still lived in London, I could see myself coming here a bit too often.

*Note: I have dined at Spuntino once, and it was for dinner*

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Gauthier Soho – Alexis Goes to Town

Gauthier Soho
21 Romilly Street
London W1D 5AF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Three, four & five-course menus at £27, £36 & £45 per person, or 12-course tasting menu (with a completely vegetarian option) for £70 per person
  • The full set of higher-resolution photos can be found on my Flickr account

Alexis Gauthier, the 1 Michelin star French chef, has moved from Roussillon in Pimlico to a townhouse in the heart of Soho. From a preview meal I had during the restaurant's soft opening, it appears that he may have found a winning formula. The menu format is clever and good value, the environs are cosy and inviting. And the food continues to be precisely cooked with subtle and delicate flavors, while at the same time carrying the chef’s particular flair. Gauthier Soho looks set to become a welcome addition to the growing cadre of enjoyable restaurants that have graced Soho over the last couple of years.

Trading places

There was a rumor circulating earlier this year that French chef Alexis Gauthier, then chef and proprietor of Roussillon, a 1 Michelin star restaurant in London’s Pimlico, was looking to do something different. Having broken ground by creating one of the capital’s first purely vegetarian tasting menus – that actually held interest and tasted great throughout – and then keeping standards consistently high for a number of years, possibly he felt it was time for a new challenge, to take the road less travelled. Having had the pleasure of dining at Roussillon on a few occasions, I was generally impressed – everything from the service, to the subtly prepared food, through to the elegant little dining room demonstrated that Gauthier wanted his customers to come away having had a wonderful overall experience. And I think most people did.

It turns out the rumors were true, and although Gauthier still retains a small shareholding in Roussillon, he has now taken over the townhouse at 21 Romilly Street in Soho, which was home to Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s Lindsay House before he moved on himself to open Corrigan’s Mayfair. I was lucky enough to dine at the new restaurant, which is matter-of-factly called Gauthier Soho, this week during the ‘soft opening’, and it opens for business on Monday the 17th of May. As such, the meal was complimentary and diners were asked to leave any token amount of money they felt like leaving as well as filling out detailed comment cards.

Making a house a home

I was dining with a foodie friend, and we both arrived promptly for our early dinner. The ebony and ivory facade looked subtle and classy, and we were glad to see that the design of the interior rooms had also been well thought out, especially given the constraints that an old townhouse could potentially create for a restaurant attempting to inhabit it.

Gauthier Soho’s Exterior

The four-story townhouse that the restaurant occupies is made up of a ground floor dining room with about 18 covers, a first floor dining room with approximately 24 covers, a third floor with two private rooms (one caters for up to 16, the other for up to six), and a fourth floor which houses the administrative offices. The kitchen resides in the basement and there is a temperature-controlled open wine cellar just behind the ground floor dining room (more on that later).

The Ground Floor Dining Room

The downstairs dining room is pleasantly formal and has a calming effect. In fact, you’d barely know you were in bustling Soho as inside the cool colors and soft lighting put you at ease straight away. There are lovely original features such as the fireplace and also beautiful arrangements of fresh flowers. We felt as if we were sitting in someone’s very posh residential dining room, so although it was formal, it was not at all too stiff.

Modern Rose Bath & Lantern Table Arrangement

The tables themselves are well spaced, allowing for private conversation, and nearly all of the two-person tables were arranged in the 10 o’clock / 2 o’clock format (which I much prefer), with only two tables having chairs positioned directly facing each other. The other thing I liked about the dining room was that there was no music. This is a pet peeve as I usually find the background music in restaurants either pointless or just plain grating. The tables themselves also had some nice modern details, with a red rose bathing in a spherical bowl and a cone-shaped translucent glass lantern.

A delicate & subtle hand

The menus were delivered and well explained to us. On the main menu, diners have the choice of three, four or five courses, and each course has four different options (with a few more possibilities thrown in at dessert time). These are priced at £27, £36 and £45 respectively and all include an amuse bouche, a pre-dessert and bottomless purified still and sparkling water. One interesting feature is that you can mix and match any of the dishes to form your desired three, four or five course meal (i.e. you could have two of the first plates, one of the third and a cheese plate while other members of your party could do something completely different). There is also a 12-course tasting menu priced at £70, which is also available in pure vegetarian format. Gauthier has always been a big proponent of utilizing the best British produce that is in season, and if you haven’t tried his vegetarian degustation menu before, it is really worth doing so. I think the menu is priced sensibly given the caliber of Gauthier’s cooking and the setting of the restaurant, and I love the fact that they have included the water free of charge as this can often be a not insignificant cost over the course of a meal in a fine dining restaurant.

Some of the staff have been brought with him from Roussillon, including the excellent sommelier Roberto della Pietra, who provided very good suggestions for the wine that accompanied our meal. Our waiter was pleasantly animated and professional, and once he realized I had eaten at Roussillon a few times, he went down to the kitchen and came back with a few suggestions from the chef that were not on the menu – so of course we weren’t going to say no.

Amuse Bouche: Chickpea Beignet with Whole Grain Mustard Dipping Sauce & Langoustine and Basil Toast

With our courses ordered, some amuse bouches were brought to the table. The chickpea beignets have been carried over from Roussillon. They are sinfully good, especially with a touch of the mustard dipping sauce, which is quite spicy, so don’t have too much. The little langoustine and basil numbers were pleasant enough, although a tad dry for me, with the langoustine not quite coming through strongly enough.

Assorted Freshly Baked Breads & Butter from Normandy

After the amuse bouches, a very attractive tray of freshly baked breads were brought out for us to choose from. The assortment included traditional French baguettes and a range of rolls, including black olive, tomato, bacon and wild garlic with a parmesan infused crust. We tried four of them and they were all excellent and constantly replenished, always arriving slightly warm and just out of the oven. The butters, one of which was slightly salted and the other unsalted, are both sourced from Normandy and were also of the highest quality.

Premier Plat A: Poached Duck Egg, Green Pea Velouté

My dining companion’s first course had stunning fresh pea flavor (very sweet) and a lovely runny duck’s egg in the center. I thought it was delicious, based on the one spoonful I was able to steal from her. 🙂

Premier Plat B: Lobster & Pigeon de Bresse

My first course was not on the menu as Alexis suggested something ‘special’ for us to taste from the kitchen. It was made up of slightly cooled lobster (which was feather soft and deliciously sweet), Pigeon de Bresse (which was perfectly pink and full of flavor), two types of salad leaves (one buttery soft and one crunchy) and a lovely little red sauce which was excellent when eaten in tandem with the pigeon. This posh ‘surf and turf’ was a great start to the meal.

Mousseron Mushrooms from Northern France

Our waiter also said that instead of having the risotto that was on the menu, Alexis would like to put a little twist on it by adding some mousseron mushrooms to the dish. I had never heard of them before, so the waiter brought out a silver bowl full of the little fungi to show to us.

Deuxième Plat: Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille

Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception. The petit mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.

Troisième Plat A: Smoked Salted Wild Sea Bass, White Asparagus, Melba Toast & Cèpes Mushrooms

My dining companion raved about this dish and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. I got a tiny taster, and also thought it was excellent. The fish had been handled with the utmost care and emerged on the plate with skin still glistening from the oven. It was delicious when taken with a small piece of the white asparagus which had been wrapped in the melba toast, which added a bit of crunch and saltiness. It was a really accomplished little fish dish.

Troisième Plat B: Red Mullet & Baby Squids, Fennel & Confit Tomatoes

My own fish course was less successful. The red mullet itself had also been cooked faultlessly and was presented beautifully. The squid was also nicely treated, being soft and not at all rubbery. My first reaction was that it tasted sort of like a ‘deconstructed bouillabaisse‘, not a bad thing in and of itself, but it somehow wasn’t the same without the rest of the stew. I then figured out when you ate everything together (including the celery, which still had a bit of crunch left in it, and the confit tomato), it then ‘worked’. But if you just had the fish with the squid and/or sauce it wasn’t quite as complete. I enjoyed it overall but not as much as the seabass.

2009 Borgo Sasso, Sicilia Bianco

The white wine that Roberto recommended (2009 Borgo Sasso, Sicilia Bianco) was perfect for our first three courses. It was particularly fragrant, but was neutral enough to go with the various dishes. It grew on me throughout the evening. It had a very good structure and a nice soft mouthfeel. It was fruity enough, with a touch of spice, and did evolve quite a bit as it sat in the glass – very enjoyable overall.

Quatrième Plat A: Angus Beef & Black Olives, Bone Marrow, Shallots & Swiss Chard (Plus a Side of Morels)

My friend’s Angus beef dish was excellent. The meat had been cooked superbly and was just a smidgen more than rare. The flavor and texture of the beef was spectacular, and surprisingly (to me at least) the sharp and salty olive flavor actually worked with the beef, when taken in small doses. The kitchen had suggested a side of morels to go with the beef, but my friend and I both agreed that they were too rich and didn’t really suit the dish, which was better off as it came originally, though we did appreciate tasting the delicious mushrooms in any case.

Bone Marrow Anyone?

The side of bone marrow was served open-faced and still in the bone on a gold-edged little plate and rested in a bed of sea salt (my heart fluttered for an instant as I thought back to St John’s benchmark version). It tasted good, although I wasn’t exactly sure how you were supposed to combine it with the dish as it was also very rich and another mushy texture. I just ate a bit of it on its own and also spread a bit on my baguette. It may have had a tad too much salt sprinkled on top for me.

Quatrième Plat B: Sweetbreads & Morels, Lettuce & Veal Jus

My meat course was also well executed. It was a very rich dish – but hey, what did I expect? The sweetbreads were cooked beautifully, balanced perfectly between being still just moist while at the same time having a firm enough texture. The veal jus was very rich, and complemented the sweetbreads well. I am a lover of morels and these didn’t disappoint. Everything worked together in concert here, although I was finally starting to get full at this point. 🙂

2008 Cuvée des Drilles, Domaine d'Escausses

The red wine recommend by Roberto to go with my main course of sweetbreads was the 2008 Cuvée des Drilles, Domaine d’Escausses. It hails from the Southwest of France and is made up of 3 grapes: Duras (80%), Iron Servadou (10%) and Gamay (10%). There was a lot going on in this wine, especially on the nose, with the Gamay lending a particular fragrance, despite being such a small part of the overall mix. It had a nice gentle spice and some good red fruit, and to my surprise it went really well with the rich sweetbreads dish (I should have trusted Mr. della Pietra!).

The Dessert Menu – Ooh La La

Whereas the first four courses had been printed on the main menu, the dessert options were listed on a separate little menu and included a range of sweets and a selection of cheeses. We had a difficult time making our minds up, but our deliberation turned out to pay dividends.

Pre-Dessert Palate Cleanser: Strawberries & Basil Granita

Before the main desserts arrived, we were presented with a dainty little palate cleanser. Sure, strawberry and basil is a classic combination, but it was carried out very successfully here. Sweet strawberry mixed with crushed, basil-infused ice. ‘Nuff said. 🙂

Cinquième Plat A: Raspberry Millefeuille, Red Fruits Sorbet

My friend loved her dessert. I had a bite too (of course…) and thought that the pastry was nice and light and that the raspberries were perfectly sweet and tart. The sorbet was good, but not amazing. We both thought it was a very pretty and satisfying dessert.

Cinquième Plat B: Golden Louis XV, Dark Chocolate & Pralin

This is another Gauthier classic which has been transported from Roussillon to Gauthier Soho, and thank goodness – it’s divine. It begins with a base of chewy hazelnut meringue, then there is a layer of what I believe is white chocolate and hazelnut croquante, then there is a rich chocolate mousse and then some exceedingly good plain chocolate is melted around the outer layer, providing a luscious consistency. Finally, this regal dessert is crowned with edible gold leaf. It is a downright naughty dessert, and I enjoyed every bite!

Petit Fours: Shortbread, Chocolate Truffles, Financier

Even though we elected not to have tea or coffee, we were still provided with petit fours. All of them were very good. The financier was one of the better I’ve had and the homemade shortbread was first-class, as were the rich and not overly buttery or overly sweet truffles.

The last laugh

My friend and I decided to have a look around the rest of the townhouse and spent a bit of time in the cellar with Roberto. Just as at Roussillon, the wine list is at Gauthier Soho is excellent, with over two-thirds sourced from France and about one-third emanating from the Southwest, Roussillon, Languedoc, Jura and Savoie regions – the list is full of unusual wines from interesting producers and tends to complement Gauthier’s style of cooking. He explained that all of the wines available on the restaurant’s wine list were also available for retail sale directly from the cellar (sans the mark-up), which has all of Gauthier Soho’s wines on display. This is a great innovation, and one which I have seen at only a few higher-end restaurants, as if a customer tastes a wine that they love, they don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to source it but can instead just pick up a bottle, a half-case or a case from the restaurant directly at a competitive price. Roberto also said that they will be able to arrange delivery, and can also create mixed half-cases and cases by special arrangement.

As we returned to our table, everyone in the dining room seemed a bit more jolly and animated than before. They informed me that I had left my camera on the chair and should be more careful in looking after it in the future. Then one gentleman proceeded to ask me if I was a restaurant critic and we got on the subject of blogging, which they seemed to find interesting. It was only after my friend and I arrived at our next destination (we went to Milk & Honey’s Red Room for a nightcap), that we saw what the other diners had done.

The Other Guests Certainly Enjoyed Themselves!

Yes, they had taken funny photos of themselves with my camera – we nearly spit out our drinks with laughter when we saw these hilarious photos.

A promising start

We had a very enjoyable meal at Gauthier Soho, and it’s almost hard to believe that they had only been open for four days when we dined there. Things ran remarkably smoothly all things considered. The only niggles were that a few of the newly recruited staff members were still finding their feet and a few appeared slightly nervous (but I suppose this is to be expected), and we had a rather long wait between our third and fourth courses as the restaurant was then fully booked. I recall saying to my dining companion that although the menu format is somewhat of a triumph for the diner, it must be an absolute nightmare for the kitchen as you are free to order any combination of the three, four or five courses that you wish.

As the above commentary suggests, the food was on the whole very enjoyable and precisely executed. To me, Gauthier’s strength is his delicate handling of primary ingredients (i.e. fish and meat are nearly always cooked flawlessly, and he is a master of presenting vegetables in a new light) and his subtle and sometimes unusual flavor combinations, which often lend a certain Mediterranean streak to what is otherwise quite traditional Southern French cuisine. Strangely enough, we only had one course which was totally vegetarian on this occasion (the green pea velouté), but there were lots of veggie options on offer throughout the main menu. Gauthier Soho seems to have created a very pleasant backdrop to showcase Alexis’ refined cuisine, and from what I could tell on this preview visit, he might look to experiment a little more in this new venue, both in terms of the format of the menu and the composition of his dishes – but the cooking and experience remains much the same as it was at Roussillon.

His decision to move house to Soho is a telling one, as for me, this is where a lot of the most exciting, fun and enjoyable new openings have sprung up in the last few years. I truly hope he also finds Soho to be a good home for his kitchen and his team, and the opening of Gauthier Soho is certainly another welcome addition to the growing stable of diverse and desirable dining destinations in the neighbourhood.

*Note: I have dined at Gauthier Soho once and, as it was for dinner during their ‘soft opening’, the meal was complementary.*

Gauthier Soho 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

Arbutus – All Set for Lunch

Arbutus
63-64 Frith Street
London W1D 3JW
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Set-Lunch & Pre/Post-Theater Menu: 3 courses for £16.95 (Lunch, Mon-Sun) or £18.95 (Pre/Post-Theater, Mon-Sat)
  • À la carte Menu: Starters £7-11, Mains £13-19, Desserts £6.95
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr account

Arbutus does what so many ‘British’ restaurants based in London should do, but don’t. It provides simple, satisfying, seasonal, well-cooked and flavorful food at a very fair price. The service is informal yet professional and there are roughly 60 wines available by the carafe. To me, it’s the perfect place to go for lunch in central London – you will enjoy yourself without breaking the bank.

Lunch with the Detective, Part Deux

It had been a while since I first met up with Craig of The London Food Detective at Great Queen Street for a very good lunch, and we both decided it had been too long. We eventually decided on a date and settled on Arbutus in Soho as our second target, namely because it is known for having a bargain of a set-lunch menu.

Besides being a tree, Arbutus is also a nice little restaurant on the ever-inspiring Frith Street

I have walked by Arbutus countless times during my years of Soho meanderings, and was glad that I would finally be looking from the inside out. Chef Anthony Demetre was formerly of Putney Bridge Restaurant, where he earned his first Michelin star. Since opening Arbutus in May of 2006 with his business partner Will Smith (who doesn’t star in OTT American action movies), Demetre has built up a reputation for serving relatively simple yet well-executed ‘British gatropub meets French bistrot’ fare in a front-of-house ambience that is often described as informal and relaxed. Many critics and bloggers have also sung the praises of the 1 Michelin star establishment on the basis that the food represents very good value for money compared to many other restaurants carrying the same distinction.

The long bar at Arbutus

I was thus very excited to try the food and to catch up with my lunch buddy, Craig. I hadn’t noticed from outside that the left side of the building is mostly taken up by a long bar (at which you can dine comfortably) and that the back of the room wraps around to the right side, which houses the formal dining room, forming a long u-shape. The restaurant makes good use of the space, without things being too cramped.

(As a side note, the layout is remarkably similar to that of Trishna, an Indian restaurant just off Marylebone High Street I visited recently which I enjoyed and hope to write about in the near future).

Clear vision, clean cooking

Craig had already arrived, and was waiting at a table in the middle of the main dining room. We perused the menus for a while and chatted about the big news in our lives – for him, a move outside of London, and for me, the impending arrival of ‘Baby LF’. 😉

Brown Bread & Butter

Some relatively soft brown bread was served, with a nice block of butter. Both were good and the bread certainly seemed to be homemade, though I forgot to ask. 6/10.

We both opted to go for the set-lunch menu, as you can’t really argue against £16.95 for 3 courses at a Michelin starred restaurant, unless there is a specific dish you must have off the à la carte. It was a compact set menu – two starters, two mains and either a dessert or cheese – but the choices were generally appealing and, after chatting with our waiter, it seemed like we might be able to substitute something here or there for little or no additional cost (please note that we didn’t actually try this, so please ask before assuming you can!).

Starter 1: Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade

Starter 1: Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade

Craig ordered the Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade and said: “It was attractively presented with the pork cheek sitting on a colourful bed of leaves, with the celeriac remoulade on the side. The pork had a lovely crisp topping that contrasted with the warm, fatty, gelatinous cheek underneath. The pork melted in the mouth and the accompanying remoulade offered a mustardy, slightly bitter contrast to the richness of the fat. Together with the salad, this cleansed the palate and meant that the pork didn’t leave a greasy taste in the mouth, which I find can happen with pork cheek if it isn’t well cooked or served with a contrasting flavour or texture.

“I really enjoyed it and thought it showed off the ability of the kitchen to handle cheaper cuts of meat proficiently and it left me looking forward to my main course of lamb breast.”

Starter 2: Curly Kale & Potato Soup

I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful. 8/10.

Main Course: Welsh Lamb Breast & Crushed Root Vegetables

We were both feeling like manly men and ordered the same meaty main course (the other option was a chestnut mushroom risotto, which neither of us found tremendously inspiring from the description). The lamb breast rested upon a bed of soft, orange winter root vegetables. The vegetables had been mashed to a pulp and were quite sweet. I posited that the mash was composed of swede, sweet potato and carrot (Craig suggested there may have been parsnip too). Beneath the veggie mash laid a somewhat sweet brown sauce, which had notes of carmelized brown sugar. The lamb breast itself was well-cooked and the fat – of which there was a lot – dissolved beautifully and added a nice richness to the dish. It was a very satisfying main course, which I enjoyed, but not quite as much as the soup that preceded it. 6/10.

Cheese: Platter of Morbier

Of his cheese platter, Craig commented: “Unusually for me, I turned down the dessert and opted for cheese. Unlike at Great Queen Street, it was my turn for dessert envy, as LF’s floating island was very good – I nearly insisted on another spoonful before I tucked into my cheese!

“My morbier came served with a spicy fruit chutney and a thick slice of the brown bread we were served on arrival. To be honest, I would’ve probably preferred a cracker to give a bit of crunch, but never mind. The morbier was a little bit deceiving, as it had a strong aroma and I thought the blue streak through the middle of it would make it quite strong, but in fact it was quite mild and creamy and was slightly overpowered by the sweet chutney. All okay, but I definitely should have gone for the floating island….”

Dessert: Floating Island & Pink Pralines

I had no hesitation in selecting the floating island for dessert. I have only ever had this dessert in France (where it is called île flottante), and I always enjoy it, so I was eager to try a version on this side of the Channel. As you can see from the above photo, the dish was presented simply and beautifully. It was also extremely delicious. The vanilla custard (which the French call crème anglaise) was perfect, and they hadn’t skimped on the velvety waters that surrounded the towering island of meringue. The island itself was also perfect, being soft but just firm enough to keep its texture throughout the process of being devoured. The candied pink pralines that crowned the white cylindrical pillow were also buried beneath and hidden throughout the depths of the island. This was the icing on the cake, so to speak, as it added a little crunchiness to each bite, which played perfectly off the squidgyness of the meringue and the creaminess of the custard.

It was a very simple dessert – indeed, you normally get this in bistrot-type restaurants in France – but it was the best one I’ve had, and I still salivate when I look at the pictures of it. I would give it a 10/10 as it was the best example I’ve ever had of the dessert, and the pink pralines gave it that little extra edge of sophistication that made it truly special.

Oh, and the portion size was very generous, just as the previous plates, so I wasn’t left wanting more (well, okay, not that much more). 😉

If you haven’t noticed, I thought the dessert was so pretty that I am currently using it as the banner for this website.

Single Espresso

After what was a relatively big weekday lunch by my standards, I needed a caffeine jolt to propel me back to my office and through the rest of the afternoon. The single espresso was passable, but was served a bit cold, so I wasn’t too impressed with that.

Undeniable value

Based on my first visit, I would have to agree with what I understand to be the general consensus about Arbutus. It provides you with very good food at very fair prices within a central London context. There is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the techniques or ingredients on offer, but what there is seems to be done very well. I can’t think of a better 3-course lunch that I’ve had in London for under £20 (of course, keep in mind that this price excludes wine, coffee/tea and service). In fact, it kind of reminds me of the lunch I first had with Craig at Great Queen Street, except this meal was cheaper. Our lunch had included very good and mostly seasonal ingredients that were used to their fullest effect through precise cooking and careful seasoning.

The atmosphere was fairly relaxed, but the service was good throughout and everyone generally seemed to be having a good time, the staff included, which is always a good sign. I also loved the fact that you can have so many wines by the carafe, and think more places in London should do this. Arbutus is definitely a place I’d like to return to, and it is a great place for people looking to eat well but without spending too much. Like I said, don’t expect to find anything out of the ordinary or mind-blowing, but I can’t imagine any of the dishes not being enjoyable here.

Craig concluded that, “Overall, it was another highly enjoyable lunch with LF and we made a good choice of restaurant. The food in Arbutus was of a high quality and was well-cooked by a kitchen using seasonal ingredients. When combined with the unpretentious and friendly service you can see why it has a Michelin star. For the price, it was an absolute bargain and I’d definitely go back. It’s not serving anything revolutionary, but like Great Queen Street it’s providing good, honest food at very fair prices for central London. I’m looking forward to our next lunch and aiming to go up 2:1 in the choice of dessert!”

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: a relatively small but very comprehensive and well-chosen wine list, with some top producers and a few more eclectic selections. The best thing is that they have about 60 wines available by the carafe, something that sister restaurant Wild Honey also does.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Arbutus once, and it was for their set-menu lunch.*

Arbutus 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.*

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