Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cecconi's, Mayfair

If you were to put a gun to my head  - and I'd really rather you didn't as it's just a figure of speech - I would say that Italian is my favourite food. Not only 'favourite' in that I eat it most often, but also in that it is the cuisine for which I feel the most affection and enthusiasm.

One of my earliest culinary memories is of my mum eating a plate of something terribly exotic-looking (at least to my three-year-old eyes) which turned out to be spaghetti bolognese and would be my first taste of 'foreign' cuisine. My ultimate comfort food when ill, depressed or down-hearted is tortellini in brodo from a recipe taught to me by an Italian ex. And when a couple of years ago I took a grown-up gap year and buggered off to eat my way around Europe and beyond for a few months, it was The Boot which won hands down for the quality, variety and memorability of the food on offer. There are many other cuisines that I like very much, but it's Italian I like the most.

Now, brace yourselves for another revelation but I think I also have a new favourite restaurant. Cecconi's, the perennially-popular trattoria on Burlington Gardens, is so bloody good that since my recent dinner there I haven't stopped raving about it, have been recommending it to everyone, and simply can't wait to go back. If you're sufficiently interested to know what it is about the place that's got me so worked up  - and you were prepared to put a gun to my head to find out my favourite food let's not forget, so I'm guessing that you are - it can be explained in a very small nutshell: Cecconi's does everything that one would expect of a restaurant very well indeed.

To begin with there's the physical appearance of the restaurant itself. It's located on a corner of a very smart Mayfair block, behind Ralph Lauren's flagship megastore, across from the elegant Burlington Arcade and adjacent to Savile Row. The frontage is made up entirely of high french windows which allow a clear view of the inviting dimly-lit room within, but once inside far from feeling like being in a goldfish bowl one feels warm and cosseted, and the outside world feels far away. The interior's a beauty, incredibly luxurious - all huge ornamental crystal mirrors, dark wood, green leather chairs and vast velvet banquettes - but not flashy or over-the-top, the monochromed tiled floors and low light tempering, without obscuring, the opulence.

Then there's the terrific service from super-friendly, super-committed staff, from the greeter's enthusiastic 'Buona sera!' to general manager Giacomo Maccioni's beaming tableside banter and each and every waiter's courtesy and attentiveness. When we (being best pal Andrew and I) asked our waiter for his recommendations, he didn't just rattle off the dishes he'd been told to push that night as happens in many establishments; instead he asked us pertinent questions such as how hungry were we, and did we like this or that, before making his measured suggestions. Wine is left for guests to pour themselves, tap water is served in attractive but also highly practical tall jugs and dishes come out from the kitchen at exactly the right intervals demonstrating that things run as well behind the scenes as they do front of house.

And of course, there's the food - the wonderful, delicious, and  - I use the word with the thunking great caveat that I base this only on my knowledge and personal experience, not any purported expertise - authentic, Italian food. To start with we shared a house selection of cured meats, bruschette and cicheti (which, until the arrival of Polpo and Polpetto, Cecconi's claimed to be the only restaurant in London to serve) and a plate of vitello tonnato. Both were stunningly good, the highlights of the selection, all of which was excellent, being peppery, salty Umbrian sausages, perfect not-quite-set, milky mozzarella and some lovely prosciutto San Daniele, as pink as Babe and just as tender. The vitello tonnato - thinly-sliced cold veal criss-crossed with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce made with tuna - was a textbook rendition of a classic and immediately transported me back to another favourite restaurant, Quattro Leoni in Florence, where I last enjoyed this dish.

Although in Italy it would pass as ignorant foreigner behaviour (though in fairness, my behaviour in most countries passes for that too) we both chose pasta as a main rather than intermediate course, pappardelle with venison ragu and chestnuts for Andrew and crab ravioli for me. While my ravioli were delicious, feather-light parcels of sweet white crab meat just moistened with a couple of spoonfuls of buttery broth, I suffered serious plate envy at the sight of Andrew's huge bowl of inch-wide pasta ribbons nestled in a chunky, dark sauce. It tasted as good as it looked; cooked long and slowly, the venison ragu was as intense and robust as my dish was delicate and light, the scattering of chestnuts adding sweetness. A side order of crisp, salty zucchini fritti disappeared as quickly as they must have been fried.

To finish, Andrew ordered the chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream and I the selection of Italian cheese. We were warned that the fondant would take twelve minutes, and exactly that time later our waiter delivered a neatly plated prism of dark, glossy chocolate loveliness and a simple, elegant plate of three cheeses - one blue, one hard, one goat's, all very good - served with pears and honey. The fondant was exactly that, melting, and oozed most satisfyingly as the spoon went in and the filling seeped out, mingling with the bright green ice cream as pleasingly on the eye as on the palate. I couldn't have been happier with my cheeses; the pears-and-honey combination is one I love and was made even better by an accompanying glass of port. 
Drinks-wise, we had also enjoyed a bright, floral 2009 Veridicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, as well as couple of pre-dinner cocktails including a superlative Negroni.

All of this combined - great room, faultless service and fantastic food  - makes for a very happy clientele, and the enjoyment in the place is palpable, manifesting itself in the sort of buzz that new start-ups and faded greats alike - I'm talking about you, The Ivy - can only dream of. Cecconi's feels like its always been there, and on-and-off since 1978 it has, which is forever in restaurant terms. This alchemical ability to make a venue and its customers feel like old friends even when they've only just met is the secret of Cecconi's-owner Soho House Group's global success; it comes as no surprise that Cecconi's now has branches, closely modelled on the original, in West Hollywood and Miami Beach.

None of this comes cheaply; cocktails, three courses, one side, one port and service racked us up a bill of just over £150. Strip away the extras however, and order a cheaper wine (there are seven available for less than the £31 we paid for our Verdicchio) and you could get away with about £45-a-head, less at lunch - or even breakfast, as Cecconi's is open from 7am until very late. Alternatively, the bar - the focal point of the room with its spotless glass panels, high stools and Prosecco on draught - would make a lovely spot for a quick wallet-friendly bite or romantic assignation at any time of day. 
I certainly hope to get back to my new favourite restaurant as soon, and as often, as possible.

Cecconi's, 5a Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3EP Tel: 020 7434 1500 http://www.cecconis.co.uk 

Cecconi's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Drink, Shop & Do, King's Cross

When a few months ago I was fortunate enough to avoid the swinging axe of redundancy and landed a very nice job at the much larger charity with which the tiny one I was then working for had merged, the only downside was that I had to move office locations from Trendy Shoreditch (TM) with its abundance of ace restaurants and bars to the rather less salubrious environs of King's Cross. I went from one day having within walking distance of the office Rivington, Hoxton Grill, Eyre Brothers and the legendary BLT Deli to having...well, a Pret about five minutes away. Although not usually given to performing oral examinations on gift horses, I was initially rather depressed by the enforced change of culinary scenery.

As an eternal optimist however I never lost faith that, as the old adage goes, with this much crap around there had to be a pony somewhere. Sure enough one day Drink, Shop & Do trotted into my life and the gloom was instantly lifted. On first walking past the dove grey shop-front on Caledonian Road, which stood out from the surrounding kebab and sex shops (by which I mean two separate types of shop, not shops selling both kebabs and sex, though if they exist anywhere it would be around here) with its bold, fresh graphics and canary yellow interior, I thought it was just a cool craft shop because of the window display of textiles and shelves filled with hand-made cards, sewing kits and vintage tea sets. But then I began to wonder what the 'Drink' part of the name could mean, and made the very fortuitous decision to step inside and explore further.

What I discovered was a smart little enterprise that's genuinely new, run with passion and really rather exciting. Passing through the Shop (making a mental note to treat myself to a quarter of something from the jars of classic sweeties lining one wall) I found myself in a bright, buzzing cafe-bar, flooded with natural light from a soaring glass ceiling, its walls decorated with patchwork quilts, framed origami and knitted samplers. These it would transpire are the fruit of the 'Do' part of the name; regular craft workshops are held here covering pastimes as diverse and productive as 'Play with Clay', t-shirt printing and card making. The atmosphere was instantly warm and welcoming; I resolved to come back when I had company.

For my first visit I took along my all-too-occasional lunch companion Scott, and we ordered a piece each of savoury tart  - there's two to choose from every day - with salad, then shared a generous wedge of chocolate tart. The savoury tarts (£5.50) were beautiful, one sweet potato, spinach and feta, the other pea, broccoli and Parmesan, both satisfyingly dense without being heavy and each accompanied by a goodly serving of tasty herb salad in a zesty vinaigrette. The chocolate tart was a cracking pud, its thick ganache filling complemented by pastry almost as sweet and crumbly as shortbread. On a further visit with a work colleague we shared a piece of tart - this time blue cheese and broccoli - and a plateful of cute, crusts-cut-off sandwiches (£4), half cheese and pickle, half smoked salmon and lemon, exactly like my mum used to make for my lunch-box and just as delicious.

With time to kill after work one evening before an event nearby, Drink, Shop & Do was the obvious choice for an early cocktail. From the short, witty list I chose a Ruby Shoes (perfect for a Friend of Dorothy), a generous tumbler-full of a refreshing, potent blend of orange vodka, raspberry liqueur, sour cherry, fresh lime and ginger beer. Then on my most recent visit, with Twitter pals @jezmd and @juliannabarnaby, I enjoyed a Coal Dust - a jet-black gin-based fizz made with coal dust sherbet - before we all tucked into big bowls of a fantastic, salty chorizo and chickpea stew with a couple of bottles of the perfectly decent house Merlot. While some of our fellow patrons embarked on a workshop making accessories out of recycled bicycle tyres - and why not? - we played a boisterous game of Scrabble, one of the dozens of old school board games freely available to all. I'll let you work out which words were mine...

I love Drink, Shop & Do. It's original, inclusive, friendly and great fun. The staff - all spiffing gels in vintage frocks apart from one extremely dishy chap - are all clearly having a hoot-and-a-half and want their customers, of which on every visit there have been deservedly plenty, to do likewise. Some of the prices are a little cheeky - that quarter of sweets, sherbet pips since you're asking, was £1.50 - but generally it's cheap and superlatively cheerful. Everything you see, from the mismatched furniture and vintage china food is served on to the handicrafts on the walls, is for sale, so if you like your teapot, or cake-stand say, you can take it home with you. I haven't found a new opening as refreshing and exciting since Dean Street Townhouse, and as with there I go back as often as I can and am never disappointed.

So impressed have I been, in fact - and please excuse me this shameless plug - that I've featured Drink, Shop & Do in my first column as travel editor for new online fashion magazine Fashion Salade. I very much hope that you'll find it in you to visit both.

Drink, Shop & Do, 9 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX Tel: 020 3343 9138 http://www.drinkshopdo.com 

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Ivy, Covent Garden

Once upon a time, there was a restaurant so famous and so popular that you could only get a table if you were equally famous and equally popular - or so the fable went. Contrary to popular belief - a belief fuelled by nary a week going by without the Evening Standard running photos of various A-list celebs emerging through the instantly-recognisable square-paned doors - it was always possible to get a table at The Ivy; it was just bloody difficult. 

Sure, a BAFTA or two would see you ensconced behind the harlequin stained glass without the need to navigate the deeply unfriendly automated reservation system, but no restaurant is ever truly unbookable and The Ivy was no exception. Nonetheless, getting a table - or more to the point, telling everyone that you had got a table - was enough to elicit gasps of wonder and disbelief from one's friends and a story one could dine out on for weeks after the dinner itself. 

Then, a few things happened which made getting a table at The Ivy not only rather easier, but also rather less of a big deal. Firstly, Caprice Holdings - a group comprising, at the time, a handful of admittedly good but not hugely well-known restaurants of which The Ivy was indisputably the jewel in the crown - relaunched venerable seafood house Scott's in Mayfair, only to see it eclipse The Ivy in both celebrity attendance and critical recognition. Next, albeit late in the day compared to many restaurants, The Ivy started to accept online bookings, if only for pre- and post-theatre time slots, but given that these are actually rather nice times to eat at this was no bad thing and made the once seemingly-inaccessible accessible. 

Finally, a couple of years ago, Caprice owner Richard Caring decided that the three floors above The Ivy's landmark triangular site were wasted as offices and transformed them into the ultra-exclusive The Club at The Ivy - you can't even look at the website if you're not a member - and invited all his megastar mates and billionaire buddies to join. As a result, any star worth spotting is now not to be found dining on the humble ground floor with you and me, but in one of the two dining rooms on the sealed-off floors above. 

With its core celebrity clientele - and to many, unique selling point - gone elsewhere, The Ivy just doesn't have the same cachet as it had only five or six years ago. And yet when, in a recent conversation with two of my best friends and Alyn about restaurants, the question arose as to where was the one place in London they would most like to eat,  the answer was unanimous: The Ivy, of course. A table was - easily - booked and a couple of Sundays later we passed through those instantly-recognisable doors for lunch.

It didn't start well. Arriving a fashionable few minutes after our assigned 2.45 booking time, we were told - not advised, or apologised to for the fact - that our table was not ready and ordered to wait in the bar. Many's the restaurant that would offer diners in that situation a complimentary drink, but not so The Ivy; here, our enforced pre-prandial round was charged, and how - forty-odd quid for a Buck's Fizz, a Negroni, a G&T and a vodka and Coke. When we were seated - about fifteen minutes late - it was at a table wedged in so closely to those adjacent that our party of four had to split into two twos and approach it from opposite sides. And looking around at our fellow lunchers, the clientèle was - how can I put this? - more likely to grace the pages of
Take A Break than Tatler.

The menu, which some would describe as 'eclectic', is something of a mish-mash, and reads uncomfortably. All the 'new traditional' British classics which The Ivy was once renowned for - fishcakes, shepherd's pie, sticky toffee pudding - remain, the legacy of one-time executive chef Mark Hix, but have been joined by a slew of Oriental specialities at the instigation of current head honcho Gary Lee, ex of Caprice's pan-Asian place Bam-Bou

Starters thus range from steak tartare to hamachi tuna sashimi, and mains from steak and kidney pudding to Thai baked sea bass. It reminded me somewhat of my sister's local pub, where the ambitious, and talented, chef likes to show that he was listening in every module at catering college by serving curries and stir-fries alongside the pie and chips and pints o' prawns. None of this however prevented us from having a thoroughly lovely time, and a very good meal indeed. 

The aforementioned steak tartare and sashimi were both excellent, although I suspect the tartare - my order - was prepared earlier and refrigerated rather than made a la minute. Our other starters, seared foie gras for Alyn and shellfish bisque for Paulie, were much enjoyed; the bisque is one of my favourite starters at also-Caprice-owned Dean Street Townhouse and was just as rich and cognacy here as there. The foie gras was classically presented, with glazed figs and toasted brioche, a simple but supremely luxurious combination and a generously-sized portion - as you'd want it to be for £16.50. 

For main courses we mostly went for roasts, 
it being a Sunday, one rib of beef with all the trimmings, one Moroccan rump of lamb with houmous, harissa and smoked aubergine, and partridge with braised cabbage and smoked bacon. All were fantastic, the partridge (mine) particularly so, although the beef looked a little too rare - and this from a man who had happily eaten raw beef for a starter. Our one non-roast choice, Alyn's steak and kidney pudding, was pronounced excellent by its eater who took a great deal of persuading to part with even a small mouthful for me to try. When I was allowed to sample it I was rewarded with flavours of sweet, light suet and a filling stewed to rich intensity; excellent indeed. 

Although it's usually unheard of for me to share a pudding - share anything, for that matter - I was more than happy to split a baked Alaska for two, 
flambéed table-side in a lovely bit of culinary showmanship. A scattering of Griotte cherries, in the syrup still hot from the pan, provided a bracing aigre-doux contrast to the cold sweetness of the dessert. The sticky toffee pudding, one of The Ivy's signature dishes, lived up to its reputation and was an exceptional rendition of this ubiquitous  sweet. 

We drank a bottle each of a 
warm, full-bodied and blackcurranty 2008 Artazuri Garnacha from Navarra,  and a 2009 'La Flor' Malbec rosé which showed that this grape, always reliable as a red, works just as well as a rosé. Both were priced at about £26, not too terrible but it's worth mentioning that there's not much available under that and the cheapest bottle on the list is £20.75. The pricing overall is rather on the lofty side, and even taking into consideration the drinks before lunch and a round of stickies after, I was still shocked when our final bill came in at just shy of £80 a head. A £2 cover charge struck me as greedy, 'covering' as it does only good-but-nothing-special bread. Service throughout - bar our initial shunting to the bar - was warm, polite and polished, although it aggrieved me that the policy of no mobile phones stated on the menu was not being enforced.

The experience as a whole was a very good one; a super meal with nice wine in a room which I'd go so far as to say is perhaps my favourite in London with its colourful windows and bold modern art. It's certainly easy to see how The Ivy has stayed in business in its current incarnation for twenty years and why people - famous or not - like it so much. But it's over-priced and thinks too much of itself in a time when there are better, cheaper and even more popular restaurants all over London. 

Famous places, trading on past glories and charging too much because they can, are known as tourist attractions. The Ivy is better than that, but needs to be careful that it doesn't end up being famous only for being famous. 

The Ivy, 1 West Street, London WC2H 9NQ Tel: (020) 7836 4751 http://www.the-ivy.co.uk

The Ivy on Urbanspoon

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