Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Italians Doing It Better

For all that the occasional failure of a big-name restaurant inevitably prompts someone somewhere to hail it as a sign that London's restaurant bubble has finally burst, the exhausting pace of new openings proves that nothing could be further from the truth. 

New restaurants - permanent and pop-up, bijou and behemoth - continue to open at such a rate that in the clamour for press and public attention, some quieter openings go all but unnoticed; three great restaurants I've eaten at recently - all, coincidentally, Italian - fall into that category. 

Antico on Bermondsey Street - a former antiques showroom, hence the name -  is a light, bright space, the rusticity of bare brick walls tempered by contemporary touches including a curved picture window into the kitchen. The food is robust modern Italian, making use of both Italian and British seasonal ingredients and attractively but unfussily presented. 

My dinner date Tom and I tried starters of prawn and squid fritti, good salty seafood lifted by a basil aioli, and a slightly-too-firm but still delicious burrata with prosciutto, both dishes given a subtle kick by the judicious use of fresh chilli. My substantial main course of roasted guinea fowl on bruschetta - more like a fat, fabulous fried slice - was saved from over-richness by the creaminess of lemon mascarpone and bland crunch of kale. Tom's pan-roasted monkfish with asparagus was similarly well-balanced.

Tiramisu was the only so-so dish of the meal, made up for by a generous plate of Italian cheeses with the wonderful condiment mostarda di frutta, too rare a sight even in Italian restaurants. Excellent pre-dinner cocktails from the cool downstairs bar and a bottle of Soave Classico chosen for us by the very charming manager completed a most enjoyable, relaxed evening that I'm eager to repeat.

Casa Batavia, at the Notting Hill Gate end of Kensington Church Street, brings together the culinary wizardry of Nicola Batavia - chef patron of a number of restaurants in Italy including the Michelin-starred Ristorante Bichirin in Turin - and front-of-house expertise of Paolo Boschi, whose formal, gentlemanly service is the product of forty years in the business.

The simplicity and elegance of the room - which to be honest looks a little dated despite being relatively new - is reflected in Batavia's astonishing cooking. There's an insanely reasonable lunch menu at £18.50 for three courses including a glass of wine; I tried the evening seven course tasting menu at £59. Poached egg with asparagus in velvety ricotta cream with white pepper and sea salt; precisely al dente linguine with spring onions, Parmesan and just a hint of green chilli; a loose, light, silky broccoli and courgette risotto; smoky potted rabbit with salsa verde and hazelnuts; pig's cheeks braised to the texture of pâté in red wine contrasting with the crunch of pine nuts, all were note perfect. 

Desserts of caramel profiteroles and a glossy ganache teased from super-high cocoa content chocolate were followed by Batavia's charming signature Bruti ma Buoni petits-fours - 'ugly but delicious' hand-made biscotti and truffles. The wine list is almost all-Italian (with just a handful of French bins), high quality reflected in high but not greedy pricing, and from time-to-time Boschi brings back a few special bottles from his travels to further enhance the selection. Only a lack of attention to detail on the menu and website - typos and mis-translations abound - jar with the overall feeling of quality.

Last and grandest of the triumvirate is Tempo on Curzon Street in Mayfair. I've long been a fan of the opulent upstairs bar, where cocktails and top-notch cichetti are served all day, but only recently experienced the restaurant - and boy, what an experience it was.

A timelessly elegant dining room designed by Dan Hopwood provides a suitably glamorous stage for chef Yoshi Yamada's modern take on Italian cuisine using only the best ingredients, prepared with maximum care and minimum fuss. After some of the splendid cichetti - a fiery n'duja bruschetta was in every sense, breathtaking - girlfriend Frances and I felt it was only right, given that Yamada was fresh off the plane from Italy where he had won the World Pasta Championship, that we try some pasta. From my veal ravioli, slick with sage butter, and her tagliatelle with wonderful coarse beef ragu, we could see why Yamada had carried off the trophy.

If the £31 price tag of Frances's main of pan-seared scallops seemed high, it was more than justified by the size of both the portion and of the huge, plump pillowy scallops. Their sweetness  preserved by the searing and flattered by smoky roasted peppers, this was the epitome of luxury and simplicity. Pan-fried duck breast, sliced to expose its alluring pinkness and fanned out over a hillock of crushed new potatoes, was butcher but no less poised. We finished - as you really, really must - with a slice of exemplary lemon tart,  its sweet brulé top the perfect contrast in taste and texture to the sharp creamy filling. Tempo is not cheap, but for Mayfair - indeed for food of this quality anywhere - it's at least good value and debonair owner Henry Togna's well-drilled team guarantee a memorable time.

There are, of course, even more great Italian restaurants operating just off the radar than these three; do feel free to add your recommendations in the comments section or on Google+. Also, I'd love to hear about any 'unsung hero' restaurants of yours, of any cuisine - this is the first 'group' post of this kind that I've written but in order to even try to keep up with the pace of London's restaurant scene, it certainly won't be the last.

Antico Restaurant and Lounge Bar on Urbanspoon Casa Batavvia on Urbanspoon Tempo Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Café Boheme, Soho

Café Boheme is, like the sex shops of Walker's Court and strip joints of Rupert Street, a stalwart of the Soho scene. For twenty years it's stood on the corner of Old Compton and Greek Streets, apparently open all hours, its pavement tables always occupied - one of the hottest spots on a street where people-watching is a competitive sport.

But despite my having haunted the streets of Soho for a similar period - arriving in London from the sticks at around the time Café Boheme opened for business - until recently I'd only ever been past, not in; many's the time I've sipped and supped at Soho House upstairs, but I've always found negotiating the phalanx of drinkers outside Café Boheme itself too like running the gauntlet for comfort and hurried on elsewhere.

When I finally did decide to go in a couple of weeks ago, lured by a new menu defiantly retro in its simplicity and remarkably kind in its pricing, it quickly became apparent why Café Boheme has remained so popular and for so long. The attractive room is classic Soho House (who bought Café Boheme along with the rest of the building when they opened in 1995); design details that will be familiar to anyone who's eaten at sibling sites Dean Street Townhouse and Hoxton Grill are all present and correct. To the uninitiated this means dark red leather on bar stools and banquettes, wood panelling, lots of crystal and a statement zinc-topped bar at the heart of it all.

While sipping an excellent Martini, dinner date Eliot and I shared some eggs mayonnaise - I said the menu was retro - which were great, especially piled onto some good fresh bread. I also ordered moules marinieres which were textbook; the wonderfully sweet, small mussels used resembled clochinas, popular in Valencia but unseen anywhere else, making for a welcome treat. 

Main courses were nothing to get over-excited about, but then café food generally isn't and it was none the worse for it. Eliot's grilled chicken salad with tarragon mayonnaise was well-executed, simple stuff; the ratio of leaves to protein was perhaps a bit skewed towards the greenery but it was a generous helping of good-quality poultry nonetheless. My steak - a decent-sized rib eye, served blue and full of flavour if a tad over-salted - came with fantastic frites, hot, crisp and oil-less as they should be. 

We skipped desserts in favour of a couple of glasses of Sauternes (as you do); together with a glass of Pinot Noir from the all-French list - which also offer s good choice of 500ml pichets - and service the bill still only worked out at about £35 each. You could eat well here for even less; steak frites start at just £10 for rump (my rib eye was only £16, the selection peaks at £19 for filet), and main courses average £12-£13. 

Being a café, bookings aren't taken but given that it's open eighteen hours a day, opening for breakfast at 8.30 and only closing at 2.30am, it should always be possible to drop in and get a seat. With food of this quality, at these prices, in such stylish surroundings, it's easy to see why Café Boheme has been such a lasting success. What's harder to understand is why, with food of this quality, at these prices, in such stylish surroundings, anyone would ever want to eat anywhere else.

Cafe Boheme, 13 Old Compton Street, London W1D 5JQ Tel: 020 7734 0623 

Cafe Boheme on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright
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