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

1 comment:

  1. Agree with you on Antico. Didn't feel there was much for veggies, but that's less of a problem and more me casting round for something to critique. Bermondsey Street may very well be my favourite place in the city right now.


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