The day: 27th April 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: North Court, 1 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3LL (020-7222 7080)
The venue: Quirinale Ristorante Italiano
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Italian based, lots of usual suspect with few surprises, also some choice by the glass
Back for just a couple of days in London, we chose the politicos’ day off to visit this restaurant tucked away in a small street in the heart of the Westminster Village. We later learned that kitchen staff (headed by chef Stefano Savio) was below capacity: this will be an interesting experience in crisis management…
Downstairs from an elegant entrance we forgot to take a picture of – but you can check it out the next time you hold a demonstration in front of the House of Parliament – we entered a large rectangular room of cool modern style, mostly white/cream tones with leather chairs, brightened up by an array of colourful canvases and some dark wood panelling. Pleasant atmosphere. The tables are small and exactly, if not generously, spaced.
The menu offers several interesting dishes, and there is also a handful of daily specials. When we arrived (having had no problems booking a table no more than a couple of hours earlier) the dining room was half full.
The bread basket is large, unfortunately not on the table but held safely in the hands of Bread-Waiter – he’ll make another appearance later… So here is what we grabbed on the first serving:
Made on the premises (its non-industrial origin evident from a flaw in the dough), it was OK, but no more. With it came the smallest amount of extra virgin olive oil (Pasquini Reggello, Tuscany) we have ever seen, it was so shallow that an ant could walk through it.
Not that we care, because to reduce the calorie count we always skip it – but perhaps you don’t. The slice of bread and the shadow of oil were the only complimentary items on the table for the duration of the meal: no olives, no amuse bouche, no pre-dessert, no petit fours, no nothing. After 20 minutes of pleasant occasional chit chat with the very nice room staff, without anybody prompting us to order food (but we managed at least to order the wine), the presence of something more to choose would have been greatly appreciated. So when finally, after about half an hour, we managed to order, came the ominous warning from charming waiter Rudra (he is Italian, don’t worry) that the kitchen was under-staffed and a large party of diners had arrived unexpectedly earlier: ‘Normally it is not like this on a Friday night’ he said with an apologetic air. The same thing was told to us several times by the charming manager Valentina Cassandro in the intervening 35-40 minutes before our primi came at last.
They were Trofie with classic pesto and scallops; and Goat Cheese ravioli with peppers and artichokes in walnut sauce (£12.50 and £9.50 respectively).
In the trofie, a nice touch was the cream with the scallop coral emulsified in olive oil, though taste-wise it was not exactly an explosion from the sea. Trofie are always ‘callous’, but these were actually undercooked. The dish was pleasant, the trofie themselves were well made and nicely small, and the pesto was in generous quantity (as the pasta) with potatoes and green beans as in the Ligurian tradition (remember Man is from Genoa, tears stream from his eyes every time he eats pesto), but once again the flavour was not sparkling (for example, compared to the pesto we had at Giardinetto). The scallops were good.
Woman still preferred this dish to the ravioli. She found them a little undercooked. Man thought the cooking was OK, but the pasta could have been finer – Woman says it is the same as undercooked. Man counterobjects that Woman finds 95% of the pasta undercooked. Woman counter-counter replies that this never ever happened at Latium. Waiters come to separate the contenders The cheese filling was excellent, the walnut sauce working surprisingly well with the red peppers, but according to Woman overwhelming the cheese, a statement with which Man profoundly disagrees. We believed from the taste that the kitchen had forgotten the artichokes, but the photo proves they were actually there…– anyway, there were plenty of other tastes in the dish…
For mains we had ordered Grilled fillet of swordfish with sprouting broccoli, red onion marmalade and saba dressing; and Marjoran coated fillet of red mullet with cicerchia puree and Taggiasche olives, both at £16.50. We had barely finished our primi when Bread-Waiter arrived holding two mains. One was the swordfish, the other was clearly not the mullet.
Bread Waiter: Here’s is the turbot.
Man Woman: Turbot? We actually ordered mullet.
BW: OK, it’s mullet.
MW: But you just said it is a turbot!
BW: Mullet, mullet.
MW: It clearly is not a mullet. And look, there are asparagi and truffle instead of cicerchia on the side.
The vegetable comparison seemed to strike a chord, and off he went to call the manager. She came, apologised and proposed we have the turbot with the compliments of the house. But we were in a strong mullet mood that evening, so while the kitchen busied away on our mullet, we shared the swordfish.
The fish came from France, and it was excellent and perfectly cooked. The advertised ‘cime di rapa’ (i.e. broccoli sprouts) looked more like simply broccoli. Anyhow good cooking, and the onion marmalade was also good. The saba (cooked must) is a rare ingredient to find in Italy, let alone the UK. This indicates a search for the right materials on the part of the chef. Still, though, here the taste was not prominent at all, to put it mildly. Good to know it was there, though!
Finally, the mullet arrives.
Was it worth the wait? It was certainly good, and the cicerchia (remember? We had it also in via Condotti) had been roughly mashed to retain an interesting texture. The taggiasche olives (ever present in so many menus these days) in this dish played for once a fitting part.
The dessert list was rather enticing, but what struck us especially was the cheese list, the most interesting we have seen so far in the UK, mostly from the North of Italy. So we opted for a pear bavaroise (at 6.50) and a selection of three cheeses (£7.50): here we really behaved, as one can order up to 11 varieties!.
Now the real king of the night, the cheese plate. We chose ewe ricotta mustia (Sardinia), cow Valsassina robiola and goat Fausti (both from Lombardy), who came with some salad, grapes, honey laced walnuts and quite a bit of bread (hazelnut and raisins brown rolls and carasau). A nice presentation, but above all a gorgeous taste. The escalation from the ricotta to the Fausti’ going through the robiola was a journey through one thousand flavours. The meal did conclude on a high note:
With a bottle of Vermentino Sella e Mosca 2004 at £22, the whole bill (including service charge) came at £102.38, just breaking our £100 rule. Ah, no water on the bill, but we took that the 0.75lt bottle was the freebie of the night.
Tonight the kitchen (remember, not at its full capacity) had been overrun by events. The room staff was amazingly cool given the circumstances; the large party we mentioned earlier were demanding and a little restless,
and the dishes were not coming out to meet the hungry guests. So this was a kitchen problem and the night was saved by the front room staff: all credit to them, and special mention to Rudra, who took loving care of us, recommended a restaurant near lake Garda (we’ll check it out soon), and told us about his life, so much so we are considering writing his biography
Still, though, we would have welcomed some symbolic gesture – when hiccups of this scale happen in Italy there is plenty of dessert wines to choose from to mollify the customers’ high blood pressure…
What about the cuisine? The raw materials are undoubtedly of high quality, and the care devoted to the cheese list is emblematic of the fact that sourcing is a prime concern (pity the wine list isn’t remotely so interesting). There is plenty of intriguing items on the menu, and the thought behind each dish is evident. All in all we had a good meal. However, just two nights before we had sampled the cooking of a superior chef for a tenner less, at Latium (by the way, there too there were only three people in the kitchen and they managed to satisfy sixty people with no hiccups…). So, while we wish the best of luck to this chef, who certainly honours Italian cuisine in London, we think we’ll leave Quirinale to the politicos, as we find the prices out of line compared to the best value of Italian establishments in London, which in addition pamper the customer with more extras.