The day: 2nd August 2007, Dinner.
The place: 9-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S 1LJ (020-7495 1509)
The venue: Ristorante Semplice
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Carefully chosen list, Italian based, wide range of prices starting from the teens, also by the glass.
Ristorante Semplice opened just last March in Mayfair: Chef Marco Torri is in the kitchen, while Giovanni Baldino and his team man the front room. We had never been here before, but we knew we would feel comfortable, almost at home: manager Giovanni Baldino and his team were those who took care of us during their time at our fave Latium.
We confess that we’ve always found Baldino’s charm irresistible. But before entering the restaurant Man and Woman looked into each other’s eyes and made a solemn pact that, despite the regrettable lack of the usual anonymity, they had to be brutally honest in this review as in all others – no matter how well they would treat us, we would just relay the facts as they were, and most of all scrutinise the flavours in our dishes through a fine comb, as always.
So let’s begin…
The interior, a single room divided in two by a wood panelled wall, is an elegant affair of cream, gold and dark ebony brown. Its far from neutral tones however are sure to hurt the visual sensitivity of others. Some tables are rather close to one another, other less so. We were given the choice between a table tightly crammed in a row of other tables, and one with acres of space around, next to the central wall. Surprisingly we went for the latter (with the added bonus that, the level of noise in most UK restaurants being a problem for us, the wall provided excellent protection). Above is a view from the table.
We were welcomed by an excellent glass of Franciacorta spumante: can you believe it, an Italian restaurant that favours Italian spumante over French Champagne, how very peculiar…but apparently somebody disagrees (we prefer not to take up the xenophobic slant of your review of Semplice, as we just cannot take seriously somebody that hails Sardo as a beacon of Italian cuisine in London… ).
Tsk tsk, no bread basket: as you know, not a way to win our hearts…but assistant manager Vito Nardelli assured us we had a ‘bottomless plate’, so no need to hoard our focaccia crumbs here. The bread comes with a little plate of deeply aromatic olive oil from Campania.
The menu is reasonably long and rather enticing, with starters from the £7.50 of chickpea soup with quails and lardo di Colonnata to the £10.50 of e.g. Fassona beef carpaccio, primi in the £7.50-£9.50 range (unless you want to go for Lobster trofie, in which case you are looking at £15) and main courses in the £14.50-£19 range. Just for the fun of it, we note that the most expensive item of the menu is still well below the £28 that Theo Randall charges for his chargrilled Limousin veal chops with chantarelle mushrooms and salsa verde.
While waiting, a welcome from the kitchen: a caprese with Buffalo mozzarella:
Next, our primi arrive:
– Buffalo ricotta ravioli with spinach and toasted hazelnuts from Piedmont (special of the day, £10.50)
– Pesto filled potato gnocchi with pine nuts and green beans (£7.50).
The ricotta ravioli: this is a very simple dish, and a bit of a provocation, in the same spirit of Theo Randall’s tomato sauce pasta. The kind of simple dish you can easily assemble at home, so here too we were curious to see how the chef would pull it off. Well, with great success: the butter sauce was light, with the toasted hazelnuts a perfect valet for her Majesty ricotta (really good), at the same time delicate and flavoursome, enriching the consistency and flavour spectrum without obtruding. We thought back of Randall’s muted performance the previous week, and the comparison was a little shameful for the celebrity…
The gnocchi: Man, of Ligurian birth, is always ready to be moved by pesto preparations (and by potato gnocchi al pesto in particular, having spent countless hours in his childhood rolling Granny’s gnocchi on a fork to give them the typical indentations); but also unremittingly severe in his judgements…Well, no indentations here, the gnocchi were giant specimens, ‘gnocconi’ more than gnocchi. Anyway they were delightful, the flavours true and clear, and the dense condiment a nice match. They were filled with an intensely perfumed pesto, and accompanied by toasted pine nuts (conferring an unusual taste variation to the pesto, as uncooked pine nuts are one of its basic ingredients) and very fine green beans, another ingredient appearing in classical ‘pasta al pesto’.
Next, the secondi. We asked for:
– Roast and pan-fried rabbit with carrots and broad beans (£17.50)
– Grilled breast of duck with aubergines, aged balsamic vinegar and soy sauce (£16).
The duck breast came colourfully presented (though the presentation can be improved), cut ‘book leaf’ style with the meat interspersed with unadvertised avocado slices, and sitting on the roasted aubergine. Mr Baldino himself poured the 25 year old balsamic vinegar on the meat at the table. We were impressed (Man particularly) by this interesting and original dish. Soy, though we personally use it extensively at home, is certainly not a common ingredient in Italian cuisine. We have also not seen avocado too often in Italian restaurants. And the combination of soy and balsamic was rather audacious – damn, at home we have used both soy and balsamic vinegar on avocado, but never together: why didn’t we ever think of it ourselves? The combination worked well, the meat was good and cooked nicely, perhaps only the aubergine seeming not to add very much to the combination.
The real show-stopper, however, was the rabbit. All of it was in the plate (well, its representative parts), including innards, elegantly presented in various preparations: the shoulder first slow-cooked separately, then wrapped in the lightest of fillo pastries; the leg breaded and pan fried together with a bit of liver; the saddle smothered in an excellent reduction, with bits of liver and of lungs. The rabbit itself was excellent, the technique behind it impeccable and the end result stirring.
If you want, you can finish your meal with an interesting selection of cheeses from Piedmont, mainly coming from small producers using ‘alpeggio’ milk (produced by animals grazing on high valleys in the Alps and of unparalleled aromatic richness – we had quite a bit of it in Trentino). It must be the most impressive in London (though the one at Quirinale was remarkable too). But we, cholesterol conscious saddos that we are, decide to pass on this treasure for this time.
A little detour arrives:
The Custard was extremely airy, contrasting the much more ‘bodily’ apple fritters, all underlined by the apple jelly: a superb and cutely presented little dish. And as if this was not enough, petit four: ‘baci di dama’ and intriguing chocolate.
We had let the team do the wines, by the glass (a Vermentino, a Chardonnay and the only one we remember properly…two glasses of 2004 red Maclan from Veneto – Cabernet and Merlot), and we also had two glasses of excellent Passito di Pantelleria (£8 on the list). The rather rare 1 litre bottle of water goes for £3.50. Even without the ‘caress’ (Italian expression) which shaved our bill considerably, our three course meal bill still would have just met the £100 rule mark including (12.5%) service and wine.
The service bears all the hallmarks of Giovanni Baldino’s style: impeccable, friendly, supple and attentive without being intrusive. Sure, that night we were spoiled rotten: but even without such treatment this is the type of establishment that makes anybody want to come back. A strong emphasis is put on the sourcing of ingredients, all of superb quality. Chef Torri’s style, with his clean execution, relatively straightforward and restrained but peppered up by the occasional bold move, is a very good support for raw material that also wants speak for itself. Of course, sitting just off New Bond street, in this part of the world you would think it must be more expensive than establishments of comparable quality (at least in THEOry): but compare and contrast with e.g. Arbutus and Theo Randall: there we had to take at least a mixture of lunchtime specials to meet our £100 rule, here you can do so by going a la carte (and the lunch menu here is £15 for two course and £18 for three). Overall, this is one the very best and authentic expressions of Italian cuisine in London, where real passion for the food conjures up a true dining experience for the gourmet. Well done, Semplice.
(Added on 18 January 2009: Michelin agreed with us – Semplice have just been awarded their star).