The day: 19th August 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: 383 King’s Road, London SW10 0LP (020-7349 8111)
The venue: Osteria dell’Arancio
The food: Italian trattoria
The drinks: Extensive and interesting list, Italian based, especially good on the Marche region but on others too. Mark-ups on the high side, and a lack of low priced options. Also some options by the glass, even more marked up.
Osteria dell’Arancio is tucked in a bend just off the final gasps of Chelsea King’s Road, beyond the fashionable shopping area. We had passed it by the previous day: from a quick scan of the menu, a la carte would easily break our £100 rule (for food that does not look like haute cusine), but the lunch menu is definitely more affordable (two courses for £16 and 3 for £20), and on a dull, grey Sunday it seemed like a very good choice. We went with real anticipation, also having heard good things on the sister restaurant in Italy.
The interior is very informal, basic set-up with lacquered (and chipped) tables, paper mats but cloth napkins, very ‘faux bohemien’ and ‘o so very Chelsea’. Tables outside might have been pleasant had there been a Summer.
The menu allows you the following choices: as starters, caprese (tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella); or beef carpaccio with parmesan, rocket and balsamic vinegar; or salad with grilled vegetable and fried egg. As Primi, risotto of the day; or penne all’arrabbiata (chilli hot tomato sauce, an extremely basic dish); or clam linguine. Among mains, beef tagliata with rocket salad and balsamic; or fish of the day; or melanzane alla parmigiana (i.e. aubergine parmigiana, that is floured and deep fried slices of aubergines layered with mozzarella, parmesan and tomato sauce, then oven baked). To conclude, dessert of the day – only one choice.
We cannot tell you anything else about the a la carte menu, as this is apparently not available at lunch (and we fainted after spotting just one item, Pasta amatriciana at a breathtaking £16). This may be a bit of a problem, especially as the lunch menu is rather short, and some of the dishes may finish by the time you order…
We decided to begin with:
– clam linguine
– risotto of the day (with pancetta and Pecorino di Pienza cheese).
The linguine (note the o so cute plate) came with a very adequate portion of good clams (12 of them). It was cooked pleasantly ‘al dente’, and in good oil. The ‘mantecatura’ was decent, too. A very honest dish: not that the sea was screaming at you, and the parsley, too, was rather tame, but all in all an enjoyable, simple and well made dish, for Man in particular (not nearly comparable, though, for example to this one, at l’Ortica). Just a note, there was nothing to clean your fingers after de-shelling the clams. .
The risotto, instead, was another story. Have you ever stood in the woods counting after a flash of lighting to check whether the storm is approaching or moving away? With the same trepidation we waited for the risotto to arrive: the longer it takes, the better it feels, as a proper risotto takes its time… unless of course it is not made on the spot, and this sadly was the case for our specimen, we believe (or something went wrong in the cooking). Consequently, it lacked bite, the first and already rather fatal flaw. In addition, the whole was rather bland: when you got to the pecorino or the pancetta cheese you perceived a hint of flavour (the pecorino might well have been from the pretty Tuscan city of Pienza, but we are not sure this was the best use of it), but neither the pancetta nor the cheese had lent much flavour to their surrounding. It was not bad, but it was not good. No lightening there.
As mains we had an obliged choice, as upon arriving we had been informed that they had ran out of parmigiana di melanzane (as if the menu wasn’t short enough already): so it had to be
– beef tagliata
– fish of the day:
The beef came in five slices, graced by some balsamic vinegar. The meat itself was of good quality, succulent and well prepared (‘al sangue’ –rare- just as we had asked), and the balsamic vinegar of acceptable quality. Trattoria-style and completely plain presentation (the dull rocket garnish just thrown there), and even more so for the next item.
The fish of the day was a sea bream, pan-fried and served skin up on top of some roast potatoes, with the dull salad garnish on the side. Nothing to object on the fish, probably farmed, but well cooked and tasty, with potatoes equally satisfying. Now…potatoes actually amount to a handful of cubes, and we are hungry, where is the bread? We ask for it, and this is what we get:
More depressing than the weather! What is this? Ultra thin slices (imagine a melba toast) of a rather dim-witted, soulless ‘thing’. OK, where were those potatoes again? (dreaming of the breads at Latium in London or Fior di Roccia in Trento).
To finish, we are presented with a dessert menu, where all items go for a very, very steep £8: lemon thyme vanilla pannacotta with berries (which turned out to be the dessert of the day, after inspection of our bill – no one had told us), a chocolate souffle, a tiramisu and an almond semifreddo (i.e. almond parfait). We went for
– pannacotta (dessert of the day)
– chocolate soufflé (£8).
The pannacotta, while finally a nicely presented dish, was your average pannacotta: a bit too tight (a tad too much gelatine), though definitely not unpleasant. We could not detect the lemon thyme – not the first time that the volatile aromas of herbs escape to freedom from a dessert without the chef noticing.
The chocolate “souffle” (it was not a soufflé, really) was very nice; it had been baked straight in the serving dish (which had therefore the temperature of the solar crown) with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream, the mint leaves garnishing the dish this time really imbuing your nostrils in a most inebriating combination with the chocolate. This was indeed a gratifying and impressive end to the meal (with roughly 800% mark up on the ingredients for this dish, one might say it had better have been so…).
With a bottle of 0.75 litre water at £3 and a bottle of white Pecorino Kiara from Marche at £26, and the usual optional 12.5% service charge, the total bill came at £82.13.
The service was informal and polite, if a little distracted, mildly distant and evanescent (we had to ask for several things; they didn’t once ask us if everything was all right). So, what to make of this place? As you may have noticed, we found it hard to give a character to this review, in a way because this is a feature it shares with the restaurant. Foodwise, it is a very decent trattoria or osteria, by Italian standards too: it is an operation professionally run by people who clearly put some effort in sourcing good ingredients (including wines) and upholding quality levels. In the dishes you find plain, regular fare that one could easily cobble up at home, but you would not have to mess with the kitchen and bother with the sourcing if you did not feel so inclined. Yet this is exactly what you’ll get: no culinary spark, no attempt to surprise or stir you at least somewhere by way of invention or of execution. Just exactly what it says on the tin, and with very few choices on the menu and zero complimentary extras. This type of venue plays an important role in Italy, where however it covers the low-midprice range. But here? The problem is that even the appealing lunch prices are marginally higher than those of other London establishments with far superior standards. Arbutus (with a cuisine of striking precision and flair), Latium (with the unique London artist of Italian cuisine at the helm), Semplice (the new Mayfair house of Italian pleasures), just to name three that impressed us, but even the more straightforward cuisine offered at Theo Randall’s for a few pounds more, are to us all better flavour for money in the lunch price range.
At dinner, as we mentioned, the prices at Osteria dell’Arancio cross the threshold of the absurd (even by London standards) for a venue with this plain cuisine, this décor, and this style of service. Forget it. So we wish ‘buon appetito’ to the Chelsea dwellers who may feel lazy and want to stay in the vicinities for lunch, but we’ll stop in town halted by much greater temptations, rather than crossing it to reach 383 King’s Road.
PS: The next review will also give you an idea of what ‘higher’ type of cuisine you can expect to find in London at those prices.