The day: 17th January 2008, Dinner.
The place: 27 Old Bailey, London EC4M 7HS (020 3201 0077)
The venue: TerraNostra Restaurant
The food: Sardinian
The drinks: Short list, mostly Sardinian but many other Italian regions.
We take holidays in Sardinia quite often. That we fell for the second time, after the disaster of Sardo, into the trap of trying a Sardinian restaurant in London lays bare a masochistic streak in us…The restaurant in question opened just last September in an interesting area which should be great for business, near to poles of attraction as diverse as the large Bart’s hospital (as St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is known to us regulars), St. Paul’s Cathedral, and about a zillion of City offices. The interior is rustic and welcoming, with a room enlivened by a curvy partition and a bar area, decorations which are easy on the eye, and plain tables:
On the menu, the few usual suspects of simple Sardinian fare: some mainly fish starters, such as tuna tartare or tuna bresaola (cured meat) and grilled baby squids (£7.50 to £8.50); for primi some traditional types of pasta and fregola (around £8-£11.00) ; for secondi, simple grilled fish and meat dishes (tuna, swordshfish, lamb, beef) (around 12.00 to 14.00). No burrida. Mind you, when we say ‘simple’ we do not mean it with any negative slant: simple regional food, as you know, can be a joy everywhere in Europe, provided it is based on good materials and is well prepared. Nevertheless, we are not off to a promising start when we probe the (charming) waitress about the provenance of the tuna :
‘Oh, we buy it here in London’.
‘Yes, we imagined that, but where is it actually caught?’.
‘We have our trusted fishmonger, we buy every day’
‘Yes, but where does the tuna come from?’.
‘I don’t know, it is really fresh, very good.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, I would have to ask’.
OK, as asking seemed a colossal enterprise, we will not go for tuna. Anyway let’s start from the beginning. On the table, an offering of two types of olives and olive oil:
and a nice bread basket arrives:
The olives were good, and the bread was varied and OK too.
For primi we go for
– Culurgiones (potato and cheese filled pasta parcels served with tomato and mint sauce) (£8.50)
– Fregola (rice like traditional pasta) with prawns and courgetts (£8.50)
Man found the fregola a great letdown. None of the freshness and suavity of the sea you expect in this sort of dish, and not even at least the delicate aroma of a good olive oil. No, just hard, bland prawns and equally bland mussels. Nevertheless a not unpleasant mussel stock provided some support, and the courgettes were nicely crispy and abundant. Woman was more appreciative, but not all that much.
The culurgiones were not culurgiones, just like in Sardo. For God’s sake, if you guys bother to open up a Sardinian restaurant in London, something no law of the land forces you to do, can’t you make the effort of producing proper culurgiones on the premises? The pasta itself was a scandal, the filling was just a bit closer to the real thing, the trademark seal was nowhere to be seen, the sauce was acceptable. And if you want to know what the real thing should look like, check it out here.
For secondi, having been put off the tuna, we choose:
– Sardinian sausage (£11.90 – a nice little earner, this)
– Battuta di Agnello (marinated and grilled lamb (£13.90)
The lamb achieved the distinction of being both extremely thin (and consequently with a hard to detect flavour) and quite hard: congratulations. A cost conscious dish of little generosity.
The sausage was cooked well, a little dry, with a pleasant fennel flavour and much pepper. Not much to record in terms of other flavours, but not too bad. Exactly the same vegs were in the two mains: roast potatoes which Man gulped down trying not think while Woman explicitly complained on account of their greasiness, and good, crisp broccoli with on top the…culurgiones sauce (yes, really).
We decide to share a dessert from the not too inspiring list (£4.50-£5.50). There is one simple dessert for which Sardinia is famous: Seadas (or Sebadas), which we had for example in Via Condotti. You would expect to find it in the short list of a Sardinian restaurant, right? No, they did not bother. So we go for a classic
– Tiramisu (£4.50).
This was the nicest looking and most satisfying dish of the evening. Nothing spectacular, but simply a correctly made, balanced standard, proving the point that simplicity is not necessarily detrimental for taste (of course, though, the one we (meaning Woman) make at home is much better).
We accompanied this with a surprisingly good Carignano del Sulcis Grottarossa 2005 (£18.50). With a 0.75 bottle of water the total came to £76.80. The threat on the menu that ‘a 12.5% may be added to the bill’ was enacted. Maybe we did not smile brightly enough (otherwise, when the say ‘may be added’, which criterion do they use?). But we got a complimentary mirto in the end. Again, we don’t know if this is standard treatment or only for the customers that smile, but many thanks anyway.
The service was also smiling, and (except for the unwillingness to reveal the provenance of materials) professional. What about the cuisine? Well, the trenchant answer would be ‘what cusine?’ – we must admit it is always a bit depressing to come out of a place like this. It’s not that the food was positively bad or toxic (it may happen, it may happen). It was just extremely uninspiring: such a distant imitation of the fantastic flavours of Sardinian trattoria food (remember this?) which screams ‘Eat me!’ at you, that it is even hard to put them in the same mental category. We must perhaps resign ourselves to the fact that real Italian trattoria cuisine is not possible in London – you must always err on the side of fine dining to find something from decent upwards. At TerraNostra, with a full three course meal and a more expensive wine, the bill would have been in sight of the amount that would buy you fine Italian cuisine of an entirely different level, prepared by real chefs and with oustanding materials (we don’t need to tell you about our favourites…). We think the additional few pounds needed would be really well invested, especially if you want to know what Italian food can really taste and look like. Nevertheless, if for whatever crazy reason you masochistically persist in wanting to experience a Sardinian trattoria in London, we marginally advise you (just because it’s a bit cheaper) to come to TerraNostra rather than go to the remarkably similar Sardo
But our firm advice is that you fly to Sardinia instead.