The day: 11th December 2008, Dinner.
The place: 12 Archer Street, London W1D 7BB (tel: 77342223)
The venue: Ristorante Bocca di Lupo
The food: (Multi)Regional Italian
The drinks: Various Italian wines with a tiny smattering of others, many by the glass and the carafe, good range of prices and choices.
We aren’t great fans of Soho. So having to wait for forty minutes perched on a bar stool, watching other people eat, after arriving, at our booked time, at this new Italian restaurant in a Soho dingy backwater put us in the worst of moods. New computer system…problems…we hear the manager mumbling. Oh, we don’t care, just give us the table.
We are ready to be very critical…Chef Jacob Kenedy (yes, it is spelled with one ‘n’)…beware!
As you enter, there is a slick bar with a loooong marble top
after which lies a cooking area (main kitchen downstairs), and then the dining area proper (you can also eat sitting at the bar, Arbutus style).
We are given the menu to pass our time while we wait. The peculiarity is that most dishes come in a small and large version. And there are quite a few, offering samples from all Italian regions. Prices are in the range £4-£12 for the small portions and they double for the large ones.
We were thoroughly pissed off with the manager by the time he led us to our table, so our mood sank even further when we saw what a table it was: a small, stained, dirty, unclothed piece of wood.
Here we go, we thought, here’s another hole serving pseudo Italian trattoria fare catering for the uncomprehending Soho-types and Brit-crits happy to eat substandard food on a greasy table and pay fine dining prices for that. Is this a new Sardo? Ohmygod. And while we are mulling such dark thoughts…
The bread arrives:
Well, we must admit…this is not bad at all: focaccia, sourdough ‘casareccio’ and walnut bread, accompanied by good green and black olives and good olive oil. Our mood moves up one notch. And we are mindful that such items are always a tell-tale sign in an Italian restaurant.
We begin to notice the warm décor, with large paintings on the walls in brown and orange tones. And the attentive friendliness of the service staff. Mmmh.
And then, the beginning of a full charm attack. Unexpectedly, something arrives with the compliments of the chef, the apologies of the manager for our wait, and the news that wine will be on the house:
‘Fritto misto di mare’ (£8.50 on the menu)
In the plate, squids, soft-shell crabs, prawns and even the lemon slices are battered and fried. Man is already giving in, but don’t you worry, there is no way Woman, who just had to concede that the sourdough bread actually qualified as “good”, is going to be softened this easily: surely it is going to be a pathetic fry up. And yet… the raw materials are of high quality, as well as very fresh, and after all the bad expectations the perfect frying (light, no dripping, the right amount of batter) is a truly pleasant surprise. The squids can be and often are a rubbery inconvenience (not only in our adolescent memories of meals in cheap seaside trattorias, but even in far upper scale venues), but here they are soft and light. The prawns do bring that whiff of the sea, and the crab is a delicacy.
Our ordered starters appear:
– Chestnut and porcini soup with rosemary (£6 for the small portion)
– Tortelli di ricotta with burnt walnut pesto (£5 for the small portion)
– Spaghettini with lobster, mussels and ginger (£12 for the small portion)
The chestnut and mushroom soup introduces us to some very bold, strong, flavours. Almost too bold and unsubtle for balance that of the porcini, and with a little excess of seasoning, which anyway contrasted well the chestnut sweetness. But they are very good flavours indeed, generous, clear, and the porcini and chestnuts marry very well in the dense, creamy consistency of this rewarding soup.
The spaghettini are delightfully fine, and precision in cooking is again on display: a study of ‘al dente’. We would have wanted to taste the olive oil more prominently, and would have wished the ginger –which sounded like a nice addition- to be more in the foreground, but the chilly was a little overpowering. This said, the sauce was intensely good, and the mussels and lobster of very great quality – the mussels’ in particular was emphasised by our experience in Scotland the previous week (stay tuned): these are no ordinary raw materials, this is no ordinary trattoria.
The tortelli were Man’s favourite starter, though he agrees with Woman that the pasta itself (made on the premises), while good, wasn’t at very top level, lacking elasticity. But what a nice ensemble, the combined sweetness and acidity of the butter, parmesan and ricotta beautifully standing up against the bitter burnt note of the walnuts. Not a timid dish, but extremely ‘gluttony’ and this time seasoned to perfection.
In all three dishes, the generosity of the portions is heart warming.
And now for our mains plus side dish:
– Swordfish a la Palermitana (£7 for the small portion)
– Grilled porcini and polenta (£10.50 for the small portion)
– Artichoke ‘a la Giudia’ (£5.00, side dish)
The swordfish was a really Sicilian dish. The fish itself perhaps was the least impressive raw material of the evening (we do not know where the beast came from, and we did not have the courage to ask the staff for fear of embarrassing them – already from previous exchanges we did not have the impression this is the type of place where you can ask too detailed questions, and get a satisfactory aswer). But the excellent ricotta salata and capers, the thick chunk of fish with its crispy bread coating (frying precision once again) made for a rich, assertive combination of contrasts.
The artichoke was not bad but a little more oily than the previous frying exhibitions, there was a little too much bitterness in the burned parts with nothing else to contrast it, and to be fair it was not really ‘alla Giudia’: the shape was not right, lacking the characteristic ‘squashing’ (two nice pictures are here, while here you can get the full story) In summary, not what you’d eat in the ‘ghetto’ in Rome, while still OK.
The thickly cut mushrooms (good) also had a slightly bitter edge from the cooking (a theme emerging), but this time it matched very pleasingly the sweet, soft polenta (standard restaurant practices might be behind the softness, but let’s not investigate). This dish, which lacked no fat, also comes in a version with ‘Lardo di Colonnata’, which would make it even richer and more luscious. Apart from the dietary preoccupations, the trio porcini-polenta-lardo sounds like a winner.
We are almost at the end of this gastronomic tour of Italy. Here are our desserts:
– Cassata Siciliana (£7.00)
– Brioche sandwich of hazelnut, pistachio and chestnut gelati (£7.00)
The brioche (a sample from Neapolitan cusine), let’s admit it, was not very successful, lacking moisture and airiness. The ice-creams were of the rich, fat variety (added 21/12/08: no, we are wrong on this, see here), which we like less than the leaner one, but very smooth and gratifying on the palate (mainly that of Man). The kaleidoscope of flavours was impressive and original.
The cassata was surprisingly restrained compared to the aggressive sugary assault it could be. We liked it this way. All the notes from ricotta (it should be from ewe milk in the original version, but this might have been cow or mixed), orange, chocolate and marzipan blended with balance and elegance.
We had tap water and a bottle of Pinot Noir Colterenzio Classico (2007), a basic but nicely made wine for this producer (£26). Without the front of house generous ‘reparation’ offer our orders would have cost about £95 for a still substantial amount of food.
The service was lovely. Perhaps due to our long faces in the beginning, the waiters were really charming and ready to accommodate with a smile any of our grumpy requests… and after all how many times is grumpiness just met with grumpiness (we chatted with another couple next to us –not really difficult given the proximity of the tables 🙂 – and even they were ravished by the quality of service). The (Scottish) manager, after an initial period of, how shall we call it, ‘uncertainty’, could not have gone more out of his way to make up for the screw up. We were impressed by him and by the way he must train his staff.
Chef Jacob Kenedy, his second David Cook and general manager Victor Hugo are to be congratulated for having set up a really nice little Italian joint (as you know, coming from us this is not a light judgement!). It’s not and it aims not to be ‘fine dining’, in structure, presentation and subtlety: it’s more rustic than that, as is the physical environment in the room. But there is clearly much thought about flavours, much striving for cooking precision, in those dishes. The menu is very well designed and appealing. If we really have to make a criticism (OK we don’t have to, but we will), it’s about the occasional slight lack of balance and sense of proportion, almost as if there was too much striving for ‘authentic’ heartiness. Perhaps some slight retuning in flavour combinations and some smoothing of edges would bring the level even higher. But even so, the passion and the skill and the great materials were all shining on our plates. This is cuisine that for its simplicity still moves and strikes. Our meal compared very favourably with the likes, for example, of the more expensive Theo Randall and the more directly comparable (and still more expensive) Osteria dell’Arancio. We think this is not far from being the perfect, high level Italian trattoria in London (and we had given up!), capturing the true spirit of Italian regional dishes, with a personal touch thrown in, and a very apt and unusual sense of hospitality and generosity.
PS: (we have later discovered that the tables are made from reclaimed school laboratory worktops (teak), which explains their (desired) scarred appearance).