The day: 2nd January 2009, Dinner.
The place: 119, Sydney Street, London SW3 6NR (020-7352 2718)
The venue: Il Giardino
The food: Refined Italian Trattoria
The drinks: Short Italian based list, wide price range starting from below £20
A really cold night in an empty London is the best time to brave the non-existent traffic and cross the city, heading to a recent Italian opening in Chelsea. At least this was the argument Woman used to persuade Man, hell-bent on trying Bocca di Lupo again (yes, you’ve guessed it, our fave was closed), to try this new joint. It is next door to Chelsea’s farmer’s market on a quiet residential street. The name means ‘garden’, and indeed they do have an outside garden which must be truly handsome in summer… but not with tonight’s subzero temperatures. The inside is stark whites, creams and black, with proper tablecloths and well spaced tables
We are totally alone: lucky we booked, or they might have closed for the night 😉
Our young host is nice and kind, but there is an air akin to what we experienced at Trenta, with questions shouted down the stairs to the chef. OK, we’ll live with the trattoria style, Woman tries to cheer Man’s uncompromising I-told-you-so-mood. This is not helped by either the water (appearing in a half litre form, o dear!) nor the menu.
Indeed things were looking on the up when inspection of the carte revealed a short but interesting array of simple and varied dishes, and Man had already settled on the ‘Duck sauce home made potato gnocchi’ (£9 or £11, presumably depending on size) and ‘Home made cappellacci pasta with pumpkin, butter and sage’ (£11). But then disaster strikes, our gentle young host tells us that there has been a fault with their fridge, no fresh pasta is available. Man is looking darker and darker…Uhm, ever optimist Woman inquires about the provenance of the fish in the ‘Marinated swordfish and tuna with olive oil and thyme’, and, after a quick shout down the stairs, we are reassured that yes, the fish comes from the Mediterranean sea, and anyhow ‘all our products come from Italy, including pasta, either De Cecco or Barilla, you know…’: oops, a quick glance to Man, and De Cecco and Barilla all in one breath has yet again dampened his spirit.
Just at the right time, canapes arrive, in the form of a marinara (anchovies, capers, oregano, tomato but no cheese) and margherita pizza slices and some nice fat olives.
The pizza base was slightly soggy, but the whole was tasty, and worked out nice while waiting for our starters.
First comes the bread:
Herb focaccia and ‘Ferrarese’ like bread, that is with a white, compact yet fluffy crumb, good.
And then our starters. We finally had settled for:
–Marinated swordfish and tuna with olive oil and thyme (£8)
–Black ink risotto with grilled cuttlefish (£11)
Well, very generous portions here, which will prove a leitmotif of the evening. The fish carpaccio was really very good: the swordfish, and above all the tuna, were a concentrate of hints from the sea in the guise of the lightest of slices, and the dressing of fine olive oil, capers, thyme and pepper was very well judged, complementing rather than smothering the two main protagonists. Honestly, this delight of a dish wins hands down with the timid tuna carpaccio at the far more revered 1 Lombard street! And it looked good, too: and so Man is beginning to look happy again…
And the risotto was also very good: perfectly cooked, nicely al dente and at the same time rightly creamy, flavoursome, topped by a very fresh cuttlefish which had been grilled to perfect consistency: quite a joy to eat, Man looking all smiles now, so much so that Woman can slip in ‘and there are tablecloths here’, at which Man points out to a tear in the tablecloth, so Woman quickly changes topic…
Yet we are both in an expectant mood for our mains. We resist the temptation of the Pan fried calf liver with onions (£13.50) and Lobster and prawns guazzetto (the most expensive item on the menu at £16), and instead opt for:
–Grilled baby squids with fresh chilli peppers (£11)
–Ossobuco alla Milanese (£14.50)
The squids: a very generous portion (must have been nine of them) of flawlessly grilled squids, with the fresh chili peppers providing a nice hit while still playing second fiddle, enhancing the fragrant squids. Man, now almost ecstatic (Man: naah), is reminiscing of Da Barbara. Good olive oil as before, only far too much of it, creating a veritable pool in which the rocket had all the room to splash around, oh this is not classy… But then again this is witness to the generosity of the kitchen (good oil is expensive).
This theme continues in the ossobuco dish: we were surprised by the amount of tomato (here is the way WE make it…), but it did work fine in the end on the nice, tasty, tender piece of veal sitting on a large cushion of properly cooked saffron risotto, with loads of saffron stems, also intensely pleasing on the palate. One slip here, too, excess of fats in the condiment, but after all this is a rather rustic dish.
The fight over the marrow in the ‘buco’ over, of course we still have enough room left for desserts, which we are assured are all home made (actually, this is what we expected, but we told you already our sweet waiter appears still a bit naïve). These go from the £4 of the ‘affogato al caffe’ (i.e. vanilla ice cream doused in coffee) to the £12 of the sweet selection – and the coffee with petit fours is a very reasonable £2.75.
–Dolce all’amaretto (£5.5)
–Delizia al cioccolato (£5.5)
The amaretto dessert was made up of an amaretto pannacotta and an amaretto parfait. Two problems here: true, ‘amaro’ means bitter in Italian, and amaretti biscuits are prepared with some bitter almonds, to give them their interesting tang. But here the bitter note is truly overpowering, the bitter aftertaste definitely too much. And, the pannacotta suffers from that too common ailment, the excess of thickening, which drops to the bottom and leaves the ‘fluffy’ bits on top (before it is unmoulded, that is), as you can see from the picture (remember the pannacotta here?). Pity.
Quite a different story with the chocolate cake. Described as a combination of chocolate ice cream, chocolate pannacotta and chocolate soufflé; the latter item turns out instead to be a chocolate flan, and a very good one too, intensely chocolaty, with an interesting texture given by what must have been biscuits or similar crumbled into the chocolate mixture before cooking (a bit reminiscent of ‘bunet’, see for example the one here). Definitely the best item of the trio. Having said that, the chocolate icecream, resting on a (very bitter!) amaretto biscuit, was also adequately assertive in flavour, as was the pannacotta, verging on the ‘too solid’ like the amaretto one, but this time safely on the ‘good side’ of firmness. A very good assortment, with balanced and deep aromas.
With the half litre bottle of water acceptably priced at £2, and a bottle of easy drinking Aglianico at £23, our total bill including 12.5% service charge came to £90.56, which excludes a complimentary glass of Limoncello obtaining by charming the charming waiters. Not super cheap, but balance this with super generous portions, excellent ingredients, well appointed interiors (and yes, tablecloths!), presumably high rent in Chelsea, and it starts looking very reasonable. (In the end, a couple more tables trickled in, and we truly hope they managed to more than cover their costs on the night.)
The odd swearword exchanged between the waiter and the maitre d’ or the shout to the chef Marco Solaro down (or up?) in the kitchen aside, service was charming and warm, from both the waiter and the attentive Maitre d’. You won’t find here the impeccable service that blesses other places where you can eat for around £100 (but those rarities are champions in value for money which puts them off any scale).
So, once you concede that in London even trattorias have to be expensive, this is definitely one new place to recommend, where a competent chef stays well within his comfort zone and prepares, simply and properly, ingredients of high quality. This IS good Italian cuisine (of the trattoria style). Sure, you will not find here the long and varied menu, nor maybe the study of details that Bocca di Lupo has on offer, but the style and quality (and quantity) that you find here surpasses easily that of the celebrated and more expensive Osteria dell’Arancio down the road, not to mention some award-winning celebrities who offer not much more than this at twice the price. And in Summer the outside garden must be truly inviting. In short, it is a bit too inconvenient for us Eastenders, but if you tread these grounds, make time for a visit.