il Calandrino Tokio

The day: 13th January 2009, Lunch.
The place: Shin Maranouchi Bulding, Tokyo
The venue: Il Calandrino
The food: Italian
The drinks: All Italian list, good range of prices and choices, some comparatively good valued ones, but remember we are in Tokyo!

Le Calandre is one of the three-starred pinnacles of Italian cuisine, run by Massimiliano Alajmo at the stoves and brother Raffaele in the room. But there are no flights from London to Rubano (the village in provincial North-East Italy where the restaurant is located). So we pop down to Tokyo, which is well connected with London, to sample instead Le Calandre’s junior brother, Il Calandrino. At the helm, Chef Silvio Giavedoni, who used to work in the Rubano kitchen.
We find it in one of two twin Maranouchi towers in the heart of Tokyo, which between them contain dozens of great restaurants, for all budgets, from snacks to luxury, of every conceivable cuisine in the world. That Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris begins to look less surprising when you explore the amazing interior of the towers.
Il Calandrino is neither snack nor luxury, with its pleasant, roomy lacquered wooden floor interior. The tables are comfortable, clothed, with leather chairs and upholstered benches in alcoves. It’s elegant, it’s urban faux rustic, it’s sleek, oozing style. We like it.

The menu presents you with several options. Among the set menus, we tried on a subsequent visit a 10,000 Yen four course menu, which was phenomenal, regaling you with spectacular oysters, with equally spactacular Wagyu beef
(we’ll see that cream again, try to guess what it is…) and with a delicious lobster pasta

The bread arrives.
It is a little deficient in variety, but the quality is acceptable, considering the logistical difficulties of making this all-important Italian staple in Tokyo. And on the other hand, that other fundamental ingredient, olive oil, is in a quite stratospheric league (imported, of course, from Italy).
On this occasion (lunch) we settle for ‘Il piccolo menu’, four courses for 5,000 Yen, offering, as you will see, some choices. Several dishes are described by the waiting staff in faltering English at the table and are not on the menu, so the titles are our our own free creation…
It begins with:
Tre cicchetti (let’s translate as ‘Three Amuse bouche’)

OK, what have we got here… First there’s a sort of cauliflower béchamel with mushrooms, which is the least impressive of the three pieces. The mushrooms are a little watery and hard, and the ensemble is delicate to the point of being rather anonymous. On the other hand, the breaded Japanese eel (unagi) on greens and red orange juice offers very pleasant, clear, and very well matched flavours. And equally good is the puree’ with marinated beef. The puree’ accomplishes the feat of being at the same time decadently liquid and very intense, a perfect combination with the luscious, flavoursome beef.
We continue with:
Fusilli with pecorino cheese cream, fried onions and veal.
This dish rewards you with textural variety, the perfectly cooked and high quality pasta, the crunchy onions, the soft cheese, the expressive veal (its delicate spicy punch coming from the juniper). Maybe a little additional moisture would have been welcome.
At this point a man enters the restaurant with a box of fresh oysters, and the Chef takes the opportunity to whip up and make us try this
Spaghettini with a light oyster mayonnaise and caviar
Well, this is wonderful. The spaghettini themselves are that kind of pasta that is so good and so well cooked as to be great even just with a touch of olive oil. But here there’s much more…that ethereal, fresh oyster whiff that first strikes you on the nose when the plate arrives and is carried over to the whole dish by the mayonnaise, just enough rich to create body, but as light as promised. And the caviar…what can one say, this is perfect. This is by the way the style of ‘higher’ dish you get in the more expensive menus we tried on our other visit, or a la carte.
But today we are happy with our humbler Piccolo menu, so let’s continue with our mains:
Rombo (turbot) with verbena on potatoes and small vegetables.
Pork cheek in wine reduction (we believe) and chestnut and ginger puree.
Now you see what the cream in the Wagyu beef photo above is. What could have been a heavy, fat dish is instead surprisingly light, the tangy ginger working very well with the flatter impact of the chestnuts and in fact suffusing the whole ensemble. This gives it freshness, lightness, despite the hearty backbone of the intense reduction and, of course, of the cheek itself. Most satisfying.
The rombo is cooked sous vide, superbly so, moist, very perfumed, a touch of lemon, with a base of tanginess that truly makes this dish fly. Once again, movingly good flavours with great lightness of hand and disarming simplicity, a trademark characteristic of Alajmo’s cusine.
We definitely look forward to our desserts:
Orange granita and chocolate mousse
Hazelnut icecream, chocolate, coffee quenelle
These two desserts, although designed for individual consumption, are in fact perfect together for those of us lucky enough to be able to share. In both, flavours are very concentrated. The granita sits on the bottom, and you traverse the pleasure of two mousses, one of white chocolate and the other, warm, of dark chocolate. Really a superb journey through airy textures, flavours and temperatures. The other dessert is if anything even more remarkable, its firmer texture encapsulating flavours that integrate obscenely well.
The two menus cost, as it said on the tin, 10,000 Yen, plus 800 Yen for mineral water. No wine (lunch and work… in our dinner visit we looked at the –all Italian- wine list and we found some comparatively good valued ones, but remember we are in expensive Tokyo!). This menu is very good value for money.
The service had that inimitable Japanese politeness, even though, in such an international venue, we would have expected some ability to communicate in English (we bet this feature will improve). In our second visit, on the other hand, the very able front room manager/sommelier, also Japanese, expressed himself in a pleasantly Tuscan accented Italian! (he advised us very aptly on the wine: thanks).
You can eat really well at Il Calandrino, ranging from simpler dishes with rustic elements to more elaborate ones and noble materials, but always retaining a fundamental simplicity that is tremendously effective in a cuisine with such flavours. Chef Giavedoni, although of course he must follow in part the menu of the ‘mother-house’, brings many personal touches, the search for local ingredients and the resulting adaptations. He cooks meticulously, with absolute dedication and passion, performing splendidly his ambassadorial role for Italian cuisine. We are so happy to have tried this venue.

And after lunch, you can pop down to the basement of the tower for some shopping in the gastronomy Tokyo outlet of the Alajmo empire. Cheeses? Jams and preserves? Help yourselves!

Wandering in Mayfair…

…maybe after an exhausting shopping day, or maybe just because you’re lucky enough to live there, you may stumble in one of our favourite Italian restaurants in London. We’ve had several delightful dinner at Semplice (fully reviewed here). On the last occasion in December, just before our non-holiday, we tried, for example, these memorable pheasant ravioli with potato sauce

To non-Italians such a type of dish may look overly rich in carbs, and while this might well be the case in pure dietary terms (not that it has harmed us so far)…on the palate there is really no sense of imbalance, the dense, starchy texture and sweet aroma of the potato sauce forming a really apt ligature for the freshly made pasta and the fragrant game filling.

And just to keep our carb intake at our needed levels for the night…we were also blown away by this perfect execution

of egg Sedanini with venison ragout in a black cabbage sauce. The picture and the colour perhaps convey something of the depth of flavour of a properly made pasta and ragout. This is a dish of both heartiness and composure.

They say at Semplice that the pasta is made every day. Opinions split as to whether one can really detect the difference between pasta made on the day and pasta that has been frozen (as most Italian restaurants, even the best, normally do, for obvious logistics reasons). At home we regularly freeze the excess pasta we make. Be that as it may, we merely underscore the integrity and conviction of a restaurant where such laborious practices are followed.

At the end of the meal (which also included a lot of proteins, e.g. in the form of this mouthwatering beast (do take a guess at what it is):

we are treated to a sample of a semi-hard cheese from the Val Brembana, with a nice brioche

whose one thousand aromas blew us away. This is ‘alpeggio’ cheese: made from milk of cows grazing on pastures at altitude in the Alps: and it does make a difference! The Italian cheese list at Semplice is probably the most interesting in London (together with the one here), worth a trip on its own if you want to learn about Italian cheeses.

Semplice have now expanded to a nearby ‘Trattoria’, where simpler food is served in a more informal setting: more on this story later!

By the way, they have just received a Michelin star: congratulations to Marco Torri and all his staff.

Ristorante Semplice on Urbanspoon

Theo Randall @The Intercontinental

The day: 20th July 2007, Lunch.
The place: 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London
W1J 7QY(020 7318 8747)
The venue: Theo Randall at the Intercontinental
The food: Fine Italian dining
The drinks: smallish but varied list, a selection by the glass, normal London prices and markups.

Theo Randall used to be head chef at River Café, voted at some point, in some meaningless ranking or the other, as the best Italian restaurant in Europe (note: this not to slag off the chef but to slag off the rankings). His faux rustic Italian cuisine was also awarded a Michelin star. Since a few months ago, he has his own little rustic place, at..aehmthe Intercontinental Hotel at the corner of Piccadilly andPark Lane, just in front of Hyde Park. Italian cuisine…celebrated chef…a three-course advertised lunch menu at £23…sounds exactly like our sort of material. Let’s investigate!

It was the day of the great Summer monsoon rain. The tube was barely running; people were stranded on motorways; and most dramatic of all it was raining in Theo Randall’s dining room! What a disappointment arriving there and being told that the dining room was therefore closed (to be fair they had in vain tried to contact us). Talk about dampening expectations. This is the unusable room:


Theo Randall’s kitchen was still running, though we would have to make do with the simpler dining room of the other café/restaurant at the Intercontinental. Let’s see…bright, spacious, pleasant atmosphere. Let’s try: after all we came most of all for the cuisine, and they absolutely guaranteed that we could have the authentic Randall menu and kitchen and even waiters.

Surprise: contrary to what was advertised, there is no £23 lunch menu. The innovation (unreported on the restaurant webpage at the time) is that they have merged the more expensive dinner menu with the dishes from the old set lunch menu. By picking the cheapest items you could not only feel an authentic miserable cheap bastard, but also make up a total around the £25 mark, thus coming near the advertised special. And the only way to meet our £100 rule in this place was to go for the cheap items….Anyway, since chef Randall prides himself of his unfussy, rustic, informal cuisine for which he acquired a taste as a child touring Italy with his parents (read his webpage), we thought we could still sample some fine dishes. So we skipped the more expensive items such as Scottish scallops with chilly, parsley, capers, Swiss chard and Castellucciol lentils (£13); and Handmade tagliatelle with Chantarelle mushrooms and parsley (£12) among first courses/starters; and Anjou pigeon, marinated and wood roasted on pagnotta bruschetta with English peas, pancetta and rocket (£26) among the ‘secondi’.

While we ponder, a present from the kitchen:

With a delicate olive oil and nice sweet cherry tomatoes, this was good even if a little too charred for a classy offering.

We choose for primi:

Tagliolini al pomodoro (£7)

– Ravioli (£7)

The (six) smallish ravioli themselves were fine, with a light dough. The filling was mainly spinach with some ricotta. The spinach flavour came out nice and strong, but we were hoping for some more personality from the ricotta. The interpretation was really minimalist, with a little sage and no nutmeg that we could detect. A thoroughly average dish.

When we ordered the pasta al pomodoro (i.e. pasta with tomato sauce) we knew of course that this is possibly the simplest dish in Italian cuisine, one that we don’t think any fine Italian restaurant in Italy would even list on the menu – you can always ask for it anywhere. But, given the cheek of putting it on the menu, we were expecting some little chef touch, some surprise…a few drops of uncooked special olive oil…spectacular Pachino tomatoes…who knows? Alas, no. This was really the average pasta al pomodoro you find on millions of home tables everyday in Italy. To be fair, the tagliolini were really well made (like for the ravioli, the dough was very fine and light and elastic) and cooked perfectly so that it had a good bite. Nevertheless, we were puzzled by the fair amount of chilly in the sauce, because it completely killed the basil. We were also perplexed by the unremarkable tomato sauce itself.

At this point we notice that there is no bread basket, and we begin to panic. `Waitress, could we please have some bread?’

Puzzled look: ‘You mean…you would like another bruschetta?’

‘No no, just some plain slices of bread’

‘Ah, you mean bread with butter?’

‘No, you know, just some plain bread, as Italians do to accompany the main course’

‘OK, I can get some bread from this restaurant [i.e. not Theo Randall’s but the Café]’.

Man and Woman thank and look at each other in amazement…is it ever possible, they wonder, that during the lovely Tuscan family trips the cruel parents always hid from the young Theo the ever present bread basket, so that he grew up oblivious of this great tradition?

Anyway, here is what the (lovely) waitress brought after our plea:

Nice looking, but rather poor quality bread.

Our secondi were:

Burrida di pesce (fish stew)(£12)

– Lamb shoulder (£11)

(the only way to go cheaper was the frittata, at £9, which maybe is to us what beans on toast is for you British readers…)

The fish stew was very rich, with a generous amount of fish and potatoes. The soup was very tasty, the fish totally exhausted and therefore tending to hard/dry, the potatoes far from exceptional. There was no plate where to put the clam shells (perhaps also hidden from young Theo in his Italian trips, together with the bread).

The lamb, also coming in a very generous portion, was tender and reasonably tasty, as you would expect from lamb in this season, but as the piece of meat was already fat, the copious amount of fat in the accompanying sauce made the dish very heavy and reduced its palatability. The root vegetables and spinach on the side were excellent, however.

For desserts we shared a Pannacotta with Grappa flavoured cherries (£7.00):

Ah, and here are two nice truffle to keep the other party busy:

Finally a really good dish, the pannacotta creamy and luscious and judiciously sweet, with the dryness of the intense cherries providing a wonderful match for the fat texture of the main component. Even for Man, not a dessert man, the most satisfying dish of the day.

Together with the usual 0.75 litre bottle of water (not cheap at £4.50), a bottle of Pecorino Terre da Vino Gran Sasso 2005 at £22, and the usual 12.5% cover charge (wouldn’t it have been a nice touch to reduce it to compensate for the much more basic mise en place of the emergency venue –absent any complimentary gesture?), the bill came at £79.31 (for, remember, a two and a three course meal).

The waitress serving us was charming, cheerful and efficient, ready to cope with the unusual setting and to improvise a response to our weird requests, such as bread to accompany the soup… . Talking about weird, the sommelier, after announcing that he would put our bottle in a cold bucket away from the table and that he would look after us, came back after confabulating with the manager of the Café, saying that he had changed his mind, and placed the bucket on the table.

What disconcerted us most was the cuisine. Our meal, while by no means bad and far superior for instance to Sardo, was overall a rather dull, unremarkable affair in the light both of our expectations about the chef and of what one can enjoy for lunch, at lower prices, in London nowadays (£15 lunches at Arbutus and Latium, for example). The possibility remains that with the (much) more expensive dishes on his menu Theo Randall changes gear. Our experience cannot encourage optimism, however (after all we had read rave reviews also for his ‘cheap’ lunches), and for that type of traditional cuisine and a similar high cost we’d feel rather safer returning to the impressive, if expensive, LocandaLocatelli. We are really puzzled that a chef of such reputation as Randall’s should allow pedestrian food to come to the table – even the cheapest of cuts, the humblest of dishes can stir real passion after all. And please don’t suspect us of nationalistic pride – after all we were ravished by the ravioli of another Brit the previous week! We can only hope it was an off day, a freak incident like the London monsoon. So we go away perturbed and pensive, in the pale and flickery post-rain sunshine.


Theo Randall on Urbanspoon

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