…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.
The day: 20th July 2007, Lunch.
The place: 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, LondonW1J 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..aehm…the 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.