Oxymorons?

(London, Mayfair).
One must always make an effort not to be a prisoner of preconceived ideas, and be ready to accept that things may change.
But sometimes it’s really, really hard.

food miles

Now in agricultural Fife, driving past fields of wheat, broccoli, sprouts and pigs, you very much visualise what ‘from the field to the table’ could mean. And who cares if not all specimens look the same, flavour should be king

so no points for who can tell the local carrot from the supermarket one…

Happy New year to everybody!

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Sauc (Barcelona)

In our recent Barcelona stay we had two starred experiences, one in Alkimia which you have seen, and the other at Sauc. We were in very pleasant company at the latter, engrossed in conversation. Our abilities for divided attention are limited, so this time just a half-review, basically some thoughts for food from memory and brief notes. It means we’ll need to go back…

The restaurant strikes us as less formal than Alkimia, both in accueil and in decor, a stark but warm refuge tucked away in a narrow street in the Eixample.

Near the beginning of the meal, this

Poached egg, onion soup and cheese

was refined, delicate, tasty.

And the sweet iodine crustacean married the earthy beans divinely in this

White beans (mugetes) of Santa Pau & Langoustines

Very nicely moist, too.

If this was good, we moved to magic with

Corvina, Tenderwheat, Foam of Sea Urchin

Childhood reminiscences of sea-urchins picked and eaten raw…a fish still redolent of the sea, what an intelligent dish, combining so ideally , once again, countryside and sea in the best Spanish tradition.

After an apt fresh, intensely ‘basily’ melon granite, this rich and inventive

Mucovado cake, coffee mascarpone and red sweet potato

concludes a splendid meal and a marvellous evening. It’s nice eating well with friends.

This experience beat Alkimia in class and consistency. Yes: we will be back.

PS: this tasting menu, which included also several other nibbles, cost €52 per person.

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Enjoy your food, slowly

We thought we were moving to a provincial culinary desert – sure, expected great ingredients, but feared that out in the ravishingly beautiful Scottish countryside tourist pressure would leave no room for other than traditional dishes. And yet and yet… in the very heart of Scotland, enter Perth, the first cittaslow supporter town in the United Kingdom!

Meaning: citta’ means city in Italian, and Italy is where Carlo Petrini founded the slowfood movement, as a bastion against the invasion of fast food chains. With a snail as its symbol, the movement has grown further into promoting local ingredients and traditions, setting up a University of Gastronomic Science, and growing into an international movement, with slowfood organizations springing up in France, Japan, the US among others, and finally the UK. Alongside the movement, the Cittaslow network of cities and towns has developed across the world, promoting the slow food movement values, among which:

‘Everyone who works in, lives in or visits the town, and particularly young people, are encouraged to develop an awareness and understanding of quality of life and excellence in food, drink, conviviality and the value of their local traditions, products and production methods.’

We have already found our favourite restaurant in Perth, 63 Tay Street. You’ll heare more from us on the topic…but for now just a couple of dishes:

– Jerusalem artichoke veloute, west coast scallops and truffle:

– Loin and shoulder of Lamb from Jim Farley’s farm, pure of turnips, salt roast beetroot and hazelnut hollandaise:

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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.

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Ristorante Semplice on Urbanspoon

Euston delights by Santino Busciglio

Whenever we look at Theo Randall’s menus, which have won him a best Italian London restaurant of the year award (we still find it hard to believe), we find an irresistible urge to sleep: the ingredients may be good, their cooking just so, but boy o boy how boring, stiflingly conservative do those dishes look to engrained Italian eaters like us. Instead, in unglamorous Euston there’s a place where every dish looks interesting. We had tried Santino Busciglio’s cuisine at Number Twelve last year and we were impressed. Recently we’ve had another fine dinner there: below we offer some sample snapshots with our sparse comments – see the full review for a more complete description of the restaurant’s style.

Actually, before the snapshots, we’ve got to tell you about a big change in the front room. Gone is elegantly restrained Fabio (who joined Michelin starred Apicius), and in comes volcanic and enthusiastic Antonio (Cerilli), an initial partner in our fave Latium before the advent of Giovanni (Baldino) first and then Umberto (Tosi). The room, part of the Ambassador’s hotel, is also undergoing changes, in our opinion for the better.

Let’s begin with the great bread (an innovation compared to our first report: not any longer served one piece a time from a tray, but placed in a basket on the table – as we like it)

And these are refined Cannelloni of duck, with a celeriac cream (we think we remember), mushrooms, lentils and cavolo nero (again from memory, too many other dishes in between!).

This humble turkey (yes, turkey) was a real show stopper:


Turkey must not be an easy meat for a restaurant, and you don’t see much of it around: so lean, with the risk of terrible blandness. But here excellent raw materials and Busciglio’s technique combine beautifully. Cooked sous-vide with great care, the meat has none of the dreaded dryness, and it expresses a beautiful flavour, coming both from the quality of the beast itself, and from the tasty filling, ‘rabbit style’, made up of the giblets and also chestnuts. The variety and complexity of the dish is enhanced by the presence of a side bread sauce for moisture, of a (very, very well made) potato puree with a crispy bacon slice on top, a very sweet and concentrated ‘berry jam’, a fine reduction and… yes, that Christmas loved/hated classic: four tiny, beautifully presented Brussel sprouts (this would have made Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall happy). There is courage and humour in this dish.

And this dessert, too, is not something you’ll see anywhere else around:

It’s a Genoise made with olive oil (instead of the regular butter), which makes it crispier beside yielding a different flavour, sitting in a generous pool of melted chocolate to scream about, together with four ‘cubes’ that provide a salty background. On top of it, a Guinness ice cream: yet another layer of flavour, bitter this time. Opinions divide and discussion ensues. We don’t know if the chef will keep this on the menu, but this is culinary freedom! This is fun!

Chef Busciglio has obvious passion and integrity. He creates a cuisine that, while showing an eclectic side, is ultimately Italian in spirit: doing Italian cuisine means for him using the best ingredients he can find, not only from Italy (as is obviously the case for olive oil) but nearer home – we think of a fantastically aromatic honey (on the left) from Dorset





or of the rose veal Ossobuco, slightly darker than the classical Italian version-

and making these ingredients express themselves unmasked, gently enhanced by the cooking techniques and enriched by sagacious combinations: Italian style.

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cold, flu and memories

Both Man and Woman have had the flu, forcing a little pause with restaurant tastings. So, waiting for the next experience, we live on memories…

Among the outstanding recent dinners one was at our London fave Latium, which unfortunately we did not record for posterity.

(but those ‘barzotte’ eggs with truffles and chanterelles mushrooms, mmmh!).

The other outstanding dinner was at Locanda Margon. We present it here with no comments, even the photos alone tell you what superior kind of experience this was.

We will omit some extras, but not the bread, of course:

And here we go: Sea fish ravioli in clam water with garlic foam

Potato ‘zuppa’ with wild mushrooms

(not what you expected for a zuppa, admit it!)

Sebass fillet (and much more)

Suckling pig fillet (and even more)

Carrot ‘tortino’, apples and beetoroot

Pears cooked in Chardonnay grappa

This year Locanda Margon retained its Michelin star. Its great location, consistency and excellence of cuisine with raw materials of absolute excellence deserve more – but for us maybe better not: we might never again afford such dinners for €140 – wine inclusive (Pinot Nero Pisoni 2003) and treated like royalty!! (Bizarrely, one well-known Italian guide has lowered the value-for-money rating of the Locanda. Dear friends, you know very well that we are always sternly, almost obsessively, mindful of the pecuniary implications of our adventures: but if this is not value for money, we don’t know what is. People passing certain judgments probably focus on money alone without looking at value.).

Analogous observations go for Latium in London: though its standards are both more consistent and superior to any starred Italian restaurant we have tried in the city, the lack of a star so far probably has allowed us to preserve the tumescence of our wallets while at the same time delighting our gustative souls. Anyway, for this year the star game is still on….


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Bart’s (London)

The day: 1st November, dinner (full board available as standard).
The place: West Smithfields, EC1A 7BE
, London
The venue: Barts
The food: Traditional English
The drinks: Sorry, no alcohol.


Snow in London in October: ghastly! What better than a short break to beat the winter blues? So we head to West Smithfield.

Forget Carluccio, forget Club Gascon, forget St. John: Bart’s, here we come!

This is the glorious St. Bartholomew’s hospital, known to everybody who uses it as Bart’s. Man is an assiduous (a bit too assiduous in fact), long established and affectionate customer.

The interior is a bit basic, so we skip pictures – we would not want you to be put off.

As for the food, there is plenty to choose from: fruit juice or soup as a starter, then minced meat and potato pie, tuna, tomato and courgette pasta, and cold turkey, not to mention a selection of sandwiches on white and granary. Man opts for the Lentils lasagne, with potato croquettes and peas on the side.

In this colourful dish, let’s see the lasagne first: the decisive cooking confers on them a nicely crispy outside and a moist and creamy inside, with an intense lentil and spice (nutmeg?) flavour. Celery, carrots, tomato, peppers in a triumph of all season flavours. The texture of the pasta is exactly what you would expect in this kind of establishment: you can definitely say that it melts seamlessly in the cream

The hand of the chef is evident also in the croquettes, the crisp outside coating to bite through to reach the luscious interior. Man especially appreciates the light hand with seasoning. To finish the dish off, a generous garnish of boiled peas: just them in their pure essence, no other flavour is allowed to contaminate their pure taste.

For pudding, Man eludes tinned fruit and fruit juice jelly, and goes for rice pudding with a generous helping of custard.

The rice pudding was also similar in melting structure to the pasta, nicely liquefied in keeping with the leit motif of the menu.

Service was cheerful and professional. Man washed this down with excellent premium apple juice from concentrate, the cost of this… well, not a penny. Quite a bargain! But be aware, the treat is by invitation only.

All jokes aside, you do not come to the NHS for top level cuisine. But for top level health care, be assured that, in spite of the scary headlines that hit the tabloids every now and then; in spite of some occasional grumpy nurse here and there; and gritting your teeth through some crumbling facilities, you will in the end get the result that really counts, the most important of all, provided by all the real professionals working at Bart’s. Thank you NHS.

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‘Antipasti di mare’ at Lillicu

What is an antipasto? If you come to Lillicu, a traditional and long established Cagliari restaurant (we went to via Dei Carroz 14 in Cagliari, tel +39-070-502959, although the main venue is considered to be the one in Via Sardegna 78, still in Cagliari, tel +39-070-652970), don’t expect one of those penurious oh so pretty micro amuse bouche that sometimes begin your starvation in Michelin starred establishments. Here at Lillico, a mixed fish starter is something for real men (and women):

This:


Cozze (i.e.mussles) marinara, succulent, yummissime.

And this:

Tuna ‘Scabeccio’, where sweet and sour marry harmoniously, with great tomatoes, and behind, a different combination of tuna and tomato, in excellent olive oil.

And this:

‘Gianchetti’, baby fish, fried in the lightest of batters and with utmost delicacy – a real cooking lesson to some pretentious restaurants we know of.

And this:

More delicious cozze and a most tender and flavoursome and fresh octopus.

Not satisfied yet? Well there is also this:

Prawns presented in a scallop shell and garnished with béchamel sauce.

This, ladies and gentleman, is an antipasto in a traditional, basic Italian trattoria.

To fuel our gigantic amounts of swimming we need gigantic amounts of food. So we don’t stop there. We also have

A fregola:

Tasty, not at the same level as Da Barbara but almost, and this is a big compliment.

And also a mixed grill (we asked for a reduced portion…)

It’s a cernia chunk, a squid, and king prawns: all local, all fresh, all cooked perfectly, all delicious.

Want to clean your mouth after all this fish?

Here is a bite of vegetables:

And now, really, there’s only room for a coffee.

The cost of all this, including house wine, €70. Lillicu is a very basic place where you should not take your poshest friends who wish to stay away form the inferior classes: only come with people who enjoy real, great, flavoursome seafood.


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When All Is Said and Done…

We like going to fine dining restaurants.

And yet …and yet… we confess we get as much sheer eating pleasure, sometimes, in those simpler places with no pretense of fine dining but which offer you good materials traditionally prepared.

This is true in Italy, of course, where we are familiar with the tradition of the cuisine, and where simple food full of flavour is a staple. But also elsewhere, we more or less always discover something in this vein. When in Chicago our favourite local when when we were not in our fine dining mode (see Naha and Boka) was in the nearby historical (and university) village of Evanston. The Little Mexican Cafe’, where your guacamole is prepared on the spot by a skillful lady


who asks you what you want in your guacamole, and the correct answer is ‘everything’ (tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro -fresh coriander-, lime juice, jalapeno peppers).
Basic, delicious and beautiful:

Why is it impossible to find such good Mexicans in London? This shows that maybe even these things aren’t as basic as they look; that you need balance (e.g. to find the right proportion of lime to avocado) and good quality materials.
We went there almost every day, and we exhausted their avocado stocks.