Colosseo – 1/5
Why the dearth of decent restaurants around here? Something about this area seems to scare off chefs quicker than a salmonella outbreak. Strange, for such a healthy spot of central London real estate, with businesses, well-heeled locals and things to do galore.
In the failing light, R and I have been wandering these streets for what seem like hours, looking for somewhere to eat. The same wretched chain has infected every pub we pass. Inside them, in catering trays, concrete pie crusts cover the residues of brown sauce and black meat, desiccated by heatlamps. Finally, a Pizza Express hoves into view. Well, you could do worse. Oh, hang on.
Next door is a friendly-looking neighbourhood Italian, with pizzas for eight or nine quid, veal escalopes or salmon with red pesto at £13.00 and, goodness me, can that be fillet steak for only £15.55? Surely, a gem like this deserves to thrive. It must be tough, up against the adjacent franchise. Let’s give the little guy a shot.
Five tables are full – or twenty-five are empty. It’s the day after the bank holiday, we reassure ourselves. Bound to be quiet. Perky staff, supervised by a brisk, whippet-thin manager, are unsurprisingly pleased to see us. Iceless, lemonless tap water arrives, house red (£11.95) is just about drinkable, and a shared starter seems like a good idea even if we will have to eat it with paper napkins. Disconcertingly soon after we order it, the waitress puts down the promising-sounding baked scamorza – smoked cheese – with courgettes in garlic, mint and chilli.
Under a brown crust, a clump of synthetic cheese sits damply on the plate, like a half-submerged, forgotten tennis ball in winter. Its insides are a cold mass of chewy rubber. Scattered round it are haphazard chunks of green-brown courgette, cooked days ago, left in the fridge and now microwaved, mushier than soaked tissue paper. In the dim recesses of the imagination, there’s something tasty in this idea: hot, melting grilled cheese, fresh courgettes quickly sautéed, a light and spicy dressing. But this is a truly repugnant plate of food, suitable for convicted traitors or Girls Aloud fans. The garlic, mint and chilli? Not a whisper.
R and I have obviously made a terrible mistake. Pizzas appear: the ‘Colosseo’ for him, with parma ham, porcini, grana padano and truffle oil. Sounds good, doesn’t it? And indeed this signature dish, named for the restaurant itself, is almost passable, even with its pigskin-coloured, rawish, chewy dough, its bricky slabs of cheese and its ‘porcini’ tinned to irrecognisability. While the strange flecks of meat are (if they say so) ham from Parma, they most certainly are not Parma ham. Where are the strips of porkiness, thin as silk, for which the region is famed? Vincenzo Romano, Colosseo’s ludicrously-styled ‘Executive Chef’, certainly doesn’t know.
The best I can say for my calzone dell’ appia, indeed the best for this meal, is that the ingredients that the menu promised (artichokes and salami, since you ask) are there. A ladle of very old tomato sauce, thin, flavourless and cochineal, has been slopped on the poor thing, which now looks like a bleeding, shaved animal. R and I have walked for a long time, and I’m hungry, so I’ll try and eat some of it. But really, would anyone enjoy this? Lean back in tummy-rubbing satisfaction? Pronounce it so much as edible? Why send it out, then? Pungent capers make an otherwise somnambulant green salad vaguely more interesting, like a swear word on an episode of Countdown. But that’s all. The tastiest thing that Colosseo has to offer is a jarred caper.
From its ghost-town atmosphere, this restaurant is obviously suffering as business peels away into Pizza Express, doubtless taking some joie de vivre with it. Good. Colosseo doesn’t deserve any customers. With only a clutch of people every night, it has the chance to make its food as delicious as possible, producing careful plates of cheap, nourishing nosh. Build up a reputation. Get some regulars. Either it’s stuck in its ways, though, or it’s simply given up. The 10% service charge – rather than the universal 12.5% – is not designed to price things more fairly but because they know that a penny added to the cost of this dross is already an insult. If only we’d gone next door: Colosseo is one colossal failure.
Colosseo, 79 Victoria Street, London SW1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7222 3871
One and a half-course dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £25.
Gordon Ramsay Plane Food – 2/5
Hopes aren’t exactly sky-high as I trundle my suitcase into Plane Food. For one thing, it’s difficult to be sure where the restaurant starts and the terminal, er, terminates. For another, when you have finally entered, you’re hit by a tinny whine of piped music. Pink Floyd, how 2008! Tables – almost all empty – are sturdy cuboids with yellowish calf leather chairs. It isn’t a particularly pleasant or relaxing dining room, but at least it’s light, and it’s fun to watch the big planes go past.
Ramsay, of course, spends much of his life in airports, hurtling around his ‘empire’, as it’s invariably called. And given that he must pass by fairly frequently, you might expect Plane Food to receive rather a lot of attention. It is, after all, the biggest opportunity he has to sell his brand, and the place most people will experience his cooking (nominally, anyway) for the first time.
But look at the menu. This is mid-August, a lush, gourd-swollen time, but from these dishes, it could be the depths of March. Veal with lemon and capers. Bream with broccoli and white wine. Steak is £19.00, chips are £2.95 on top, and carrots and spinach are the only vegetables – extra, of course. What about all that seasonal English veg he likes to ballyhoo on his innumerable, potty-mouthed TV slots? Perhaps it’s easier just to siphon some of that kerosene-fresh cargo from Kenya, Israel or Thailand.
It’s a sticky evening, and I’m thirsty. Could I have a jug of tap water? ‘We don’t do jugs. Would you like a bottle of still or sparkling water?’ The cheek! No thanks. What about two glasses of water? ‘I will bring you four.’ Come again? ‘You are thirsty. I will bring you four glasses.’
And like something out of a nightmare, four glasses of water materialise in front of me, each with a floating wedge of lemon. I hear the roar of the jumbos taking off around me, and I’m beginning to wish I was on one of them.
Still, I am going on holiday. A glass of champagne, then. It’s possibly the most miserly thing I’ve ever been served, a sample-size of second-rate pop swirling thinly at the bottom of the glass. I’m not surprised it’s half-flat: the bottle could stay open for weeks at this rate. It’s been served from a pipette. My lips are barely wet, and it - and £7.50 - is gone. Next: parfait of foie gras and chicken liver, with Sauternes jelly. The fridge-cold parfait (high on chicken, low on duck, limbo-dancing on Sauternes) has the cloying, gasping texture of shaving foam, and is an unhappy beige, like cat food. Four tidbits of dry, cold toast turn up much later. Red onions have been slowly sautéed into a sweet and delicious marmalade, and baby cornichons have a pleasant crunch. But what’s gone so wrong that these adjuncts, these afterthoughts, should be the best parts?
Celeriac risotto is quite wonderful, and the only saving grace. Difficult for a restaurant at the best of times, the rice is al dente; the principal vegetable stands proud within it and the crunchy dice of sweet, caramelised celeriac add textural depth. There are peas and lemon for freshness, verdant strands of young, peppery watercress and outstanding toasted pine nuts. Slivers of Parmesan veil the dish, which goes beautifully with a carafe of fine English white. I like being able to choose a smaller portion (£8.00 rather than £12.00), which is more than enough after the thick, moussy parfait.
It’s so good, in fact, I think I’ll order pudding. But nothing too heavy before the flight. There’s a selection of three sorbets or three ice creams: don’t mix them, mind! What flavours are there? ‘Ice cream, we got lime, passion fruit, peggan–’ Sorry? ‘Peggan.’ Pigeon? ‘Peggan.’ What’s that? ‘Er… one moment.’ Away she goes, and back: ‘Peccan’. Oh, pecan. ‘And cinnamon sorbet.’ Oh heavens, just the bill, please.
In fairness to the waitress, it’s only her second week, and it’s easy enough to confuse ice creams and sorbets during your first few days. But the name stamped on every surface in this restaurant is Gordon Ramsay’s, the man who would be Ducasse! While the machine is spinning out my bill, I ask the waitress if she enjoys her new job. She responds by griping that the company didn’t refund her expenses when she travelled into London for training. Discounting the fact that she evidently hasn’t had any training, it says a lot about the attitude of Ramsay (who, according to Forbes, earned £4m last year) towards his staff, not to mention customers. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, given his on-screen persona. But it adds to a rising sense that this restaurant is cynically, systematically designed to wheedle as much cash as possible from its conveniently transient clientele.
Brave name, Plane Food. Almost foolhardy. At one level, it’s a complacent smirk that this, mais bien sûr, is miles better than plane food, and ‘plain’ too, unfussy. But it explicitly invites comparisons with real plane food, and when these are made, the similarities are all too obvious: from the weird, dollhouse cutlery to the catch-all menu, blind to the seasons. Ramsay had the chance to do something truly uplifting here. This restaurant remains grounded on the tarmac.
Gordon Ramsay Plane Food, Heathrow Terminal 5, Middlesex.
Tel. +44 (0)20 8897 4545
Dinner for one, excluding drinks and service, costs £19.50.
Wines: Glass of Ayala Brut Majeur NV (£7.50), 375ml carafe of Bacchus Reserve, Chapel Down, Kent, 2005 (£11.50)
Terranostra – 3/5
As a temporary NEET, J can certainly spare the time to meet me for lunch. I’ve spotted a small Sardinian restaurant on Old Bailey for her, right outside the glowering portal of the courts. Lady Justice glints blindly above. It looks ideal.
We’re sitting outside, amid the whirrs and clanks of the adjacent building site, but the sun is shining and a cold Nastro Azzurro is quite delicious. Wine buff J is pleasantly surprised by a ‘dry, pineappley’ glass of S'Eleme Vermentino di Galtura Monti, from a commendable list whose wines are perhaps 80% Sardinian. No starters, although several look delicious: a wooden platter of mixed fish with swordfish carpaccio, baby squid and tuna tartare; or fresh anchovies marinated in white wine vinegar with courgettes.
The waiter seems happy. What would he recommend? ‘We do a fabulous spaghetti alla bottarga.' Well then, bring it on.
Not to everyone’s taste. Grey mullet roe, fermented for months until it positively pulsates, tossed in all its lurid, powdery, reeking glory into strands of hot spaghetti, with glugs of olive oil. That’s it.
Fishy isn’t the word. This is like munching on raw innards, Gollum style, followed by two pints of nam pla chaser and a shower under the Billingsgate offpipe. J tentatively nibbles a morsel of pasta (‘There’s no fish in it, is there?’) and, as her head reels back and the tears leap into her eyes, whispers that I’m a bastard. The portion initially looks rather dinky, but it’s so rich, I only manage three quarters.
It’s delicious, eye-popping stuff. Months of aging have given it a thick, complex tang, a musty headiness that lingers on the palate, redolent of the deep, swelling sea. Wriggles of spaghetti (marginally overcooked and a little clumpy) are the bland and possibly only conceivable foil: nothing else could stand up to this. I’ll still be able to taste it at Christmas.
J has loreghitas, those little rings of curly pasta, with scallops, stewed aubergine and a verdant pesto. It’s a fabulously light and summery dish, beefed up by the dark chunks of aubergine. The chopped scallops are rather lost, which is a shame, because they’re fresh and very tender. But I could eat plate after plate of this stuff. The home-made pesto gives off a whiff of basil so dense and fragrant, you could almost chew it. It’s wonderful to see a good, simple thing done so well.
‘Green salad’, though, is beyond hope. The leaves have recently been washed but nobody’s bothered to dry them, and water now pours off them as from a tanker dredged from the ocean floor. I take my napkin (a tick for the linen, a cross for the weird icky brown colour) and press it to the salad to soak up as much water as possible: it comes off virtually sopping. What’s in the salad? Iceberg lettuce, a few pointless flops of reddish, leafy fru-fru and - the innovation! - another type of lettuce. Disastrous. The waiter plonks down some olive oil and some acrid balsamic vinegar. While I’ve no implicit objection to DIY dressing, I resent it here, where it springs from sheer laziness. Dumping cheap vinegar on the customers and leaving them to it does not, frankly, cut the mustard.
For pudding, J orders three retro scoops of ice cream: two white chocolates and one strawberry, with fresh raspberries on top. In both, the flavours are loud and clear, and the ices have a smooth texture that lands on the right side of solidity. I order an affogato. Sadly, and irritatingly after the salad debacle, they make this for me in the kitchen, rather than doing it at table. As a result, when spoon meets cup, the espresso is too darn cold and the melting ice cream, well, it’s too hot. At least the coffee is of a decent quality; and, it must be said, there are still far worse ways to finish a meal.
Despite these glitches, Terranostra is doing almost everything right. Its food has regional authenticity and largely avoids heavy-lidded, nondescript ‘Italian’ pizzapasta rubbish. Service is attentive and thoughtful. Unobtrusive artwork graces the walls, and while the menu has enough classics to comfort the most unadventurous British palate, it includes a few riskier numbers to drum up foodie interest.
Yet this restaurant has problems that can’t be classed as teething, suggesting a worrying disregard for flavour and customers. A green salad should be the easiest thing: fresh, clean and (above all) dry leaves, with a simple dressing. Its incarnation here was the worst I remember eating in a long time.
Still, Terranostra is evidently willing to take successful risks, as with the bottarga, and I sense that it’s capable of producing more excellence than I was able to see this lunch. Definitely worth a visit, but go easy on the fish eggs.
Terranostra, 27 Old Bailey, London EC4M
Tel. +44 (0)20 3201 0077
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £32.
Ognisko – 3/5
What with Britain’s recent influx of spanners and cement trowels, it’s easy to forget that Poles predate the EU by quite some way. After the Second World War, a grateful Duke of Kent donated a vast house in South Ken for use as a club by those heroic Poles (Britain’s saviours in the Battle that took its name), to assuage their homesickness with some Old Country comforts. Ognisko, its restaurant, is something of a hymn to that grandeur, spruced in a peachy pink and with a large and lovely garden at the back.
I suspect some dishes have been on the menu since the place opened. Ognisko remains contendedly in suspended animation and, for the most part, is doing so successfully. Service is formal and polished. The smartly dressed staff pour the last drops of wine gently, instead of shaking the bottle like they’re in a hurry at the urinal. A hushed atmosphere pervades, and the eight of us are sitting in the gloam of the candle-lit garden. The menu is a well conceived mixture of Polski staples with some French numbers thrown in (lamb with tomato and tarragon, for example). But I, for one, am heading east.
Barszcz, the impressively-consonanted relative of borscht, is a fine beetroot consommé, clear in appearance and flavour, with green snippets of dill on its surface. Dumplings bobbing in it are pleasantly slippery, but their (unidentifiable) meat filling has a horrid ashy texture. In her main course of pierogi, M has the alternative stuffing of cheese and potato, and a smaller version of these would have been better in the barszcz. B pronounces her goat’s cheese salad excellent, while K has blinis with cream, smoked salmon and Sevruga. Frankly, I’ve always found this combination distinctly, well, fishy. In the 70s, it was clearly far-out and right-on, sufficiently posh to have been served on Concorde's maiden flight. Yet as with tournedos Rossini, that old ocean liner classic, it yanked two expensive ingredients together without much regard for the results. J, who has the fish as a main course, is thus probably right to eat the caviar on its own. But he has strong doubts about the eggs’ authenticity. The poor sturgeon has suffered enough, and if Ognisko’s chef has found a substitute, good for him. But for heaven’s sake, don’t insult the guests by printing it on the menu as the real thing. People can tell.
My steaming, Bavarian-style knuckle of pork is marginally smaller than a West Highland terrier and comes slathered in a tart mustard sauce that melds perfectly with the meat. Fat, skin and shards of bone protrude all over this hacked, succulent pig, and I’m grateful for them: you don’t want mini paper chefs’ hats stuck onto these splintered bits of ankle. This is food for baby seal clubbers, cooked for hours at a low, low heat, and tender for it. Duck breast has been roasted to a deep pink, fanned attractively on A’s plate with a Seville orange sauce. These dishes barely look like they come from the same solar system, let alone kitchen. Guinea fowl with Calvados is another French-inspired winner, but the accompanying vegetables are appalling. The sautéed new potatoes have apparently languished in a lukewarm oven since the Duke of Kent lived here and are soggier than peat; and the ‘mixed vegetables’ (steamed? boiled?) are a shrieking hugger-mugger of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and flavourless babycorn from Thailand. They need much work.
Puddings are far better. The closest thing in Poland to a crêpe Suzette is nalesnik, a folded pancake stuffed with sweetened cream cheese and smothered in a Seville orange sauce spiked with raisins and Grand Marnier. This exquisite dish mingles sweet and sour with aplomb. The edges of the pancake are slightly crispy; icing sugar blunts the sharpness of the cheese and the orange sauce warms the dish like a sunset filter on a camera lens. Crème brulée has a good, firm texture, but it’s sat under a grill instead of facing a blowtorch flame, and doesn’t have the crack of scorched caramel. P and K share warm, crumbling apple cake, virtually an act of charity at £3.20, which they declare pretty good.
Ognisko has unquestionable charm. It isn’t aping the Ritz, but its quaintly plush interior has an understated dignity befitting a Polish restaurant-cum-club. The food is authentic and frequently delicious, and its garden is the best I know of in London. It is, of course, a world away from the glass-and-steel take on the region served by Jan Woroniecki in Baltic and Wódka. Yet, just as Britain’s first wave of Polish immigrants will long outlast today’s builders, brickies and cleaners, Ognisko isn’t going anywhere. It’s true that time and tradition have wrought a few neglectful oversights and that, here and there, the kitchen could do with a renewing splash of vim. But not too many changes, please.
Ognisko at the Polish Club, 55 Exhibition Road, London SW7. Tel. +44 (0)20 7589 4563.
Dinner for eight, excluding drinks and service, costs £170
La Famiglia – 4/5
I’ve never been before, but arriving at La Famiglia feels like coming home. A Chelsea stalwart that opened when the King’s Road was a sea of bell-bottoms, LSD and stagflation, it’s forever drawn Sloanes and schlebs like flies to a UV light. Zap! Down they fall, twitching, at the feet of Alvaro Maccioni (left) and his Tuscan fare. He opened the restaurant when olive oil came from Boots and when wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles were quite the thing, but the timelessness of the place today is simply lovely.
The A-list, apparently, sits in the covered garden, but the Thring for Your Supper proles are given a nice table by the window. The decor is, er, a little decorscerting. As well as charming black and white photos, blue and white tiles, calming enough in small number, are glued everywhere. On and on they go, line after transfixing line, downstairs to the loo (beside the kitchen, where cleavers flash in the striplights). There’s an abattoir feel to this, a hint of The Shining, abetted by the butcher’s stripes on the maitre d’s waistcoat. But he welcomes you with a smile like you’ve come home safe from a war. You half-expect him to wrap you in a bear hug and weep tears of joy over your shoulder, which is a very pleasant way to begin the evening.
‘If a chef cooks like his mother,’ Maccioni opines, ‘he is a great chef. But if he cooks like his grandmother, he is even greater.’ Whoever Quinto Cecchetti cooks like, his menu is too long. Diners face a torrent of 16 meat dishes and 15 plates of pasta, as well as fish, risottos, antipasti, soups and a changing ‘weekly menu’ of 14 dishes. From the supermarket to the multiplex, too much choice is a bane of modern living: at La Famiglia, less would definitely be more.
Still, C chooses brilliantly throughout. She begins with Tonno alla San Corrado, raw tuna carpaccio seasoned with diced peppers, tomatoes and onion. I can’t think of a better way to begin a meal: this is cleansing, enlivening and reasonably complex, though all the ingredients sing. Yellow peppers generally do as much good for a dish as Jeremy Kyle for families on housing estates, but here their sweet crunch is put to effective use. M (who is infinitely more beautiful than the imposter Judi Dench) also starts with tuna, deemed ‘special’ on the menu, with a chickpea puree. This special tuna is specially tinned, and while it’s of excellent quality, its hyper-fishy punch is perhaps a bit much to start dinner with. The hummous-esque paste that comes with it is of limited benefit: the fish might be nicer just with hot toast, lemon and olive oil, though that doesn’t appear to be on the cards.
Everything I order, by design rather than accident, is deep-fried. Mrs Gillian McKeith would balk at my battered food (and perhaps my battered liver), but you can tell a lot about a place by the oil it fries in. Carciofini, those gorgeous, wispy courgette flowers, are tricky to pull off: they should be perky, freshly cut, batter light, oil hot. The gold crisp on these ones almost vapourises to the bite, and they’re very well seasoned. But the flowers themselves are somewhat on the saggy, wrinkling side, like deflated balloons.
My main course is a huge portion of very fresh calamari, containing lip-smacking bits of squidgy tentacle and lashings of lemon juice – when I ask for a second half of lemon, the hearty response is ‘Anything forra da customer!’ Like the carciofini, though, the squid is a little wide of the mark, pummelled by the oil into slight chewiness; though I still guzzle every last one with the lovely house white, fairly priced at £14. I’ve also ordered a tomato salad, suprisingly not on the menu. While it’s dressed with a good olive oil and has a garnish of sprinkled basil leaves, it’s unseasoned – an elementary error. Admittedly, I can salt it myself. But slips like this, almost quaint in Florentine restaurants charging a few euros a dish, are a little less charming where the food costs considerably more.
C’s beef is another matter. Tagliata di Manzo is blood-rare, blistered by the charcoal to release a delectable smokiness, with a few frills of lamb’s lettuce the only garnish. The menu informs us that the beef is ‘free renge’ – and at £26.00, I demn well hope so. Unquestionably the dish of the evening, this is beef so tender I almost can’t bear to chew it, though of course I eventually do. If the menu were merely contracted a little, Maccioni could tighten the kitchen’s timing, which might avoid issues like the overcooked calamari and maintain winners such as the beef.
There is much to love about La Famiglia. The show isn’t stopped by every dish, but food here contains glints of wonder that remind one of the quiet confidence of Tuscan cooking, which doesn’t need lettuce foams and anchovy cappuccinos to let the glories of its ingredients shine. It’s a shame there aren’t a dozen places like this in London, and that quality Italian food – here or at Locanda Locatelli – should be so associated with the rich and famous. This is emphatically not a neighbourhood restaurant, which is, I suppose, what I wish it were. Still, it’s outstanding food served by passionate people, and if that has to come at a cost, so what?
La Famiglia, 7 Langton Street, London SW10. Tel. +44 (0)20 7351 0761
Dinner for three, excluding drinks and service, costs £85.