Terranostra, City of London
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.