Bocca di Lupo, Soho, London
Bocca di Lupo is in a part of Soho where most commercial operations have, shall we say, an established business model. Its manager is splendidly named Victor Hugo, and from the big windows looking out on the road you can watch misérable women traffic past. A well-heeled joint in a down-at-heel corner, then, it's also arguably London's most fêted recent opening. Giles Coren,Terry Durack, Robin Majumdar, Fay Maschler, Jan Moir - a chorus of harmonious ecstasy.
Respectfully, I have to part company with them. Bocca di Lupo is certainly a gripping new restaurant, and much of what it does is very good indeed. But it's enjoyed the sort of reception that presumably met the Earl of Sandwich when he turned to his card-playing chums and said, 'Lads, you know what I really fancy...?' Reading review after gushing review - a good number of which manage to misspell the chef's name - I found myself repeating Anton Ego's fearsome order to the waiter in Ratatouille: 'Bring me some perspective.'
The best thing about the place is undoubtedly its menu concept, in which the great majority of dishes are offered in both small and large portions. This is simply a fantastic idea, and should be far more common. Restaurants are in fact likely to make more money on it, because customers - by which I principally mean myself - always order more when the food comes on smaller plates. Second, Bocca is commendably scrupulous when it comes to the geography of its food, going so far as to list the regional provenance of every dish. And though some of the tucker sounds reassuringly familiar (fritto misto, trofie pasta with pesto, boiled beef and salsa verde), a lot of it is very interesting. Panzanella is worked with poussin; one pudding contains chocolate and pig's blood; and there's even head cheese, which I've never before seen on a London menu.
First impressions are sound. Prosecco (costing £5.30 a glass) is suggested when I ask for champagne (which is £9.10, and still cheap). Bread is a simple and pleasant focaccia with a glood slurpy olive oil, though olives themselves are pellets of fridge-cold saltiness. I chomp them anyway, sitting at dark reclaimed wood and looking at the foodie paintings, on whose artistic merit I won't comment, since they're by the chef's mum. Jacob Kenedy, indeed, has a fine pedigree for a someone still in his twenties: ex-Moro - whose long bar is echoed here in Carrera marble - he's since worked at Boulevard in San Francisco, and has evidently travelled well in Italy constructing this menu.
James and I similarly roam far and wide. Fried bread (crescentini - and doesn't it sound better in Italian?) comes with finnochiona, speck and a clotted dollop of squacquerone cheese. It's decent, well-presented Bolognese. Then a passable salad with pecorino, celeriac, pomegranate and truffle oil. This tends somewhat towards dryness: chalky cheese and desiccated taproot, punctuated only by the red, jewelled seeds. Better is a cotechino, a fresh sausage of pork belly and fatback, flecked with pistachio, and given a kick from sweet-hot pear mostarda and perfectly cooked lentils in balsamic vinegar. We also order the apparent signature: fritto Romano, sautéed sweetbreads with a whole deep-fried head of artichoke. Much purple prose has been written about Bocca's take on this - which costs nine quid for a small portion - but I'm underwhelmed. It tastes of what it is: thymus, thistle and salt. And while I love these ingredients, and they work well enough without being greasy, burnt or stale, the rapturous critical response almost seems a folie à plusieurs.
Another salad of castelfranco, treviso and hazelnuts looks divine. Skye Gyngell is right to call castelfranco the most beautiful leaf of all; it crunches magnificently with the raddichio, bitter as a second son. But a risotto of bone marrow, more radicchio and Barolo is ruined. The wine was barely cooked off, and the dish cloys horribly with booze. Cime di rapa with garlic and chilli is brisk and healthy, beating with Scovilles. Best of all, though, is another home-made sausage of pork and foie gras over porcini and farro (the Roman legionary's favourite carb). This is a swilling, grunting, mud-bathing hog of a banger, fat and liverish, bleeding big sweaty juices over the ancient grain. After all that, I'm sorry to say, we've no space for pudding.
Unquestionably, there's much to enjoy about Bocca di Lupo. I can't help feeling, though, that it's a mite overgarlanded. Not every visitor has been hysterically positive (three very balanced reviews are by Andy Hayler, Helen Yuet Ling Pang and Jay Rayner), but the typical response is one of unadulterated worship, which seems to me to be overdoing it. I've forgotten to mention that the wine list is excellent, and sensibly avoids being hamstrung by any dogmatic restriction to Italian vino. Much is offered by the glass and carafe, in the way that all places should nowadays, new or old. It's all very good, but it's scarcely the best place in years. The name, by the way, means 'mouth of the wolf': apparently a colloquialism corresponding to 'break a leg'. Whatever else, lunch here keeps the wolf from the door.
Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, London W1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7734 2223
See on the TFYS Map
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £46.50. £92.03 all-in with a glass of Prosecco, a freshly squeezed orange juice, a glass of Litorala Vermentino Cecchi, a 500ml carafe of Sangiovese and twelve-and-a-half.