Thursday, 5 August 2010
Osteria dell'Angolo, Westminster
So, we've done Zucca, we've done Trullo. Each, in their own way, brilliant crowd- (and critic-) pleasing local Italian restaurants that punch well above their weight for their price point and together form almost a statement of intent regarding the direction that Italian cuisine can, and should, take in the capital. But what of anywhere else? Bloggers, and the network of similarly-minded foodies on Twitter, have a distinct pattern of behaviour - good places are highlighted and obsessed over weeks before they open (and occasionally even after), bad places are gleefully and publicly trashed, and everywhere falling between these two extremes is comprehensively ignored. For Sichuan you go to Chilli Cool, for burgers you go to Byron, for steak, Hawksmoor or Goodman. Anywhere else might as well not even exist, unless of course you're Cantina Laredo or Guerilla Burgers in which case we'll quite happily line up and give you a thousand reasons why you shouldn't go. It may not be fair, it may not even be particularly helpful, but that's just the way it works.
So, then, what of the hundreds of other mid-range Italian restaurants quietly peddling their wares in forgotten corners of the capital? One of them is Osteria dell'Angolo in Westminster, inside which I and Carla of BribedWithFood (who lived for many years in Italy and knows her stuff) found ourselves sheltering from the rain last night. We were there on recommendation of a number of ex-pats who spoke of an authentic vibe, friendly (and 100% Italian) staff and a mouth-watering menu of modern Italian food. I'm not sure quite how 'hotel breakfast bar' translates into an authentic Italian restaurant vibe, but Carla assured me that it felt true enough for her, and I can certainly vouch for the friendliness of the staff - if not always their competency (we noticed a diner across from us having to ask twice to be brought cutlery, as his food sat slowly cooling on the table in front of him). As for the food...
Unfortunately we got off to a bit of a bad start. Amuses consisted of a couple of smoked salmon and peppered cream cheese crostini, which would have been pleasant enough (if dull) if they hadn't been served on stale cold bread that crumbled unpleasantly in the mouth. How difficult would it have been to toast some fresh bread to order - surely it would have taken seconds? These had been kept refrigerated and tasted of laziness.
The house bread selection was much better. Foccacia in particular was moist and dense and with a lovely golden crust. A cheesy roll of some sort was studded with caraway seeds and went down very well. Even the cracker thingies (yes alright, Carla told me their proper name but I'd had a couple of glasses of wine) tasted delicate and fresh. Ironically, if we'd have just been presented with the bread basket and they'd left out the amuses altogether, we would have felt better off.
Starters were pretty good. A classic beef carpaccio with parmesan shavings definitely had a ring of the safe and familiar to it, but was no less tasty for that - the parmesan was nicely aged and the beef perfectly seasoned, although it probably wouldn't otherwise have been the most flavoursome meat. Octopus was better, with sweet and tender slices of seafood and some delicate slightly pickled veg.
In true Italian multi-course style, we split up the starters and mains with a single dish of squid-ink gnocci, which were fantastic. Dense parcels of heavily squiddy gnocchi sat in a silky sea-bass and bean sauce, garnished with a few broad beans. There was absolutely nothing not to like, and mopping up the rich sauce with the little spongey gnocchi was a delight.
Mains were more of a mixed bag. Carla's tuna looked like it could have done with more vigorous searing on the outside, but was nevertheless cooked properly medium and tasted fine. But I'm afraid my 'crusted veal' (kind of mini schnitzels) were soggy and tasted overwhelmingly of oil despite the presence of what would otherwise probably have been an interesting mix of herbs in the breadcrumbs. They were served on a bed of boiled celery and surrounded by some miniscule slices of spring onion and a thick, sweet jus which didn't cut through the greasy veal pieces at all. I left most of it.
Too full for dessert we ordered the bill, which with a bottle of white and a coffee came to £110 including service. It's more or less what we expected, and a few months ago I would have probably given it a point or two higher and praised their authentic dishes and not stratospheric cost, but what a difference two trailblazing new restaurants and the power of collective foodie opinion can make. Osteria dell'Angolo is not, by a long way, a bad restaurant, and I know plenty of people - normal, well-balanced people who just go out expecting nothing more than a nice meal and don't obsess over the latest restaurant openings like their lives depended on it - who would have a thoroughly decent evening here. Sadly, I am not one of those people. I can't help the fact I've been to Trullo and Zucca and know that there's better out there, and for less. I also can't help the fact that I know, heart of hearts, that I wouldn't ever make the effort to go back to Osteria dell'Angolo. I know that these are more my problems than theirs, and I'm pretty sure they'll continue to make a fine living serving nice, normal Italian food to nice, normal people and the world will carry on turning. For us obsessive types though, Osteria dell'Angolo is not good enough to be noticed, and not bad enough to be noticed. Sorry, but that's just the way it works.