Monday, 29 November 2010

Bocca di Lupo, Soho

Is there any other country whose cuisine is so inconsistently represented as Italy? Up until not so long ago I was safe in the knowledge that there was nowhere worth visiting unless you paid through the nose - places like Aspley's in the Lanesborough, or the equally pricey Zafferano. Good restaurants, sure, and probably fairly true to their Italian roots, but a plate of fried gnocchi does not cost £15 in Emilia Romagna. Then along came Zucca, and suddenly the rules changed. Gorgeous, rustic, exciting food, all for around £20 a head. Next, Trullo, doing the same for Highbury and Islington - not perfect perhaps, but head and shoulders above anything you may have otherwise called Italian until fairly recently. And let's not forget the brilliant Polpetto. A few more restaurants like those, a few more meals like those, and we were well on the road to redemption.

Along this road though, which generally followed an upward trend, were a couple of bumps. Osteria dell'Angolo wasn't completely terrible but was everything I might have expected, before the arrival of Zucca et al., from an Italian restaurant in London. Slightly overpriced, slightly underwhelming, slightly rubbish. And a meal at Degò (at the risk of stretching the metaphor somewhat) wasn't so much a bump as a complete car crash - diabolical cooking at an unhealthy premium, disastrous in almost every respect. Amusingly, the PR powers that be behind Degò have decided the best way to spin my less than complimentary review is to criticise the spelling of "focaccia", accuse me of a "lack of professionalism" (guilty) and mobilise their staff and friends to leave delightfully outraged comments, a defensiveness which only serves to underline just how bad the place is.

It turns out, though, that all these ups and downs were merely preparation - groundwork, if you like - for what I decided on Friday is the Italian restaurant in London - Bocca di Lupo. There are plenty of people who will be reading this thinking "What took you so long?", and believe me I'm wondering the same myself; it has certainly had no shortage of positive coverage over the years and nobody I know who's been there has a bad word to say about the place. But better late than never, I suppose, and on a cold evening in late November, I and a couple of friends sat down to what is probably the best Italian meal I've ever eaten in this country.

Over some bright green and juicy Cerignola olives we studied the menu. Good lord, it reads well. Divided into various equally appetising sections such as 'fried', 'roasts', 'pastas & risottos' etc., each dish is marked with the region of Italy it hails from, and most are available in large or small portions. Wanting to sample as much of the menu as we could, we chose a healthy smattering of small dishes, first of which to arrive was a deep-fried artichoke and a plate of fried seafood.

I didn't ask for proof of this on Friday, but I'm told that up until the seafood at Bocca di Lupo is served to customers, much of it is kept alive and swimming in saltwater basins behind the bar. Certainly, I've rarely had more headily fresh and vibrant fried prawns and squid than in this plate of 'fritti', which for only £8.50 contained a generous number of bright red prawns, crispy salty squid and delicate disks of aubergine. Even better though was the artichoke, the deep-frying process rendering otherwise tough leaves edible without losing any of the earthy, tangy notes of artichoke.

A raw radish, celeriac and pecorino salad sounds like it could easily be rather dull, but the top-drawer ingredients and generous application of truffle oil, as well as the many exciting textures from the pomegranate seeds and soft cheese, turned it into something special. And a plate of crudita di mare consisting of raw fish and seafood of various types was simply brilliant - you may have had raw scallops elsewhere previously, and very nice these were too, but the raw langoustine was a revelation - fresh and sweet and enough to make you question why anyone ever cooks langoustine at all.

First of the pasta dishes was a rich pappardelle of ox cheek, beefy and silky in all the right places and using fantastic yellow pasta. Equally superb was an "extremely spicy" (their words, and they weren't far wrong) orecchiette with salami, onion and cherry tomato which blew the winter blues away not only with aggressive levels of chilli but a perfect mix of sweet and soft flavours.

The one "large" (at least in terms of pricing) course we ordered was this cute roast teal, stuffed with sage and thyme leaves, dressed with crispy bacon and beautifully cooked to deep brown, gamey perfection. It was brilliant, as was a side order of puntarelle (a kind of chicory) with anchovy and lemon which, to be fair, didn't meet with universal approval on our table but which I found a pungent, citrusy counterfoil to the rich duck.

Particularly in these days of the proto-chain, the word 'unique' is over-used with regards to restaurants - there are few places which really stand out from the crowd and consistently and successfully dare to do something different. More than anywhere else, Bocca di Lupo reminds me of St John - bold and creative cooking, using interesting ingredients in exciting new ways, on the one hand mindful of the noble traditions of (in this case) Italian cuisine and on the other forging exciting new paths into pastures unknown. It wasn't just that every dish at Bocca di Lupo was tasty and attractive - though they were, and then some - it was more than that, an exhilarating sense of discovery, the sheer joy of tasting dishes the like of which I've had nowhere else in the world, never mind London. Eating here is such an unadulturated delight, each mouthful of each dish triggering gasps and giggles and coos, that almost as soon as it was over I wanted to book myself in and do it all over again. And before long, I can guarantee, I will be doing exactly that. It has taken me an inexcusably long time to visit Bocca di Lupo, but this journey, with all its false starts and wrong turns and glimpsed potential, may have finally reached the promised land.


Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon


catty said...

Ahhhhh Bocca di Lupo! So glad you finally went :) That radish, celeriac and pecorino salad is just amazing in all its simplicity, isn't it? Next time try the pork and foie gras sausage.. and the ICE CREAM BURGER (ok ok so they call it gelato and brioche but it's a burger!)

WalshyMK said...

Hmmm. I didnae think that much of it, but those dishes look so good I'm tempted to try it again. Perhaps it was the sight of Gregg Wallace at the next table that put me off my food last time...

James MacAonghus said...

I too would give it a 9/10, but am interested what would they have had to do to earn a 10/10?

Also, it might be useful for readers to know the bar is a much better place to sit than the tables because you see all the cooking; so either ask for the bar when you book (which is easier to get anyway) or turn up and you are more likely to be sat there.

Hollow Legs said...

I wish I liked teal. I actively disliked the puntarelle though, and if we'd swapped that out for another pasta dish I reckon I would have had a perfect meal.

Mr Noodles said...

Is there any other country whose cuisine is so inconsistently represented as Italy?

From a personal perspective, Chinese food is. Sometimes in the same restaurant!

Back to Bocca di Lupo - this has been nestling on my list for a long while. That ox cheek pappardelle has got my name on it!

Pasta Bites said...

I really like puntarelle. Funnily enough, I had them two weeks ago at a so called 'italian' resturant, more a z list celebrity haunt than anything. I think however, that the roman version has vinegar, not lemon. and raw, finely chopped, garlic as well.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen a bill in your's all complementary for you?Lucky you!

Hollow Legs said...

Hey, Anon -

We split this between three of us. So there.

Fernandez & Leluu said...

Dang - so now we're the last ones to try this place out - can't wait to go and see for ourselves, thanks for the recommendation x

Graphic Foodie said...

Yeah, still can't believe why it is so hard to get real (regional) Italian food here. But after reading this I am DEFINITELY taking a trip to BDL next time I'm in town.

Greedy Diva said...

Bocca is one of my absolute favourite restaurants in London (I am very lucky that it's my closest Italian). I get that radish salad every time - I love that you can smell the truffle oil before you even see the plate coming. And it doesn't have to be a big, expensive feast - it's a great place to sit at the bar with a bowl of hearty pasta and a glass of wine before or after the theatre too.

Chris Pople said...

James: I was *so* close to giving it a 10, and looking back now I'm not sure why I didn't. Perhaps I just need a few more visits to be absolutely sure? :)

Alexc said...

Hi Chris - going to try this with the family, on Friday I hope.

Out of curiosity have you been to Locanda Locatelli? Was pretty nommy when I went a couple of Christmases ago if a little too upmarket for my wallet.

Alex C said...

I think that half our party were full of cold didn't help. That we were on a cramped and draughty table by the serving entrance, was probably a factor of arriving (albeit on schedule) at 10.15 on a busy Friday night.

They were friendly, if rather jaded, and as attentive as the busy room would allow. Everything felt a little strained though and slow.

The food was generally of a high standard, even if the portion control was rather random - there seemed to be no very obvious difference except the price between the small and large portions. On recommendation I plumped for the raw fish as a starter followed by the pappardele.
Others went for a wide variety of choices. My langoustine was interesting raw but could have used some sort of citrus dressing to perk it up, and the scallops, undressed, were bland - rather wasting the point. I sometimes have these spiced in sushi (try them at Miyajima near you) and they're very good done like that. The small red prawns were heavenly though - a real surprise. The pappardelle, aside from being small, was lovely, rich and silky as you describe, with a warming pepperyness.

Problems were more evident in other dishes though. The Fritti di mare contained plenty of soggy squid rings, the potatoes were dull (I wouldn't have served them at home) and the broccoli (though we thought it was cauliflower) was nasty. The scallops, while being nicely cooked were far too small to call a main portion. The foie gras sausages were awesome though, but again small portions.

In all honesty I didn't have the great experience you were lucky enough to get, and though I saw signs of expertise and care in what they produced, it was, in many places, no better that I eat at home, and for the sort of money paid it was not excellent value. For me Zucca is streets ahead of them. Sorry to be one of the few dissenters, but what we had barely rated as a 7/10.
Pretty room though, and if in Soho I might go back for a quick snack by the bar, but nothing more. Re-reading this I think the lesson is to only order the small dishes.