Wednesday, 16 February 2011
At first, I thought I'd turned up at the wrong place. Normally you'd expect a smart Italian restaurant in Mayfair to be visited by smart Mayfair types, and indeed there were a few in evidence last night; portly old men in dark suits with their bejewelled and be-frocked wives. But mainly this comfortable and attractive room was populated by table after table of Japanese - at a rough guess I'd say at least half the customers once all the seats were taken (and they all were) by the middle of the evening. It turns out that the chef at Tempo - a certain Yoshi Yamada - has quite a following in his native country and despite (or perhaps because of) the very traditionally Italian food served, seeing so many Japanese faces here is a regular thing. It may be tempting to make a quip about national stereotypes and 'following the flag', but based on just how many British visitors to New York flock to Gordon Ramsay's (very average by all accounts) restaurant at the London Hotel, it's clear that such gastro-tourism isn't confined to just one country. In any case, the clientele at Tempo have a much more important reason to visit than to gawp at a celebrity chef - the food is really bloody good.
The sight of the house bread briefly gave me a hideous flashback to Dego, but despite the similar styles and shapes these, thank God, were a world apart. They weren't stale, for a start. More than that, though, the focaccia was moist and moreish, the bread sticks flavoured subtly with caraway seeds, and the large crispbreads were oaty and beautifully seasoned.
All three cicchetti that we tried were excellent. The fried seafood, crumbed in polenta I think, were greaseless and the whitebait in particular had a fantastic flavour. It was also nice to find a whole baby squid in amongst the other larger pieces of calamari. A single chunk of octopus tentacle had a delicate crisp on the outside and full flavour within, and came with a nice sharp parsley and pomegranate salad. But best of all was a simply astonishing N'duja sausage crostino, shockingly chillified and satisfyingly piggy.
This mussel and razor clam antipasti had a decent (if slightly under-seasoned) broth and contained good fresh seafood, but the real star of the show were the borlotti beans which added a buttery richness and interesting texture. I also liked the huge chunks of garlic.
Wild boar pappardelle was another top dish; lovely firm eggy pasta topped with a heady, gamey ragu flavoured - as my friend spotted - with bone marrow for extra unctuousness. It was seasoned well and the thick ribbons of pasta were silky and delicious.
It was probably only the contrast with the extremely the high standards of the previous dishes that meant I didn't quite enjoy a fish stew as much as I thought I would. Although one particular element - a heavenly charcoal-grilled (I think) chunk of smoky white fish - was brilliant, the other bits including the broth were rather one-dimensional for a plate of food costing the best part of £20. Similarly, baby chicken (sorry, polletto) had a nice crispy skin but the thigh and breast portions were noticably more moist and tasty than the slightly overcooked legs. No disasters here, with either dish, but no fireworks either. Those would have to wait for the dessert.
"The best lemon tart I have ever eaten in my life" my friend said, and she is not normally easy to impress. An impossibly delicate toasted sugar crust topped a light, citrusy filling, all supported by a perfectly judged pastry base. The wobbly lemon filling dissolved like warm jelly in the mouth, and if the tart itself wasn't brilliant enough, taken with the slightly soured cream the contrast between sharp and earthy, sweet and sour was extraordinary. It was a pudding so perfect, so completely satisfying on every level that even if nothing else the whole evening had been edible the trip to Mayfair would have still been worthwhile. Heavenly. Oh, some ice creams and sorbets were quite nice too, particularly the mascarpone one.
Tempo is, by anyone's standards, a very good Italian restaurant and although you would hope so at these prices (we didn't pay but I imagine if we had there wouldn't have been much change from £150 for the two of us), being expensive and being in Mayfair is no guarantee that a place is going to be any good - just look at Theo Randall. The lows were never too low to be uncomfortable, and the highs - I'm thinking particularly of the house bread, the n'duja crostino and That Lemon Tart - were occasionally stratospheric. Last night I learned that the country of your birth need have nothing to do with the type of food you cook, that the owner of Tempo is mates with Jeffrey Archer (true story), and a lemon tart can be a life changing event. And most of all, the Japanese have excellent taste in restaurants.
I was invited to review Tempo.