Monday, 28 November 2011
Degò, Fitzrovia (revisited)
I'll save you the effort of getting up to speed with this blog's tortured relationship with Degò, and attempt a quick summary. I visited a relatively new Venetian wine bar around the back of Oxford Circus with a friend in October 2010. After suffering an evening of stale bread, bland cheese and dishes that tasted like cat food soaked in olive oil, we were presented with a substantial bill that included service and still left a space for an extra tip. In short, absolutely nothing was right about the place, particularly the strange strip-joint decor, and we hated it. And I said so. And there the sorry little episode would have ended were it not for certain mysteriously partisan comments that appeared not just on my post but on various other London restaurant review sites, all in a suspiciously overly defensive vein and, despite being under different names, often containing the same turns of phrase and same little anecdotes.
Then, as if that all wasn't surreal enough, a comment appeared from their own PR, self-proclaimed "restaurant guru" Luisa Welch (other client: the Spaghetti House chain... I'm saying nothing), who decided the best way of negating bad press was to leave an entertainingly prissy rant about my spelling of "focaccia" and attacking my knowledge of Italian food and cheese in particular. In fact, Ms Welch may have had very good points, I just question the logic of saying so, under her own real name, on a negative review of her client. But hey - I'm not the expert here. Either way, the belligerence of their PR only helped to vindicate my initial opinion and very soon my experience at Degò faded like a bad dream, never to be spoken of again.
Fast forward twelve months, and Degò, very understandably, has new PR. And not just any old PR either - Lotus PR, who also handle Heston Blumenthal, and presumably know a bit about creating good press, and who responded to my cheeky "well you can't do any worse than the last lot" by bravely inviting me back to see how things had improved. I don't know what it says about me that I didn't take too long to decide to accept - I suppose either dear old Luisa Welch was right all along and I really don't know anything about food, or the meal will be just as bad, in which case it's a fairly miserable evening but at least I get to say I was right in the first place. Who can resist the temptation of a lose-lose situation like that?
My opinion's unchanged on one thing at least from the first time - the decor at Degò is utterly hideous. Back in 2010 we had spent the evening upstairs in the wine bar area, a room decked out in black Formica with scarlet red detail that brought to mind a cross between an MFI kitchen showroom and Spearmint Rhino's. But downstairs, incredibly, is even worse - more of the same trashy black and red but with two huge flat screen TVs bolted above the bar showing pointless silent looping videos of vineyards, and darkened low booths whose uncomfortably deep leather seats meant that you had to either sit bolt upright and unsupported to eat or slump right back with your legs in the air. I'm told they're losing the TVs soon but I have a feeling they'll have to do a lot more than that to make this a comfortable place to eat your dinner.
But, some things have changed at Degò. The house bread, so stale and tasteless the first time, was now very nice; even the focaccia (note spelling) which crumbled like old cake before was now bouncy and moist and perfectly seasoned. The selection of house meats, bland and badly butchered then were now attractively presented and full of flavour, and I only tried one cheese this time but it was a very interesting mix of three milk types (cow's, sheep's and goat's) and the contrast with the tray of boring lumps of cheddar-a-likes from 2010 couldn't have been more sharp.
"Ah", you're thinking, "but before you visited anonymously and paid for yourself. Of course you're going to be presented with fresh bread and with greater care taken over sliced meats and cheese when you're sat having dinner with their PR guy". And if my meal had ended here, I'd agree with you - it's not difficult to make a bit of extra effort with the charcuterie when you know you have to, and it shouldn't be above any restaurant to improve from the horribly low standards of the house bread from my last visit. But things were about to get a lot more strange.
Steak Tartare, using Jack O'Shea's fillet steak freshly minced tableside (a nice, if admittedly quite pointless bit of theatre) was quite lovely - powerfully flavoured cow mixed with a good balance of sweet and sour and crunchy elements. Sadly in London there are still more bland, disappointing tartares than there are any worth paying for, but this was one of the best I've had. And a goat's cheese soufflé was fresh and fluffy, and presented with some leaves of the most brilliant braised fennel, a perfect match to the sharp cheese. Does it sound like I'm picking tricky dishes to try and trip them up? I was. And it wasn't working.
Surely a traditional Venician pasta dish would expose Degò for the shallow tourist trap I knew it was? Bigoli is a type of hand made buckwheat pasta, like thick spaghetti. I'd not tried it, or even seen it, anywhere before, but it was quite brilliant - a rich, earthy taste of bucolic Northern Italian tradition, with just enough bite to roll around the mouth without being cloying. But the duck ragu it was soaked in - wow. Rich doesn't even begin to describe just how complex and rewarding the flavour was from this superficially simple looking meat sauce - quite brilliant.
Expectations shattered, confidence in my critical abilities shot, reeling from the blows of all my certainties coming crashing down around me in the space of an evening, I had one last chance to try and derail Degò. For my main course I insisted on ordering the T-bone steak - at £54 for 900g this was in line with the prices charged at Hawksmoor or Goodman but surely to God couldn't be as good as either of those? It arrived, it smelled fantastic, I tasted it, it was superb. Expertly cooked (though perhaps without that extra crust of a really hot grill), correctly seasoned, sliced into huge melty, buttery chunks of medium rare and with the same powerful flavour of top quality beef that had made the tartare so special, it was - honestly - a close to perfect steak. It wasn't technically a T-bone, actually - the fillet side seemed to be missing - but I still loved it.
So, what the hell is going on here? As far as I know, and I'm told, the same chef and pretty much the entire same team works at Degò today as did in October last year. But I just can't see how the same people who happily signed off that smelly octopus surrounded by pink goo or that balloon of rubbery mozzarella jokingly described as 'burrata' back then could have, in the space of a year, turned things around quite so dramatically. Towards the end of the evening Massimo, the Degò head chef, turned up for a chat and, rather than attempting to cleave me in twain with a 20" cook's knife, which I could understand, explained that in the first few weeks he was mainly out of the kitchen dealing with the various billion-and-one crises that every new restaurant has to cope with and probably wasn't keeping too much of an eye on the food. Which kind of makes sense but then, this wasn't just a disappointing meal we're talking about - my dinner in 2010 was a complete unmitigated disaster, every bit of everything we ate was in some way wrong. Degò hasn't just turned itself around, it's done the equivalent of raising itself from the dead. I still don't know whether to be happy for them or be terrified it may turn again and start actually killing people like some kind of undead restaurant zombie.
Who knows what kind of lessons can be learned here - that good PR works, perhaps, although Degò really did most of the opinion changing work for themselves by being suddenly inexplicably brilliant at cooking. That one meal isn't enough to write off a restaurant? Maybe, although I still absolutely stand by my first review, and there's surely an argument that if they are capable of being quite that bad, for however long, they deserve all they get. But here's me giving Degò a second chance anyway, and despite the risk of looking like a biddable PR shill I'm very glad I did - Degò still isn't perfect, but it is at least somewhere near Oxford Circus that deserves your money. And at no point in the last twelve months did I ever think I'd be saying that.
Apologies for lack of pictures - the dark, gloomy winters are lean times for food photography, and the dining room at Dego is gloomier than most