Friday, 2 August 2013
I do not have a good track record with high-end Italian restaurants in London, and to that end I suppose accepting an invitation to Cotidie, a smart and unselfconsciously expensive new place on the site of the old Café Luc, carried a certain amount of risk. Experiences at Apsleys, with its seafood starter presented on fully nine different plates, and Theo Randall, where the only things to set the pulse racing were the prices, had gone some way to convince me that the multi-Michelin-star treatment only distracts from the pure, honest joy of Italian food.
Of course, this is unfair, if not also a little patronising. There is no cuisine (within reason) that should be inherently incompatible with the full fine dining treatment, and I have no doubt that such internationally-famous restaurants such as Osteria Francescana in Modena, or Da Vittorio near Milan, fully deserve the acclaim they regularly receive. It's just that, in London, the most successful Italians tend to be mid-priced, ingredients-led little trattorias like Zucca or Trullo, or no-nonsense pizza parlours like Pizza Pilgrims (newly opened on Dean Street - you should go) or Homeslice (on Neals Yard, ditto), and that the more places try and push the average spend per head, the less I tend to enjoy myself.
But here we are anyway, and with my very best open-minded face on, I sat down to see if Cotidie could convince me it is, even if only occasionally, worth paying £20 for a plate of pasta. And indeed we started well enough, with a basket of very good house bread and a little pot of sheep's milk butter, something I'd not tried before and enjoyed very much with its faintly cheesy, salty taste and grainy texture.
Amuse of a kind of raw tuna and artichoke salad was lovely too, fresh and summery and livened by all sorts of clever texture plays (sorbet, jelly, etc). I wasn't entirely sure of all the ingredients, but then neither was our server who instead of going off and checking when asked, opted instead to make up some items off the top of his head that were evidently not anything to do with the dish in front of us. Tasted good, though.
But soon the starters arrived, and all at once I was wondering, again, if the ingredients on my plate really were best served being smeared and foamed and frilled-up, or if it was all just a sleight of hand to justify the prices. Foie gras, for example, had once been a fantastic example of cruelly-inflated goose liver, not a trace of stringiness and perfectly moist, but was unnervingly chilly, and if you can't get the main ingredient served hot I'm afraid all the other elements - lovely sweet fruit, and a scattering of interesting raw nuts - aren't going to make up for it.
Sicilian red prawn tartare was ordered mainly in the hope it could touch the hem of the Bocca di Lupo crudités, and in particular the langoustines which are still alive and kicking in a tray under the bar when you order them. Sadly, it wasn't to be - the raw prawns themselves, despite having a slight sweetness, were mainly notable for their offputting slimy texture, and though the diced scallops underneath were fine, there wasn't enough citrus elsewhere to balance out the seafood, and so the whole thing ended up a rather disappointing sickly mush.
All of which makes the next course all the more surprising. Herb ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms, together with chunks of seared scallops, conspired to be one of the most enjoyable pasta dishes I can remember eating in a very long time. The pasta itself was expertly al-dente, encasing a mushroom filling so rich it could pass for aged beef. The scallops, so forgettable in the starter, had here been treated right - ie. cooked - and were as sweet and tasty as you could ever wish for. The only issue, really, was the twee presentation, perfectly circular ravoli orbiting a pile of toasted breadcrumbs, each leaving a smear of beetroot behind - it looked like a child's painting of the solar system.
Veal fillet was seasoned and seared well, leaving a good centre of raw meat, and I liked the idea of resting it on a lattice of thin sliced courgette to soak up the juices. But I still don't think there's ever been an excuse to use roofing materials in lieu of tableware, and though most of the vegetables were fine, an inedibly firm bit of fennel and some horrible chalky purple potatoes let the side down. Also, it doesn't feel very... Italian, does it?
Pre-dessert of a kind of celery granita was nice enough. I guess you can't expect fireworks from an unannounced extra course, but it felt appropriate for the steamy weather and we polished it off quite happily. Not sure what the intended effect was with the smears on the glass, though - it just looked like they hadn't done the washing-up properly.
Then finally, a hazelnut and mascarpone dessert, very plainly presented in contrast to what had come before, pleasant yet rather unmemorable. I think we also may have knocked back a couple of digestifs, although with no bill to refer to I can't be 100% sure.
It's difficult, then, when so much time and energy has clearly gone into Cotidie, to have to report that the food is just not worth the money they are asking for it. The pasta dish alone is conclusive proof that someone in the kitchen has a great deal of talent at his or her disposal, and I have to allow for the possibility that the menu is hiding equally other impressive gems. But none of that alters the fact that I would not go back to Cotidie if I was paying, and I can't see myself recommending anyone else does, either. There may yet be room in London for a high-end Italian restaurant that justifies the outlay. But while Zucca, Trullo, Tinello, Bocca di Lupo, Tozi and their like are doing better food a lot cheaper, the high-end will need to try a whole lot harder.
I was invited to review Cotidie