Wednesday, 14 August 2013
As much as I enjoy squeezing onto the end of a hard wooden bench eating food off a paper plate - and I do enjoy this very much, otherwise I wouldn't get much out of the very excellent Kerb streetfood events - occasionally it is nice to be pampered. Pampered with soft carpets, white tablecloths, white hand towels in the bathrooms, napkins that are magically folded the moment you step up from your table, and a lighting scheme that makes everyone and everything glow with celestial light. And also, it goes without saying, sparkling service and the kind of food that wants to make you pitch up and stay the night. That kind of pampered.
The trick is finding a restaurant that has the whole package, as in, all the trimmings of fine dinings but also fantastic food worth the price being asked for it. There are plenty of chic, celebrity-soaked haunts in Kensington and Knightsbridge that have some of the above - I'm thinking particularly of Cassis, an artfully-designed space on the Brompton Road that is very impressive until you try to eat anything, or The Collection, mercifully trading no longer, whose vast black marble bar and mezzanine dining room compensated for overpriced, oversalted pub grub.
But to have plush décor, world-class service, great food and a bill that doesn't threaten to reacquaint you with your meal as soon as you set eyes on it, that is a rare thing indeed. So thank the dining gods (and one in particular, Alexis Gauthier) for Tartufo, a basement restaurant just off Sloane Square which is so utterly charming in almost every respect that it's like being hugged by a giant, white-linen-wrapped old friend.
A meal like this starts, not with the first bite, but with a greeting, and in that respect Tartufo are doing everything right. Staff are so well-drilled, pleasant and efficient that they could have all been working there for years, and yet astonishingly Tartufo is barely a few weeks old. I assume this, again, is the influence of mastership restaurant Gauthier which has very much had time to settle into its spot in Soho and from where presumably some of the team have graduated.
Better remember the dazzling greeting than the first bite, too, as unfortunately a mini cheese and tomato amuse was disconcertingly icy-fridge-fresh. We were the first people to sit down that evening, though, and a few minutes early at that, so perhaps we'd caught them unawares. And furthermore, from that point onwards, Tartufo hardly put a foot wrong.
"Kentish courgettes & peas" turned out to be a kind of vegetable barley risotto, and as anyone who's ever eaten at Gauthier will tell you, if there's one thing these guys can do it's a risotto. Fresh and summery, with a great big hit of fresh peas, this was a fine dish, and a very generous portion; it's a good job my friend had me to help her with it. I didn't hear any word of a thank-you though - so ungrateful some people.
Pasta dishes were even better. Wild rocket & lovage ravioli, despite possibly suffering from a few extra seconds in the pan than completely necessary, were dressed in one of those heavenly veal stock reductions that make me want to glance furtively around the room before mopping it up with my fingers. And just look at the truffle on the walnut and mascarpone tortelli - a generosity that belies the £10/course price point and then some. The smell, as you might imagine, was something else, and infused the dining room at various points in the evening as it arrived in front of other lucky customers.
Similarly, a generous number of sliced neck of lamb, pink inside with a good crust, rested on a bed of gently cheesy parmesan gratin, and alongside a cute little pot of garlic & parsley Jerseys. If I didn't know better I'd say they'd probably used the same thyme-infused veal jus as for the pasta dish, but picking apart a £10 dish of this quality seems deeply unfair. It was still licked clean.
"Dark chocolate crunch" is Tartufo's variation of the Gauthier/Roussillon/Alain Ducasse Louis XV dessert, and with a pedigree like this it couldn't go far wrong. The biscuit base a bit more firm than I'd like perhaps (requiring both arms to saw through it) but a lovely balanced flavour, and the accompanying lemon ice cream offset the main event perfectly. It was hard to capture on camera, but it was also topped with a spun-sugar "needle" that reached a good twelve inches into the air, which was great fun to snap apart and eat.
So, I'll say again, Tartufo is the complete package. Not only do you get all the pampering you might expect from the basement restaurant of a smart hotel in Belgravia, but the food is unpretentious and accessible whilst still being deeply impressive and, the real achievement in an area of town where it's still way too easy to make a living fleecing credulous Sloanes & celebs, remarkably good value. Next week there's every chance I'll be happily eating ribs off a paper plate on a wooden bench in Peckham. But whenever I feel the need for a bit of plush love, I'll be heading over to 11 Cadogan Gardens.