Monday, 21 January 2019

Bancone, Covent Garden

Has London become obsessed with pasta because we finally have a load of great places to choose from, or has London's selection of excellent pasta restaurants expanded to fill a demand for great pasta? Certainly Italian restaurants have been a feature of British life for much of the last hundred years, from your local candle-in-a-Chianti-bottle Mamma Mia to the highest of falutin' Mayfair hotel, and yet even the most celebrated expressions of the form, such as the River Café which prides itself on strict authenticity, left me wondering how regular Italians could afford to house and clothe themselves if it was normal to spend £21 on a bowl of crab linguini.

So what changed? Well, along came Padella. Offering the unbeatable combination of silky fresh pasta, great ingredients and low prices, this bright little spot in Borough Market has been ludicrously oversubscribed - almost to the point of disqualification from recommendation - ever since it opened in 2016. I've long since given up trying to get in myself; the last straw was when I was told there was a 2 1/2 hour wait on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but there's no denying the effect it had on pasta restaurants generally. Suddenly so much of the old guard seemed overpriced and dull, and leaner, brighter pasta joints with short menus and interesting drinks lists - Lina Stores, Fat Tony's - began to rule the roost.

And now we have Bancone, yet more good news for pasta lovers. Firstly, and most importantly for those not relishing the prospect of standing in the rain for two hours whenever they fancy some gnocchi, you can book - which sets it apart from quite a few restaurants of any kind in Covent Garden and Soho never mind thrusting new pasta joints. I'd recommend sitting at one of the bar seats but I don't think you'd have a bad time anywhere in the room - it's a really well-thought out and theatrical space, with plenty of entertaining activity from the open kitchens.

It's also a lovely space to nurse a negroni and wait for a friend who was running half an hour late, time which thankfully seemed to fly by. I don't know whether it was the effect of the negroni or because I was ravenously hungry but these olives - Nocellara from Sicily - were absolutely superb, all buttery and sweet and salty.

The pasta dishes, once they were eventually ordered, did not disappoint. These are something called "silk handkerchiefs", with walnut butter and confit egg yolk, a style I'd not seen before but which impressed with its bold flavours and thick, robust folds. If I'm going to be brutally honest, there was something about the walnut butter and egg yolk sauce that was just a touch the wrong side of rich - it was occasionally a bit like eating pasta coated in cake mixture - but this could have been a personal thing.

Oxtail ragu with mafalde had the same bold, thick, al-dente pasta shaped this time into frilly ribbons, all coated in a wonderfully rich salty beef sauce. Plenty of pasta, plenty of beef - in fact plenty of everything you'd need - it was a genuinely lovely dish, and at £11.50 certainly less than you could pay for a similar thing elsewhere.

Both of us were stuffed after the pasta, but were having such a nice time that sticking around for dessert seemed like a good idea. So tarragon panna cotta with poppy seeds & lemon (£7) and a glass of sweet wine was an excuse to hang around a bit longer. Eventually, though, we paid up - £32.50 a head with more than enough booze - having been thoroughly won over by everything about the place, surely one of the more impressive new openings Covent Garden has seen in recent years.

If we assume that there's no such thing as a perfect pasta restaurant, then choosing the right one for you is a case of priorities. If you don't have a lot to spend and don't mind a wait, then of course there will always be Padella, still attracting the crowds to this day, much to the frustration of some. And if you want to book, can spend a few quid more and don't mind sitting in a hospital waiting room then Fat Tony's a Bar Termini Centrale is still definitely worth your time - I still have happy dreams about their bucatini in tomato and guanciale.

But Bancone, being bookable and not too expensive and occupying a room that you'd actually go out of your way to spend time in rather than suffer for the sake of good food, impresses on so many different levels at once it's hard to think of any reason why you wouldn't want to eat there again and again and again. Maybe Padella just has better pasta, maybe the River Café can shower you with expensive ingredients and a modern riverside setting, but if you want a darn good plate of pasta in Covent Garden, for not too much money and without having to stand in the rain for hours for the privilege, there's Bancone. I will certainly be back.


EDIT: Sadly Fat Tony's at Termini Centrale is no more - but the same guys are set up shop in Market Halls Victoria as Nonna Tonda so you can go there for your bucatini (probably).


Unknown said...

Or you could go to Fat Tony's in Camberwell for, well, who the fuck knows, but almost certainly not great pasta ;p

Lizzie said...

I always get 1.5 pasta dishes at Bancone, how did you get stuffed on 1? I LOVE the silk handkerchiefs, and always yes to more parmesan!

Wiewelt said...

Do you think eating eating earlier (as denoted by the time-stamp on your receipt) is more beneficial than eating later? Not a challenge in any way, just an idle question that came to an idle mind after reading another of your increasingly valuable surveys. I'm sorry to admit I missed Fat Tony at Termini mezzo despite being a BIG/HUGE fan of Termini centro.