Friday, 6 April 2018

Osteria, Barbican

On Wednesday evening I broke one of the cardinal sins of eating out - I chose a restaurant based on setting and location, rather than the appeal of the menu or skills of the kitchen. This is usually a recipe for disaster, as it's well known the Curse of Tall Restaurants (a catch-all term that includes restaurants in impressive settings of any kind that don't have to try very hard to attract custom, no matter how far off the ground they are) is always ready to strike at any unfortunate punter that thinks the view from the 30th floor of an anonymous city tower block will make up for any lack of interest on the plate. Well maybe it can, for some people, just not the restaurant spods I tend to hang around with.

But while I am immune to the charms of most Tall Buildings you could mention, can take or leave river views and regard soaring marble atriums and plush furnishing with extreme indifference (this isn't the least bit true, but I'm trying to make a point so bear with me), there's one building - or more accurately, series of buildings - in London in which I would happily spend weeks on end, dinner or no dinner.

The Barbican is a breathtaking work of brutalist genius, a vast complex of soaring, bush-hammered concrete towers, monolothic apartment blocks dripping with hanging plants, and a series of landscaped grounds - including an astonishing sunken water garden - that adds up to as impressive a work of visual and sculptural art that you can find from any century, in any art gallery or museum in the world. I love its romantic spotlit stairways, the walkways threading their way through it all several stories in the air, the confidence and intelligence in every tiny detail of the place. I just love it there.

So yes, dinner at Osteria, on the third floor of the Barbican Centre (the arts complex in the middle of it all) was mainly an excuse to spend a couple of blissful hours taking in the beauty of the surroundings, out of the rain without resorting to standing in the theatre lobby downstairs and gawping like I usually do. The food didn't have to be brilliant, or even very good, to be worth our time.

Happily though, it was - most of it - more than worth the price of admission, and rather than being something to do with our hands while enjoying the view over the lakes and fountains, the food impressed in its own right. House foccacia was only slightly on the insubstantial side but tasted soft and fresh, and soaked up the olive oil nicely.

Ham broth was exactly what was expected and what was required, and so we had no complaints. A good, clear consommé, strongly seasoned and containing huge chunks of pig, the poached egg adding an extra layer of silky complexity, it was an eminently enjoyable starter.

So, too, a dish of grilled sardines coated in anchovy breadcrumbs and samphire. The effort that had clearly gone into removing most of the bones in the fish was appreciated, but it still wasn't quite bone-free enough to eat as a fillet, and the extensive further surgery required rather made the initial labour rather superfluous. They were fine little things though, soft flesh and crisp skin, and seasoned well.

Pan-roasted spring chicken had a strongly citrussy and nicely crisped skin strongly resembling the product from Chicken Shop, and as anyone who's ever been to Chicken Shop will tell you, this is a Good Thing. Perhaps the purple potatoes could have been a little warmer but that's a minor criticism of a dish that was otherwise effortlessly, straightforwardly enjoyable.

Similarly wild boar ragu, perhaps not the most blindingly wonderful bit of pasta I've ever been presented with in my life but cooked nicely al-dente, coated in plenty of parmesan and with a good mound of minced boar to make up for a slightly insipid tomato sauce. But the important thing is, both plates were licked clean. Not literally, that have been a bit embarrassing, but we certainly didn't leave anything edible behind.

We were even enjoying ourselves enough, thanks as much to the attentive service as the stunning views over St Giles Cripplegate and the City of London School for Girls, to order dessert. Sadly here our enthusiasm took a bit of a knock - sorbets were fine, a mango flavour probably being the best of the three flavours presented, the others lacking a bit in personality. But tiramisu was a pretty dubious affair, squirty cream and chopped-up brownie soaked in what felt like half a pint of booze, which felt us feeling rather queasy.

Still, all said and done, we were sat in the Barbican, playing a real part in the life of this extraordinary place, soaking in the atmosphere and making use of the cool 70s concrete toilets. For that alone it would have been worth the £42.75 a head with a carafe of Gavi di Gavi, and for the food to be not just passable but actually pretty enjoyable was a quite significant bonus. Apologies if this has turned into more of an architecture than food blog, but I hope you'll not mind indulging me just this once - rules are meant to be broken, and there's no building in London breaks the rules so comprehensively, and so successfully, as this brutalist beauty. Oh, and Osteria? That's rather good, too.


1 comment:


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