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).

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Gifto's Lahore Karahi, Southall

Having spontaneously decided that it had been too long since I'd travelled to far West London for dinner, and having picked an evening to put that right, the next step was to decide precisely where to eat. Various parties have, over the years, come to the conclusion that the Brilliant was the top of the charts in that part of town, but an unfortunately lacklustre meal in their sister restaurant recently in Fulham Broadway meant we didn't quite have the nerve to risk it. So instead, we found ourselves one fateful Friday night travelling (slowly, oh so slowly, thanks to the fact that Southall appears to be one continuous traffic jam) towards a very similarly well-regarded (according to an Eater list I read) Gifto's Lahore Karahi, occupying a large and brightly-lit chunk of the Uxbridge Road.

First impressions were good, thanks to a very friendly welcome by the staff and that all-important heavenly aroma of tandoor-grilled meats. It's a functional, rather than objectively attractive, dining space, as these places tend to be, but give me a wipe-clean surface, a laminated menu and the ability to order a Mixed Grill and that's more than enough to put me in the frame of mind to enjoy myself. With a mango lassi to provide liquid refreshment (they don't sell alcohol, and though a review in the Guardian from 2001 says they allow BYO, this is apparently no longer the case) we were very much looking forward to what followed.

It continued successfully enough at first. Pani puri came with a very generous measure of tamarind liquid and chick pea filling; too generous, really, for the only six pastry casings provided - we had to leave about half a cup full of each. But the flavours were great, the pastry was glistening straight out of the fryer, and these were really very enjoyable indeed.

Also good was something called Maash Dal, new to me but using split urid lentils (more like grains of Arborio rice than chickpea) and of a thicker, dryer consistency than the more common tarka dal. Very nice it was too, with a good complex spicing and buttery feel in the mouth, and something we'd both happily order again.

Next this absolute beauty of a naan, delicate and bubbly and crisp and slicked with ghee, a very fine example of its kind. You'd expect somewhere like this to produce a decent naan, perhaps, but it's never less than delightful when it happens.

But the mixed grill. Oh dear the mixed grill. At first glance it looked the part, not arriving with as much sizzle and smoke as you might expect perhaps, but colourful and piled high with the usual suspects of lamb chops, chicken tikka and seekh kebabs. But almost immediately we noticed something just felt wrong - a kind of sadness, a lack of life and love. The lamb chops were cold and dry, clearly having either been cooked a long time ago and kept warm or (even less forgiveably) reheated. Both chicken and lamb tikka were dry and mealy, presumably subjected to the same mistreatment, a nice rich spicing for each hardly improving matters, just making the whole thing more upsetting. Only the seekh kebabs were worth the effort, being moist and full of flavour and feeling very much like the only element cooked to order.

Had the starters and sides been a bit lacklustre but the mixed grill good, I think we would have felt a lot more positive about our visit to Gifto's. Yes, nice bubbly naans and fresh puri are lovely things to enjoy, but you don't come all this way (an hour from central London on trains and a bus) for nice sides - you need the main event to be worth the effort. And this really wasn't. It wasn't even cheap, £19.80 being about £5 more than the equivalent offering from Tayyabs. And I'm yet to notice Tayyabs reheating anything.

A day or so after the meal, under an Instagram post on That Naan, alongside a few people urging us to give the Brilliant another try there was a comment from a food writer who had been sampling various places in Southall for an upcoming article. They had noticed a drop in the standards in the restaurants of Southall over the past decade or so, and attributed it to (amongst other things) 2nd and 3rd generation Indians having little interest in working in the restaurant industry. Which I suppose is understandable - restaurant work is hard; often rewarding, but hard - but doesn't make it any less sad. Perhaps Southall's best years are behind it, and we will look back on the early 2000s as some kind of golden age of Punjabi cuisine in London. Or maybe I just need to try the Brilliant after all.