Friday 25 March 2022

Noci, Islington

Theoretically there's no reason why there couldn't be an exciting, modern mid-range Italian restaurant in every corner of London. If the wild successes of Padella and Bancone have taught us anything, it's that Londoners love a good fresh pasta dish, and are more than willing to join a long and slow queue in whatever inclement weather the city decides to throw at us, as long as at the end of it we can enjoy a nice plate of cacio e pepe and an Aperol spritz.

However, as you may have noticed, there isn't an exciting, modern mid-range Italian in every corner of London, and genuinely accomplished (and affordable) pasta dishes are few and far between. For every Padella with its exquisitely tasteful and masterfully constructed take on the classics, there's a Norma, their bull-in-a-china-shop attitude to ingredient combinations yielding some pretty distressing results. And for every Bancone, whose striking silk handkerchief pasta topped with egg yolk became an instant classic as well as a genuine sub-£10 bargain, there's chain rubbish like Carluccio's, clogging up our high streets with soggy linguini and overpriced deli tat.

Noci is neither as bad as Carluccio's, nor as good as Bancone, which makes the job of reviewing it rather difficult. It's not that any of the dishes were inedible, they just weren't particularly memorable either, and all the while you get the very strong impression of a solid, well-meaning kitchen attempting to tribute-act their way to success without quite grasping what made the original (the head chef is ex-Bancone) work so well. Take the focaccia, for example - perfectly nice, just not quite enough texture or salt or flavour, and I'm not sure dumping a handful of cold stewed onions on top really achieved much.

Seared tuna steak was, well, fine - bit underseasoned and a tad on the dry side but not too bad. I'm not sure the runner beans did enough of interest to provide a proper accompaniment, and the salsa they were topped with appeared to be not much more than chopped sun dried tomatoes, but it was just about worth the £9.50.

Fried squid were much more my kind of thing - greaseless, nicely seasoned and served with a little pot of bagna cauda. If I'm going to be brutally honest the bagna was a little bit too fatty and without quite enough of a hit of anchovy, but it was still a better starter than the tuna.

We were soon onto the pasta dishes though, all arriving at once which was quite slick of them. People are bound to directly compare the silk handkerchief pasta here with the Other Place, so I might as well too - Noci's isn't as good. In Bancone the dish is a masterclass of cool understatement, beautifully arranged fat flowers of pasta glossy with walnut butter surrounding a single egg yolk. The Noci version was carelessly presented, the two different shades of pasta confusing the eye (I thought the darker ones were mushrooms until I looked closer) and scattered underseasoned funghi doing nothing but distract from the (decent) pasta. The nice bright orange Burford Brown egg was an upgrade though, so I'll give them that.

This was on the menu as "Cacio e pepe bigoli", but the eagle-eyed (and the recently-returned-from-Verona - me) amongst you may have spotted that these aren't bigoli, but in fact bucatini. Perhaps they thought we wouldn't notice. They were OK, but the flavour was quite subdued and the pasta had a strange tackiness, and was nowhere near as good as the heavenly version at Padella.

Veal & pork ragu was rather unpleasantly sweet, possibly from too many aggressively caramelised onions - in fact it was my least favourite of all of the dishes. There was no real meaty hit, it was all a bit bland and characterless, and the pasta (paccheri) had the same cloying texture of the buccatini. Not particularly nice, I'm afraid. Also, although TĂȘte De Moine is perfectly nice in many other contexts, the Italian I was eating with had more than a few words to say about the logic of topping an Italian dish with Swiss cheese, let me tell you.

Much better was lamb open ravioli, which not only had perfectly constructed pasta and lovely rich lamb but, somewhat against expectation, the addition of chive oil not only brought beautiful highlights of shimmering green but also a genuinely interesting extra herby note, really complimenting the meat. One of the more successful dishes, this one.

And lastly, seared scallops, nice in of themselves despite needing a bit more of a crust, but on a bed of pappardelle in cavolo nero sauce so utterly devoid of flavour - despite plenty of pancetta which may as well have been fried cardboard for all the seasoning it provided - that we were finally compelled to ask the front of house for some salt. It helped, but this was still a pretty underwhelming dish, and at £16.50 the most expensive item on the menu.

There were, in the end, bits and pieces to enjoy at Noci. But it all felt like a bit of a tribute act, and much as I can enjoy a tribute act, the fact is, the genuine article is still out there wowing the crowds for about the same amount of money and slightly more style. Eating at Noci is the culinary equivalent of a Bootleg Beatles concert - you have to admire the technique and the effort involved even if the result is ultimately no more than four slightly squishy middle-aged men jiggling about in ill-fitting suits and silly wigs. Only with pasta.

With a bill of £40 each with only a glass of wine, it wasn't back-breakingly expensive, just very slightly pricier than elsewhere, and not as good. And I'm afraid there's no real way of framing that as a recommendation. Of course this being London you can pay a lot more for a lot less, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a thrusting new Italian restaurant in Islington to be aiming a little bit higher than adequate, let alone to live up to the promise of its pedigree. Life's too short for boring pasta.


Wednesday 16 March 2022

Cascina della Taverna, Desenzano del Garda

One of the best things about visiting food-obsessed friends in a foreign country is that - if you're lucky - you generally get taken to the best places without having to put much of an effort into the decision-making process yourself. And often, after a wonderful meal in the middle of nowhere, you get driven home without having to worry about taxis or late-night trains. This is all, clearly, to the good.

The one teeny downside, though, is that taking such a back seat on planning this meal at Cascina della Taverna, I quite shamefully a) did very little research on the place beforehand, and b) even now couldn't tell you exactly where it was on a map without cheating and using my iPhone picture history. All I knew, as we arrived at this remote farmhouse somewhere over the border to Lombardy, was that it was a family-owned restaurant that specialised in steak cooked over a wood fire. And to be quite honest, that's all I needed to know.

The first indication that this place took their steaks very, very seriously was a menu that boasted a pretty comprehensive selection of cow not just from the local area but from as far afield as Poland, Ireland and Germany. I'm don't know if you've noticed but the Italians are famously, to the very last one of them, almost psycopathically protective of their national cuisine, and for a cut of Hereford beef from Ireland to find its way onto the menu of a restaurant in Lombardy, presumably risking the ire of the locals, is quite a statement of confidence in its quality.

However, I didn't come all this way to eat Irish beef. Instead, I thought I'd start with some horse. In this case, carpaccio, lightly seasoned with salsa verde and drizzled with olive oil, with a lovely firm-but-biteable texture and an interesting gamey flavour somewhere between venison and steak. I'd eaten horse before (not least a fillet steak we cooked in Verona a few days before) but never carpaccio, and it was a genuine revelation how well it worked instead of the usual beef.

But nice though the horse was, I was here for one reason only. And that was a giant Fiorentina steak, dark and crusty on the outside and just touching room temperature in the very centre, cooked in their beautiful wood-fired hearth, in the true Italian farmhouse style. From the list of options I'd decided to go as local as possible, so this Barbina Franciacorta came from, as the name suggests, Franciacorta which is a wine making region just further north west past Brescia. And of course, it was everything I hoped it would be, a masterclass in live-fire technique matched with expert animal husbandry and the usual Italian obsession with finish and quality. Just look at the way that crust glistens, and how dark and rare the meat is next to the bone. Utterly brilliant.

We may have eaten some other things, I can hardly remember. The thing is, I was so far out of my usual blogging mindset I barely remembered to take a photo of the food at all, and would have happily just scoffed down my steak, paid up and then been led back to the car and been driven home like a slightly baffled elderly English relative on a rare trip abroad. I think there were some potatoes, and a bowl of greens, probably puntarelle as they seem to have been on every restaurant menu in Veneto that week. I'm sure they were lovely. But I had my steak and that was that.

I think the bill came to about €70 each, artifically inflated (sorry Italian friends) by my stubborn insistence on the full 3-inch thick Fiorentina rather than any lesser costata on offer. I think you can eat at this place for a lot less, or - as is probably more usual - take a few more people with you to share the Fiorentina. But bugger it, I regret nothing. It was certainly the best steak I'd eaten since Extebarri, and it was a damn sight cheaper than that, let me tell you.

There's no doubt, having stayed in Verona with a blogger friend from way back, that I had a slightly exaggeratedly wonderful experience of the food in this part of the world than would have been the case if I'd just relied on my own research or - horror of horrors - just done the usual tourist thing and eaten wherever looked decent on the day. But that said, outside of a few very dangerously glamorous spots in Verona and Venice, I very much got the impression that €20/coffee ripoff joints very much the exception, and for the most part Italian food really just is that good. And for a case in point, Cascina della Taverna, a shining embassador for one of the worlds great cuisines.


Tuesday 8 March 2022

You Decide 2022

Right, I've put this off long enough. I can only use Covid as an excuse for so long, and now I'm not wearing a mask on the tube any more there's no reason I can't subject myself to the usual ritual Death by Restaurant. So it's time, after a two year break, for my considerate and well-meaning readership (hint hint) to vote on the subject of my next restaurant review.

Same caveats apply:

1. I can't have reviewed the place before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)

2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)

3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.

And yes, I am aware it's more than likely I'll end up going to Nusr-Et, but that doesn't mean I can't start you off with Nathan Outlaw as an option, either. SOLA won last time, so there's always hope. Knock yourselves out.

EDIT: Nusr-Et was, predictably, the winner. I'd better start saving.

Monday 7 March 2022

Brutto, Clerkenwell

People used to say about Polpo, the game-changing take on a Venetian bacaro founded by Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, that it was "never really about the food". You went for the carefully crafted atmosphere of a canalside Venetian bar, exciting new cocktails (at least to London) like Negronis and Aperol Spritz, and a front of house where piercings, tattoos and beards were not just tolerated but promoted, instead of as had previously always been the case, rendering their owners unemployable. People went for all that, the story goes, and the food was an afterthought.

Initially, this did indeed seem to be the case. I really did not have a good time with the food on my first visit back in 2009, and being a lot more unforgiving of teething problems from a brand new kitchen team back then, gave it a rather grumpy 4/10. However, even then there was something new and exciting about the place - a certain sense that you enjoyed being in that room and watching the rather louche Soho service do their thing, and the fact that so many others clearly thought the same (the queues very soon trailed down Beak Street) meant you felt like some kind of exclusive club, brave new adventurers in this new direction for London dining.

Russell - for he is now un-partnered from Beatty - has learned a lot in the intervening fourteen years, as you might hope he would. Brutto is his latest venture, a pitch-perfect take on a neighbourhood Tuscan trattoria (I can say with some confidence, having been there), with the same eye for interior design detail and clandestine, bustling atmosphere, but - crucially - with a kitchen that right from the start seems to be out to impress. The Negronis, as you might imagine, are a good way to start.

Tonnato is a dish that has to be completely perfect or it's completely disgusting, but fortunately this one was the former. Slices pork replaced the more usual veal, and sliced caperberries provided just enough pickle to cut through the tuna/anchovy (I assume both but who knows) sauce. It also tasted a lot better than my photo makes it look, which goes for everything else we ate that evening. Sorry, it was dark in there.

Anchovies and (lots of) butter is a combination I can always get behind, especially with anchovies as good as these - soft and melt-in-the-mouth - and of course accompanied by St John sourdough.

There's an element of the menu design at Brutto that's more than a little tongue-in-cheek, but there's nothing wrong with that. An Italian friend laughed out loud at the idea of ordering "penne con vodka" in a restaurant in 2022, but it was genuinely excellent with nice big healthy shapes in a rich tomato sauce. Photos are for illustrative purposes only.

Even more exciting was rabbit papardelle, rich and fully flavoured with mysterious herbal notes, the giant folds of pasta glistening with butter. Again my photo does not do it justice, for which I can only wholeheartedly apologise to everyone at Brutto. You sincerely deserve better.

This is not, as first appears, the Creature from the Black Lagoon but in fact (you'll have to take my word for it) an absolutely blindingly good side of puntarelle with some kind of bagna cauda, an extremely addictive combination. Almost everything on the menu is simple on paper but in some way complex and unexpectedly extra rewarding on arrival. Nothing is lazy or ordinary.

Finally, a giant plate of pink roast beef with crunchy roast potatoes. Perhaps it could have done with a sauce, but then maybe that's not the point of Italian steak - I seem to remember not getting one with my Fiorantina in Veneto a couple of weeks back. Anyway the beef was lovely, and the potatoes crunchy on the outside and full of personality.

The bill came to about £60/head, or at least would have done had they not knocked a couple of negronis off, so thanks very much for that. But either way, it seems about the right amount of money to pay for a dinner like this, pretty much equivalent to the cost per head in Polpo back in the day (adjusted for inflation) and let me tell you, this food is an order of magnitude more accomplished than that (at least in the early days).

We've come a long way, the restaurateurs and restaurant-goers of London, both. We've suffered through worldwide recessions and repeated miserable lockdowns, we've followed new directions and new concepts, mourned the closures and cheered the re-openings. But for as long as somewhere like Brutto can spring into existence, survive and thrive - and blimey it's hard to get a table - there's a chance there are, in fact, more reasons to be hopeful than not. Brutto, then, perhaps not as gamechanging as Polpo, but much more accomplished. And I know which one I prefer.