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Posts Tagged ‘Italian restaurants in London’

Zucca restaurant

Zucca opened on Bermondsey Street back in March 2010, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve unsuccessfully tried once every month or two to get a table there.  If you think Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner is a hot ticket these days, Zucca is still going strong 14 months later. Last week, I finally gave up on snagging a weekend table and took a Tuesday evening spot.

So what’s Zucca’s appeal?  Oh, I don’t know.  Chic decor; good service; simple, fresh Italian cooking and low prices?  A dime a dozen in London, right?  Sure.

zucca fritti (£3.95)

There were plenty of tempting-sounding starters on the menu.  Jon and I ordered three to share, and while all of them were good, if I had to prioritize, I’d put the zucca fritti (fried pumpkin) at the bottom of the list.  Sure, they’re a house specialty, but diminishing returns kicked in after just one or two of these.  Perhaps better to order them if you’re with a bigger group.

grilled asparagus, egg, parmesan (£4.75)

Grilled asparagus, egg and parmesan was as described on the tin.  Each component was fresh and well-prepared (the egg and asparagus, that is), but the flavors never came together.  Maybe it needed a sauce?

mozzarella lentils garlic shoots (£4.25)

Loved the creamy fresh mozzarella complemented by the earthy, meaty lentils.  The garlic shoots lacked bite, but I’m biased towards scare-away-your-date strong garlic flavors, I must confess.  The mozzarella and lentils could have easily taken on stronger garlic taste, though.

casarecce with bolognese (£7)

Highlights of our dinner were definitely the pastas and the main we shared.  Rustic casarecce pasta retained a chewy al dente texture, and the pork ragu was stunningly good with a great balance of acidity, sweetness, salt and meatiness.

taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs (£7)

The taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs was lifted from ordinariness by a slight citrus flavor.  If I had to complain, I’d ask that the kitchen go a little lighter on the olive oil next time.

grilled veal chop (£14.75)

And the veal chop is as good as everyone says it is.  Tender, juicy, charred.  Unbelievably good value for £14.75.  I contrast Zucca’s version with the similarly-excellent one I ate at Paris’s L’Agrume a couple of months ago, which cost 32 euros.

affogato (£4.25)

I couldn’t resist ending dinner with affogato, which was a generous serving but how sad that there were bits of ice/freezer burn in the scoops of vanilla.

The room is large and comfortable, and while the furniture isn’t quite as luxurious as that of L’Anima, the all-white contemporary look of the two restaurants is similar.  And Zucca is about 1/3 the price of L’Anima.  With a couple of glasses of prosecco and wine, our total for two came to £65.

If you can afford to be choosy about tables (i.e., you’re not like me and just incredibly grateful to have finally landed a reservation), avoid the one or two right in front of the kitchen pass.  The servers hover there waiting to ferry dishes to customers, and you’ll end up feeling like there are four pairs of eyes watching your every move (which I assume you agree is a minus, but if you consider it a plus, then by all means request it).

Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 31Q; 0207 378 6809; closest Tube station:  London Bridge (it’s still a 15-minute walk from the Tube station, though).
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lobster and hand-rolled linguine at Murano

You’d think that after my recent disappointment with dinner at Locanda Locatelli that I’d swear off high-end Italian restaurants for a while, but it was my friend L’s birthday, and a celebration was in order. We figured we were due for a revisit to Murano, Angela Hartnett’s flagship restaurant in Mayfair, so off we went.

Despite my having only good memories of both a lunch and dinner at Murano, I haven’t been back in over a year.  The place still feels cozy and plush, and happily, while you’re scanning the menu, Murano still serves fresh-from-the-fryer, truffle-perfumed arancini, great breads and silky charcuterie.  It’s nice when the good things haven’t changed.

In the past, I hadn’t noticed a contrast between the tasting menu offerings and those of the a la carte.  This time around, though, the tasting menu read a lot more Italian with its appealing-sounding scapece, bresaola and vitello/veal courses.  Unfortunately, having arrived for a late seating and having already filled up on snacks at the nearby and excellent Connaught Bar, our group chose the a la carte.  Three courses for £65; four courses for £75.

My starter of lobster linguine (pictured at top) was the highlight of dinner, with generous chunks of juicy, sweet lobster served with gorgeously al dente linguine.  There was chili and garlic kick, smoothed out by the sweet tomato sauce.  This beat Locanda Locatelli’s version by a mile.

sweetbreads with cauliflower puree and smoked maple dressing

A friend’s sweetbreads ticked the silky-meaty box, though the piece I tried didn’t taste much of the smoked maple dressing, which I’d been curious about.  L’s carnaroli leek risotto with braised oxtail had great balance between meat and creamy starch until the last overly-sweet notes of vinegar kicked in.

Middlewhite pork belly, braised cheek and chervil root puree

Not to get too possessive, but “my” pork belly was also outstanding, though lacking in identifiably Italian characteristics.  The braised cheek added texture and meatiness to the lusciously fatty pork belly (with skin crisped to perfection).  If I had to choose only one adjective to describe the best parts of our meal, it’d be silky.  So yes, the pork belly was silky silky silky.

monkfish Meuniere, lardons, squid ink, fregola

Jon’s monkfish Meuniere was the only real clunker I remember from the evening.  The ingredients sounded brilliant on the menu, but nothing really blended in actuality.  A crispy lardon here, a perfectly-battered piece of fish there . . . .

pistachio souffle

Pistachio soufflé, served hot and airy.  Picture perfect and tough not to love, though it was a tad too sugary for me.  The warm bittersweet chocolate helped balance out the sugar, though.

Overall, while we had a few misses this time on the a la carte, Murano remains my fave of the high-end Italian restaurants in London, though admittedly it is the most Frenchified of the Italian restaurants.  (The cheese cart is a wonder).  If you stick with the tasting menu, the place will feel more Italian, though.

Murano’s service was attentive and friendly as ever, though entertainingly a couple of servers must not have noticed I was preggars because they kept pushing the wine (“Oh come on, it’s Friday night! You should have another glass!”).  I guess the spacious table miraculously hid away my enormous self and the servers don’t communicate this sort of thing with each other, but I could have done with less pressure as I was already feeling a little guilty about two large glasses I’d enjoyed.

Murano, 20 Queen Street, W1J 5PP; 0207 495 1127; closest Tube station:  Green Park.

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hotel entrance to Locanda Locatelli

It’s Friday, and we’re talking to our friends about where to meet for dinner on Saturday.  They feel like having Italian food.  “Good luck with that,” I think.  I can count on one hand the reliably-good Italian restaurants in London, and they’re always fully booked on Saturday night.

Well, the last laugh’s on me, because our friends worked some magic:   Saturday night dinner reservations at Locanda Locatelli at 9:30 pm.  I’ve never been to Locanda, but I know it’s expensive, and the food is supposed to be good.   So off we go.

First impressions are good.  The room is large, but the layout allows for lots of inviting nooks and crannies.  Our table has a nice, curved banquette.  I love banquettes.

beef carpaccio (£15)

Pork sausage, Savoy cabbage and saffron risotto starter (£13.50)

Generally, the menu offerings sound pedestrian, but most of them are well executed.  Take, for example, the beef carpaccio and platter of cured meats.  There’s a generous serving of both and the ingredients are fresh and delicious.  Still, they seem more a reflection of top-notch sourcing than of top-notch cooking.

Sadly, the one starter we ordered that was served in an unexpected way (i.e., the pork sausage and risotto) wasn’t especially tasty.  I wasn’t expecting the risotto to be a fritter, and while I am normally a lover of all things fried, having a crispy wedge of fried risotto to accompany a massive ball of sausage, all drizzled in a rich sauce, was just unrelentingly heavy.

And an artichoke salad with rocket and Parmigiano Reggiano was a total disappointment, especially for £15.  There was no interesting blending of flavors or textures.  It was as if it were a plate with three separate ingredients on it, which just reinforced my impression that it’s tough to get a decent salad in London.

We did much better with mains, which I’d say were the highlight of our dinner:

lobster linguine (£24.50)

Thanks to ingenious use of lobster stock, the lobster linguine was packed with lobster flavor despite a very stingy portion of lobster meat.  I greatly enjoyed this one, though the presentation was a little scary.  What’s with the random lobster leg jutting out like that?

Potato and mushroom gnocchi with black truffle (£19.50)

Potato-and-mushroom gnocchi with black truffle was my second-fave pasta course of the evening.  Pillowy-soft gnocchi perfumed with truffle.  Perfect.  Presentation is what you’d call rustic if you were being generous, though.

orecchiete with turnip tops, garlic and anchovies (£18)

Orecchiete was the low point of our pastas.  It was a giant plate of mush, really.  The pasta tasted as if it’d been sitting around a while, and again, the flavors didn’t blend at all.  Jon and I make a much better version of this dish at home.

braised lamb neck with polenta (£27.50)

The braised lamb neck with buttery polenta ticked all the boxes for a good braise:  fork tender, lots of rich fatty bits and a strong sauce for you to mop up.  A little more polenta to accompany the enormous portion of meat would’ve been ideal.

Contorni were a very mixed bag.  The fried artichoke (£6) was masterful, with each artichoke leaf perfectly battered and crisped, but the rest of the contorni were skippable.  Fried potatoes (£4.50) were just crispy cubes of potatoes – dressed up chips, really.  Regular ol’ broccoli and chili was £4.75 and lacking both kick and flavor.  Sauteed spinach (£4.75) was satisfying, but it’s garlic and spinach, yes?

terribly un-tasty tiramisu (£6.50)

Worst menu moment was the tiramisu.  A total crime.  Stale ladyfingers doused in a runny mascarpone and drowned in amoretto.  Despite sharing one portion among four people, we didn’t come close to finishing it, and I was mildly disappointed none of our servers bothered to ask why a little martini glass of tiramisu went only half-eaten.

With extras like a £77 bottle of a very tasty Sicilian red wine and a couple glasses of digestifs, our total for four came to £300 (£75 a person).  It was a fun evening out with friends, but given the generally-pedestrian and unven food, I wouldn’t recommend a visit.  And I definitely can’t help comparing our dinner at Locanda with my repeat dinner at Trullo just this past Monday night.

At Trullo, I paid £26 a person for a starter, an excellent pasta, a shared main of braised lamb neck, and a shared dessert (i.e., the tastiest caramel pannacotta, ever).  Service at Trullo was friendly and helpful, so the only thing that was superior about Locanda was its comfortable seating and dining room, and that’s not worth the price premium, I reckon.

Locanda Locatelli, 8 Seymour Place, W1H 7JZ; 0207 935 9088; closest Tube station:  Marble Arch

If you’re looking for Italian restaurants in London, you might also be interested in:

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Polpetto - as close as I got to eating there, sadly.

Like most food lovers in London, I like the small snack-y Italian dishes served at Polpo.  Their fried goodies, pizzas and seafood are dependably good; prices are reasonable; and the atmosphere’s lively.  The only thing not to like are the queues that form every night thanks to Polpo’s no-reservations policy.

So really, I should have known better when my friends and I made plans to drop by Polpetto (Polpo’s recently-opened sibling) on a Wednesday evening.  Optimistically, I’d hoped that because we were arriving just before 7 pm on a Wednesday, and because the initial-opening hype had died down, the wait would be minimal.  Based on early reports by Gourmet Chick and Hollow Legs, who were at Polpetto during their soft opening (when prices were 50% off), Polpetto sounded like a real winner.  So I figured the risk of a wait would be worth it.

Well.  The four of arrived at just before 7 pm, and the *single* four-person table was occupied.  (Polpetto, you may have heard, is about half the size of already-tiny Polpo).  So Polpetto’s maitre d’ took one of our mobile numbers and promised to text us when the four-top was free, which he estimated to be in an hour, max.

The French House, the pub downstairs, was heaving, so we parked ourselves next door at slightly-seedy-looking Lupo (whose bartender, by the way, gets a shout out for exceeding expectations).  We chatted, we sipped, we waited.  At 8 pm, we received a text saying the table in question had skipped dessert and was on coffees.  We got excited and finished our drinks.

8:05 pm – We received a text saying that Polpetto was cash only that evening.  So we wandered around Soho for the next 10 minutes looking for a cashpoint.  They’re not as ubiquitous as you’d think.

8:15 pm – We received another text informing us that the table in question still hadn’t paid their bill.

8:30 pm – We gave up on Polpetto and just walked over to Leong’s Legends (which is clearly visible from Polpetto).  Good ol’ Leong’s.  There, we loaded up on xiao long bao (slowly going downhill, but still better than most London versions), dou miao (sauteed snow pea leaves) and pork belly dishes (both the gua bao “taiwanese kebabs” and the braised dish).  £15 a person.  All good.

Really, nothing is worth a 90-minute wait (at least).  And why is Polpetto able to seat only one group of four at a time?  Were there no adjoining two-person tables that became free over the course of 90 minutes?

Advice:  If you want to eat at Polpetto, go as a party of two.  Not four.  And have a backup plan.  Leong’s will do just nicely.

Alternatively, don’t even try to get into Polpetto.  London Eater thinks there are more misses than hits on the menu anyway.  If you simply must have your bacaro experience, stick with Polpo instead, where even on a bad night, I’ve never waited more than an hour.  And at Polpo, you can order food while you wait at the bar, which is something you can’t do at Polpetto.

Restaurants of London:  please please take bookings!  Dishoom, Barrafina, Polpo — we love you yet we hate you for not taking bookings.

Leong’s Legends, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX; 0207 287 0288; closest Tube station:  Leicester Square

Polpo, 41 Beak Street, W1F 9SB; 0207 734 4479; closest Tube stations:  Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus

Polpetto, 49 Dean Street, W1D 5BG; 0207 734 1969; closest Tube station:  Leicester Square

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