Archive for July, 2008

Zafferano, London

No prizes for guessing where I dined next. After feasting at Locanda Locatelli only days before and the River Café still closed for refurbishment, this week I was faced with a veritable Hobson’s choice of haute Italian restaurants: where else then, but Zafferano? Plus, having previously picked LL over Zafferano rather capriciously, I felt, deep down, it was only fair to give the later its chance this time round. It would be the right thing to do…

Zafferano first opened at its Belgravia home in 1995 and soon enough, Head Chef Giorgio Locatelli established it as one of the capital’s finest dining spots, earning critical success and awards, including a magical Michelin star, along the way. In 1999 however, Giorgio left, eventually settling in at the Churchill Intercontinental in Marble Arch with his independent and eponymous Locanda Locatelli. Here he recreated the success he first achieved at Zafferano, earning himself another star. So what of Zafferano? Like a ship without a rudder, a restaurant without its iconic head chef, is bound to flounder, is it not? Not at all. After Giorgio’s departure, his former number two, Andrew Needham, took the reins and not a beat was missed. Andy quickly steadied the ship, not only saving Zafferano’s star and stewarding a successful era of expansion, but also building a name for himself as an authority on cucina nuova.

Andy, who started his career aged seventeen at the Savoy prior to working at Paris’ Le Pre Catalan (3* Michelin), then Giorgio’s uncle’s La Cinzianella in Northern Italy and finally Zafferano as Giorgio’s sous chef, has a style that is more conservative than creative; his dishes are straightforward and traditional, but with occasional subtle, modern twists. The focal point of Andy’s approach is his uncompromising attitude towards raw materials: he regularly tours London’s specialist markets – Borough, Billingsgate, New Covent Garden and Notting Hill Farmers’ – himself, as well as having personal contacts abroad armed with digital cameras who email him photographs of the produce in the markets of Paris, Milan, Bologna or elsewhere, thus allowing him to personally pick only the freshest, finest supplies. The rather reasonably priced menu (note bene: watch out for all the supplements) is the embodiment of these principles; the kitchen, drawing on classic, honest Italian cooking methods, creates simple dishes crafted to showcase these superior ingredients. There is indeed a dynamic choice offered with dishes regularly changing every few weeks as food comes in and out of season, whilst specials are dictated by the market so can vary from day to day.

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Locanda Locatelli, London

My very good meal at L’Anima last week made me hungry for more Italian; so having whetted my appetite with somewhere new, I wanted to taste what London’s more established Italian restaurants had to offer. The obvious options were Locanda Locatelli, the River Café and Zafferano, but as the River Café is closed for refurbishment until August, it was really a choice between two. Both have a Michelin star and share a common past; Georgio Locatelli cut his teeth at Zafferano, earning it its star, before setting up LL and earning himself another. I figured I could not really go wrong with either and, probably attracted by its more glamorous reputation, I settled on LL – infamous favourite of the famous.

The restaurant occupies an unassuming annex of the Churchill Intercontinental (rather apt given that locanda is Italian for inn) and is accessible from both within the hotel and Seymour Street. A simple silver signage spelling out ‘Locanda Locatelli’, chiselled into the building’s steel façade and backlit with bright white light, serves to signify Giorgio’s presence. Within, the décor is, well, rather controversial; many hate it, many love it. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to define, but after much consideration, I have decided that it has the feel of an underwater seventies disco. Yes, you did read that right.

The interior, boasting the usual hallmarks of designer David Collins – upholstered couches, mirrors, good lighting – is at once modern and retro, chic and casual. Luxuriously deep, low, leather seating takes the form of cosy, comfy banquettes, curvy, swish swivel chairs and swanky, hemispherical centre booths. Circular, convex fish-eye mirrors, fittingly oversized, line the main wall and provide even those diners with their back to the busy dining space a hint of what is happening out in the crowd. The dining area, though large, is crammed with intimately-spaced tables. Its openness is further busied and broken up with floor-to-ceiling Tetris-block wooden pillars whilst booths are separated from each other by glass panels etched with seaweed-like squiggles. Large, latticed windows line the outside wall, but are really just for show; preventing hoi polloi from off the street seeing inside this exclusive eatery. The colour scheme is dominated by light, earthy, honey tones; creamy lemon-chiffon and beige benches, streaky wood-panelling of warm copper and ochre shades of brown; a main wall of dark algae green; dimmed amber lights; all offset by bright crisp white napery lying thickly on the tabletops. When full, which is always, there is a terrific buzz in the room. The chitter chatter of diners clearly enjoying themselves drowns out the gentle jazz that plays in the background. Mood lighting and strategic spotlights add to the busy, fun vibes emanating from the crowd, giving the restaurant a groovy ambience.

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L’Anima, London

L‘Anima, the City’s new authentic, regional Italian hotspot, has been on my list since even before its long-anticipated, much-delayed opening only a couple of months ago. A five-month wait has created much suspense and expectation, but Chef Francesco Mazzei, formerly of St. Alban, is not complaining – “I’ve had time to travel more and source better suppliers, we’ve tested the equipment and I have the costings sorted. The kitchen is under control and I feel like we can manage things properly” – so neither shall I.

First impressions were very favourable: entering through the immense, restaurant-wide glass façade, one is immediately struck and soothed by L’Anima’s beauty, elegance and tranquillity. Designed by architect Claudio Silvestrin, clean, clear lines and geometric shapes feature heavily in this minimalist space. The rich, robust ingredients that make up the interior – brown porphyry walls, beige limestone travertine floors, French limestone corridors that lead to the Cistercian private dining crypt, wine cellar and bathrooms – show strength and solidity and combine to convince that this restaurant has already stood the test of time and will continue to do so. The dining area, sated with the sunlight that soaks through those large windows, is immaculate and open; generously spaced, wide tables, decked in pristine, angelic, white napery, are complemented by matching white, cosy leather chairs. It is luxurious, refined and yet charming and comfortable; one feels as if floating on a cloud. In fact, this cloud-like white complements the earthy brown of the walls, evoking a sense of heaven and earth. Actually, Silvestrin is rather partial to the elements – water, fire, earth – and draws on these themes for inspiration here. The whole restaurant is really rather exquisite with a definite, expressive charisma. It is inviting, nourishing and calming, but also graceful and sophisticated; L’Anima is indeed soulful.

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