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.
The seasonal menu is rustic Northern Italian, principally Piedmontese and Tuscan, and reflects Locatelli’s French training, native command of classic Italian cooking customs and passion for fresh, quality produce. The emphasis is on traditional fare, prepared simply, precisely executed and made with the best ingredients. His straightforward Italian style is polished with French technique, adding panache and sophistication, to create temptingly tasty dishes.
Let us begin…
Stuzzichino: Olives & Taralli. A bowl of olives and Southern Italian savoury pretzels, taralli, were provided as bar snacks whist I waited to be seated. The fat, deep asparagus-green olives were juicy and pleasantly tangy. The wholesome and crunchy tricolour of taralli came in flavours of, as a guess, plain, garlic and fennel.
Il Pane: Parmesan grissini, flavoured white bread (garlic, chilli and black olive), cornbread, focaccia (rosemary & olive oil, salt and onion), pizzette, brown bread and Pane Rosetta. As this lengthy list suggests, breads are one of LL’s specialities, having been created by baking buff Dan Lepard. First to arrive were strikingly long breadsticks, grissini, that were enriched with creamy parmesan cheese and very crunchy. The breadbasket followed: the contents, continually changing, are all baked fresh on the premises. Moist, fluffy, milky white bread came with three different fillings – chilli, garlic and black olive. Each very tasty, the star was the best garlic bread I have ever eaten; sweet garlic cloves, roasted until molten, made this quite delicious. Pizzettes, crispy mini pizza crackers, were topped with anchovies, garlic, baby capers, cherry tomatoes and bagna caôda (Piedmontese ‘hot sauce’). Roman Pane Rosetta, a big bread roll with hard crust and large air pocket inside, had a very mild taste. Focaccia, soft and airy, also came in three flavours: onion, rosemary and olive oil and salt). The cornbread was dense, crumbly and a little dry. My favourites were the garlic bread, pizzettes and caramelised onion focaccia. A light and fruity extra virgin olive oil was served alongside the bread.
Antipasto 1: Insalata di piedino di vitello, mostarda di Cremona. Deep fried calves’ foot salad with mustard fruit was the first starter. Golden rhombi of pickled, braised and crispy-crumb-coated calves’ foot were surprisingly light, creamy and not at all greasy. Each wedge sat atop a dollop of sweet, spicy, amber apricot mostarda di Cremona purée. FYI, mostarda di Cremona, aka mostarda di frutta, is candied fruit – originally of quince or grape, but now cherries, figs, plums, pears, peaches and apricots too – seasoned with essential mustard oil. This versatile mustard fruit’s syrup also featured in the simple lemon and olive oil dressing of the accompanying verdant rocket salad. The grainy condiment’s sugary piquancy matched well with both the savoury calves’ foot and the bitter leaves.
Antipasto 2: Insalata di calamari alla griglia. Char grilled squid with chilli and garlic followed. A serving of sizeable squid, slowly grilled until its criss-crossed surface gained a goldenrod char, was delightfully tender, woody and melted in the mouth. A salad of rocket and parsley, flavoured with garlic, lemon and vinegar, gave a faint tart contrast. The finely chopped red and green chillies added spice whilst crunchy chips of garlic offered textural variation.
Antipasto 3: Insalata di borlotti, tonno e cipolla rossa. A salad of borlotti beans, tuna and red onion was the simplest starter and the tastiest. Hefty hunks of seared tuna were soaked in vinegar and flash-fried until gently caramelised. The meaty fish complemented the meaty beans that, currently in-season, were creamy and almost mushy. Red onion, rocket and a salt, pepper, olive oil, sage vinaigrette delivered sweet, peppery sharp and sour flavours respectively.
Primo Piatto 1: Risotto all’ortica. A tasting of nettle risotto was the first of the pasta dishes. The gorgeous green risotto of firm, nutty Vialone Nano rice released a lovely garden aroma. A garnish of oven-dried nettle leaves added crunch and a hint of bitterness that went well with the shavings of parmesan.
A plentiful tasting-platter of mouth-watering pasta was then presented. From left to right, there was malfatti di ricotta noci e melanzane; gnocchi di patate, robiolina di capra e tartufo nero; tagliatelle al ragù di capretto; and linguine all’astice.
Primo Piatto 2: Malfatti di ricotta noci e melanzane. Homemade parcels of ricotta, walnut and aubergine were luxurious and intense. These soft, wholesome, fat ravioli filled with sweet, mellow cheese, woody nut and earthy aubergine came in a powerful, rich fig paste. Though very tasty, I was glad the portion was small as more could have been overpowering.
Primo Piatto 3: Gnocchi di patate, robiolina di capra e tartufo nero. Potato dumplings in goats’ cheese sauce with black truffle was my least favourite of the pasta. The small gnocchi, neither light nor stodgy, were only average whilst the warm sauce of cheese, broccoli, celery, carrot and onion was mild. The shavings of truffle, though liberally applied, were disappointingly tasteless.
Primo Piatto 4: Tagliatelle al ragù di capretto. Homemade tagliatelle with kid goat ragù and chilli was hearty and satisfying. Gamey, full-flavoured kid was finely shredded and melted into the rosemary-rich ragù. An aftertaste of chilli gave the dish spicy warmth. I could well imagine this as an ideal meal on a cold wintery day. This pasta was arguably my favourite, just edging out the malfatti.
Primo Piatto 5: Linguine all’astice. Linguine with lobster, garlic and chilli is a dish I always find it hard not to order. This classic combination of seafood and linguine was well-complemented by a white wine and tomato sauce infused with chilli. The al dente pasta was very good, but the lobster maybe ought to have been cooked a little less. Nevertheless, fat, meaty slivers of fresh tomato were a basic, but delightful addition.
Pesce: Sardine alla griglia, panzanella. After the pasta, the fish course of char grilled sardines, bread and tomato salad arrived. Deliciously charred, shiny silver sardines served simply with lemon and olive oil came with panzanella, a traditional northern Italian rustic bread salad. The rich fish were excellently cooked – their soft flesh encased in crispy skin – and had a wonderful aroma that conjured memories of the Mediterranean. The panzanella, made from crustless stale white bread, rocket, red onion and diced tomato and dressed with basil, white wine vinegar and olive oil, was excellent. The bread morsels, having become delectably moist with the salad dressing and lemon juice, were gorgeous. The familiar salty fish, peppery rocket and sour lemon composition perfectly balanced itself whilst the juicy tomatoes cut through the oily sardines. This traditional paesano dish was simple and glorious. I loved it.
Carne: Fegato di vitello all’aceto balsamico. The meat course of pan fried calf’s liver with balsamic vinegar, pine kernel and sultanas followed. A signature Giorgio Locatelli recipe, this is a fusion of French methods and Italian flavours. The dish looked great: a large, lush, gorgeous cherry-mahogany slice of liver sat atop deep myrtle-green Swiss chard in a rich balsamic vinegar reduction and with a garnish of golden pine nut nuggets and dark chocolate-coloured sultanas. The taste did not disappoint either. The tenderness of the thick, milky liver was complemented by the crunchy chard whose bitter taste contrasted well with the sweet sultanas and vinegar. This was probably the second best liver dishes I have ever eaten (the first being the arnavut ciğeri at Efes).
Dolce 1: Degustazione di cioccolato “Amedei”. The first dessert was a ‘tasting of Amedei chocolate’. A chocolate mousse tarufo lay atop a rich brownie. This was accompanied by white chocolate ice cream, sitting on biscuit crumbs and decorated with a swirly sugary tuile, a smear of chocolate sauce and spots of orange. The consistency of the mousse and brownie were both good, but I would have preferred darker chocolate. The ice cream was decent, but not noteworthy. Even though I am not generally a lover of oranges, it was actually the mildly sweet yet still punchy orange sauce that I enjoyed the most. In truth, I was a little disappointed with this dessert as, what with the use of luxurious Amadei chocolate, I had expected something a lot more indulgent.
Dolce 2: Spuma di crema catalana e frutti di bosco. The next dessert was Catalan cream foam with berries and ice cream. This light, sweet, citrusy offering was also decent, but nothing special. Strawberries, blackberries and raspberries were hidden under a milky brûlée blanket of cream infused with orange, lemon zest and caramel. The acidity from the berries and lemon gave the sugary spuma a refreshing buzz.
Dolce 3: Mousse di tè verde, pan di spagna al pistacchio, mela verde e sorbetto al prosecco. The final dish was green tea mousse, pistachio sponge, green apple and prosecco sorbet. A surprisingly light, delicate pistachio sponge was decked with an airy matcha mousse and matched with a pristine white granité of green apple, spiked with prosecco and embellished with a wafer-thin iced slice of apple. The nuttiness of the sponge went well with the smoky green tea taste of the mousse. The sorbet, although still sweet, had a nice sharpness from the sparkling white wine. Distinct flavours were underlined by diverse textures – crispy apple, icy sorbet, smooth sponge, bubbly mousse – giving the dish further contrast.
Petit Fours: Gelatina di albicocca e mango, amaretti and grappa chocolate truffles. The meal was finished off with an espresso and sweets of dark chocolate truffles infused with grappa, almond amaretti and apricot-mango gelées. The espresso was forgettable and the overpowering grappa made these bitter truffles far too strong for my liking. In contrast, the amaretti – Italian macaroons – were very nice with a sweet, sticky veneer protecting a soft, nutty middle. The jellies were creamy and flavourful.
Throughout the meal, service was prompt, efficient and considerate; I could not fault it. My waitress was sweet and adorably petite. I do not think she understood/heard all that I asked/said, but she comically thanked me profusely every time we spoke. I was impressed when, noticing I had brought my olives with me from the bar to the table, she found me a small plate for the pips; although only a minor gesture, it is always the smallest actions that speak the loudest. Special mention must also go to my waiter, Daniel, who was invaluable in helping me decide on which courses to order. In fact, some of the dishes were surprises he had chosen on my behalf, like the tasty tuna starter. He was also extremely knowledgeable about the menu, cooking methods and produce and was able to answer all the questions I had.
Restaurants crammed with celebrities are usually overhyped and food-wise, fail to deliver; all sizzle and no steak, as it were. LL has a big reputation and is notorious for celeb-spotting, but it deserves its fame: the food here is excellent. I ate so much that I could barely walk home afterwards. It is not fancy, pretentious food, just good, hearty dishes of simple, clean flavours. Some courses, like the gnocci, cioccolato and spuma, were forgettable, but these were overshadowed by others that were really enjoyable, such as the tonno, malfatti, tagliatelle and glorious bread. The best dish of the night, however, was the simplest; the sardines and panzanella. This was exceptional and still brings a smile to my lips. Locatelli has never looked to wow with intricate technique and wild innovation, instead his aim is to produce truly delicious dishes that people really want to eat; and he has done it. Bravo!
8 Seymour Street, W1H 7JZ
tel: 020 7935 9088
nearest tube: Marble Arch