Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A bit of a fiasco...

You know when some programmes don’t work? They just aren’t that funny but the canned laughter makes you think that you should laugh? Or films where they throw in every plot line taking it from implausible to downright surreal? Like those mobile phone ads, some executive types have an idea in the boardroom and everyone throws in their two-penneth’s worth leading to complete lack of focus. The same applies to restaurants in a group.

A night for catching up in an old haunt in Covent Garden followed by a cheap meal and a chance to try something new brought me and my brother Ben , and our guests to Kitchen Italia.

There have been many businesses at this location since the cellar housed the Freedom Brewery (I used to really like their IPA, but I am a wine drinker... what do I know?). Always bustling and lively. Tonight though, it was empty save for a table of foreign students. Empty, quiet and very, very large. In fact, apart from the smiling staff it was rather soul-less!

Deciding to keep the evening light, we started with bread, olives and pizza nibbles, and then order a main and maybe a pudding for the sweeter toothed, wine (noticing that it was by the carafe rather than an option of glass, carafe or bottle, and at what mark up?) and endless water. At this point I noted that the menu issue is November 2009 which says that they should consider an update!

Bellinis were suggested while we thought about our orders. It was written down as a “White Peach Bellini” (now to be pedantic, is there any other kind? When Arrigo Cipriani invented it at Harry’s Bar all those years ago it was the Bellini rather than as something that implied variety). Peachy, yes, but a bit flat due to the amount of the juice.

“Focaccia with Extra virgin olive oil” for Ben and his beau. Bready rather than golden, moist and spongy, and a bit dry. However, being surrounded by bottles of olive oil, from the shelves around the restaurant to the trough in the table, there was opportunity enough to rectify this. (And what a choice: natural, garlic, chilli, herby, dopey, sneezy, etc… Ok I’m being silly now). Links on the website tell you that their oils are from Marfuga a fattoria in Umbria that has a picture of the owner and his wife that reminded me very much of the photograph on the box of the seventies game Mastermind, with the gorgeous Eurasian lady and the sleazy Mafia don.

I thought that F and I would go for the garlic, parsley and butter pizza would be a lighter alternative (well she and I both have our figures to think about). The thought of a warm slightly crusty flavoured base, oozing garlicky and herby oils and made richer by the butter, the kind that you need a few napkins to clean your hands and mouth; peppery herbs and the slightest dusting of flour, all combined to make an effective but simple starter. But we agreed that this was floury and cardboardy, scratchy and tasteless. Like the atmosphere, rather lifeless. There was no evident richness from the butter and the herbs looked dried. (I didn’t get to the olives as they had already been consumed at the other end of the rather large table).

The main courses arrived surprisingly quickly, Mafaldine (pasta ribbons with crinkly edges to you and me) with spicy sausage, two of those. Tagliolini with black truffles and Gnocchi with peas, mint and Gorgonzola.

Generous crumblings of spiced sausage meat kept moist by a rich tomato sauce and perfumed from the fennel was not to be. The pasta, a good sized helping, fennel flavoured and peppery, lacked evidence of the spicy sausage which was hidden by breadcrumbs and sauce. It looked like it had been baked, the tomato sauce was dried out, like a red version of sea weed clinging to hot rocks. Was it the service counters lights? And why would that be when the mains arrived quickly?

F wanted the truffle on tagliolini with a light mushroom cream sauce, as she felt it sounded filling and rich. Mushrooms sliced, fried with garlic and herbs, tossed into the pasta, and given lightness of colour and mellowness of flavour from a modest amount of cream, speckled on top like caviar, the black truffle and some pepper. A sweetness of mushrooms, sourness of spicy pepper, nebulous perfumed truffle filling the mouth, all tempered by the cream. Tempting isn’t it?

Where was the mushroom cream sauce that F imagined clinging to the strands of pasta and speckled with pepper and truffle (or was that the description of the colour?) Modest amounts of cream? This was virginal! The truffle itself tasted of wood; chewed pencil. No ethereal perfume, no comforting creamy richness. Nothing. Again, a rather unenthusiastic experience for F.

So to me. My plate was altogether different. Well it was gnocchi not pasta, so bound to be. I always remember watching cookery programmes where they said that gnocchi is not difficult to make but easy to mess up.

A plate of several quail egg sized gnocchi, cloud-light to the bite and maybe flecked with a little herb (maybe not), tossed in a creamy sauce, lightly spiced from the green vein of the Gorgonzola, the richness cut through by the pea and the hint of mint that brings down the pea’s sharp greenness.

Well, the creamy sauce was indeed creamy, with a light touch of Gorgonzola. Although too much cream for me, there was some balance. A few peas, not very many, and a subtle hint of mint gave the sauce a bit of freshness, preventing it from being sickly. The dumplings themselves had some lightness to the initial bite but were more marshmallow in texture. I was still pulling it off my teeth at the end of the meal.

So what went wrong? Well as I said, this smacks of a group of executives wanting this to be everything to everyone without really focusing on what that ‘everyone’ is. Who are they trying to compete with, Carluccio’s or Wagamama’s (if the latter then they have missed the point of Italian eating, surely)? In this case, the group of executives is from a company called Sweet Potato, an investment company that operates several brands including, rather surprisingly, Villandry and Villandry Kitchen, both of which are quite successful and the latter, in Chiswick, I have already covered in a previous post.

Overall, aside from the friendly and attentive staff, we were left with a cavernous sense of disappointment, as lifeless and empty as the restaurant itself.

Kitchen Italia 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX T 020 7632 9500 E

1 comment:

  1. I was served the vongole (at a blogger/ press event) which was tastless, no salt, no vongole - maybe there were 4 or 5 that fell out of the shell - even Mr B - tried it and sent it back to the kitchen.

    : (