Italian cooking that manages to be simple and sophisticated at the same time
This week: Mark Palmer visits Semplice, London W1
Bond Street is somewhat deserted at night. Which means opening a smart restaurant in this part of what’s still, just about, Mayfair has to be risky unless you think lunch alone can take care of business. When I ring to book a table for 8.30pm, I’m told by the manager that nothing is available until 9pm. He suggests we have a drink “somewhere” before arrival, stressing that Ristorante Semplice has neither a bar nor a waiting area of any kind. Fair enough, although if I were running a restaurant I would want a bar area of some description as a fall-back when bookings go wonky.
“So, where would be good to have a drink?” I ask and he comes up with the Westbury Hotel, which is right down the other end of the street, at least a 10-minute hike away. Then we shall arrive on the dot of 9pm, I tell him. And we do, pausing briefly to inspect the windows of Pronuptia across the road because I am getting married in May and, although I gather my brave wife-to-be is sorted on the dress front, there seems no harm in pointing out some likes and dislikes well before we reach the altar rail.
“Actually, I rather like that,” she says, as a Rolls-Royce Phantom glides past and parks on a double yellow just beyond the restaurant. “That would get me to the church on time.”
We move on and are greeted by the manager, Giovanni Baldino, who used to work at Locanda Locatelli, where the chef, Marco Torri, also spent some valuable years (before taking over at The Greyhound in Battersea). The third member of the team, and the money-man, is Marino Roberto, who’s big in the fashion world and lives in Monte Carlo. All three are in situ this evening, with Marino occupying the table nearest to ours, where he’s joined by three other Italian men. Goodness, I love the way Italian men gesticulate over the smallest issues.
In fact, I would guess that we are the only Brits in the room. Nothing wrong with that but, unless a few more indigenous locals can be persuaded to eat here, I fear the worst. If they do, they won’t regret it. This is Italian cooking that manages to be both simple and sophisticated at the same time. Grown-up Italian.
Some people might regard the decor as brash, but I wouldn’t. There’s plenty of polished ebony, soft leather and a whole wall of wavy, gold carved wood that would not look out of place in the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai. Tables are dressed sumptuously in starched cream cotton. Cutlery is by Sambonet, glassware by Riedel.
Before our first courses arrive one of the waitresses, who, like their male counterparts, all wear dark suits, white shirts and silver kipper ties, brings us a basket of warm bread and then returns with a bottle of olive oil to fill a little dipping bowl. Shortly afterwards, our starters appear, carefully ordered to test Marco’s repertoire.
The Brave One has clear chicken broth with several tortellini stuffed with chicken bobbing about on the surface. It’s the perfect choice if you’re not too hungry. My pasta with venison ragout and black cabbage sauce is far more substantial, and equally perfect. I would have been happy just with this and a green salad but, by the time the Fassone beef arrives, I am pleased that’s not the case. Fassone is a breed from Piedmont and is wonderfully tender, with loads of flavour.
We also have the calf’s liver, which is puritanically simple but doesn’t quite work, mainly because the liver is cut too thick, giving it an overly spongy texture. Without the exquisite melange of vegetables and sautéed spinach underneath the meat, we would be kicking ourselves for not ordering the rabbit or shoulder of lamb, both of which had looked promising on the menu.
A slight distraction persists throughout the evening in the form of the money-man jumping in and out of his seat whenever he notices something needs doing on a nearby table, or when a customer needs directions. Owners should either pretend to be normal punters or regard themselves as paid-up members of staff. To be both at the same time is disconcerting for all concerned. At one point, he sees me whispering conspiratorially and leaps up with more than a spring of paranoia.
“Everything is alright?” he asks. It’s not a rhetorical question.
“Everything is fine,” I tell him. And, I might have added, would be even more fine if you could be less of a jack-in-the-box, and I’m sure it’s annoying for your mates when their host keeps leaving the table. Anyone would think you really, really want to be known as the boss and that the anonymity of Monte Carlo is getting you down.
“I worry,” he says, scrutinising our table with an anxious eye.
I quickly reassure him and I mean it. Certainly, there are no worries about the puddings. We have chestnut mousse with a kumquat salad and warm cheese tart with caramel ice cream. Both are far lighter than they sound and both prompt further whisperings that go unnoticed by the boss, who is busy accompanying a customer to the ladies.
I can’t help thinking he’s just the sort of fellow you’d want as an usher at your wedding but here, off Bond Street, this over-eagerness to please and determination to act as an escort might be taken the wrong way.
Ristorante Semplice, 10 Blenheim Street, London W1 (020 7495 1509). Dinner for two, including wine, £85. Marks’ verdict: 6/10