Is there any substance underneath all that style?
Soho used to have a large contingent of Italian restaurants and cafes, but many of them have since closed or faded away. Although there are a couple of new Italian places, such as Polpetto or Bocca di Lupo, that are worth visiting in the area they are the exception rather than the rule. It’s left to mostly dire chains and chintzy independents left to fly the Italian tricolour in Soho. That could all change with the arrival of Mele e Pere, a new Italian restaurant headed up by Andrea Mantovani. The presence of Mantovani, an Arbutus and Wild Honey alumni, was enough to get me excited about Mele e Pere, but I came away with very mixed feelings.
If nothing else, Mele e Pere has an unmistakably stylish presence. Situated on the site of what was once a far more cheesy and chintzy Italian restaurant, the ground floor looks like a modern art installation. One window is dominated by shelves of glass apples, while the interior is dotted with wine racks, funky lighting fixtures and a couple of armchairs. The display menu, rather than mounted in an illuminate display case, appears to be freshly printed off an anachronistic printing press. Stairs lead down to the actual basement dining room.
Despite the enticing tiles at eye-level as you descend downstairs, the actual basement dining room is far more subdued than the ground floor. Wall-mounted angle poise lamps provide the lighting and raised benches sit next to a handsomely tiled bar, but most of the seating consists of seemingly random wooden, formica and copper tables. Even though it’s a basement, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic due to the high ceiling and the very generous spacing between the tables. The latter, combined with the decadent use of the ground floor, suggests that the actual kitchen may be quite small and can only make a small number of plates at any one time – whether the management will be tempted to cram in more tables once Mele e Pere exits its soft launch period remains to be seen. Even though we were one of only three or four parties, the place did become surprisingly noisy due in part to the wooden floorboards and high ceiling (and the gaggle of burbling Friends rejects seated just behind us).
I had dinner at Mele e Pere with the help of the Euro Hedgie during the soft launch period and our meal started out very promisingly. The bread basket, while not show stopping, was pleasing with a mixture of fluffy white and brown crusts and a moreish cheese and nut slice. Both the Hedgie and I have never seen the point of breadsticks though. The Hedgie wasn’t fond of the slightly bitter olive oil accompanying the bread, but I enjoyed the edge it added to our carbohydrates.
I don’t drink booze, but the Hedgie does and he enjoyed the pear-like, semi-sweet aperitif (sorry folks, no photo of this one).
I started off with the hand chopped veal – the smooth mass of raw veal superficially resembles steak tartare. The tender meat is very light and almost fluffy. It tastes almost sweet, no doubt thanks to the fruity olive oil dressing but is otherwise very plainly seasoned. This meant that the dish lacked depth, but it was still pleasing especially when paired with the crisp bitter leaves which was a nice contrast in both texture and taste.
Although I was generally pleased with the hand chopped veal, I wish I had opted for the Hedgie’s starter of tripe instead. Served with grated parmesan, the soft strips of tripe were soft with a gently offaly flavour that was accentuated by the light and sweet tomato sauce and the small, but perfectly judged shavings of cheese. Great stuff.
Pasta is such a common everyday staple that’s it hard to get excited by the stuff anymore, but my pasta dish here was intriguing. The orecchiette shells mirrored the shape of the clam shells and the firmness of the pasta was complimented well by the salty squishiness of the clams. The dominating flavour was one of bitterness though, which may have been due to the presence of either the mini spiral heads of Romanesco broccoli or the padron-like friggitelli peppers. Although not unpleasant, the bitterness is definitely odd and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is at least different. There’s enough in the small portion that you probably won’t need to go for the larger size option.
The Hedgie was unequivocally happy with his risotto though. The small chunk of dense, slow-cooked lamb neck was so tender it was falling apart and was complimented well by the firm, large grains of rice. Thankfully, the excessive creaminess of most risottos was replaced here by a refreshing minty aftertaste.
Unfortunately the winning streak started to falter with our main courses. Although my dish of rabbit was very herby with its accompaniment of pine nuts, sage, root vegetables and mildly salty olives, the meat itself varied from tough and dry to excessively soft, losing much of the denseness that distinguishes rabbit. It was at least still quite gamey and you get plenty of bunny for your money. All of the main courses come with your choice of a side dish and although my choice of Borlotti beans in chilli sauce wasn’t spicy in the slightest, the beans themselves were firm and nutty and went surprisingly well with sprigs of parsley.
The Hedgie was also unimpressed with his plaice a la plancha. He was disappointed by the blandness and lack of flavour in the fish while the accompanying beans were firm if overseasoned. His side dish of grilled peppers, aubergine and courgettes was far more impressive. Although a bit too oily, the well-grilled vegetables were far more satisfying than the fish – especially the buttery courgettes.
The Hedgie was so disappointed with his fish main that he was tempted to skip dessert entirely, despite the presence of some enticing dessert cocktails on the dessert menu. I managed to turn him around though and he opted for the the apple cake with honey ice cream. Although he enjoyed the honey ice cream, comparing it favourably to the signature version at Wild Honey, he was scathing about the apple cake likening it to a Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ dessert in terms of quality. Plus it looks more like a tart.
Although initially tempted by the ice creams and sorbets, I eventually plumped for the intriguing Zuppa Inglese. Literally ‘English soup’, Zuppa Inglese is apparently a traditional northern Italian dessert inspired by English trifles. At the risk of being reductionist, Mele e Pere’s version is like a cross between a trifle and a tiramisu with alternate layers of chocolate, blood orange jelly and a cold, dense milky cream. The top layer of chocolate had an annoying habit of sticking to my gums and the top of my mouth, I wasn’t sure what to make of the dense milky cream while the blood orange barely had any presence beyond a slightly citrusy aftertaste. An interesting experiment, but a failure nonetheless.
Like our meal, the service was a game of two halves. Our main server was exceptionally attentive and helpful as well as chatty. The Hedgie speculated that he was the maître d’ which would be very surprising if true – most maître d’ I’ve encountered tend to be aggressively snobby. The rest of the waiting staff were rather mute and timid in comparison and seemed to enjoy standing around rather than clearing away our finished plates and taking our dessert and drinks orders.
I had high hopes for Mele e Pere. My meal started out well, but the main courses and the desserts were disappointingly average lacking the finesse and sophistication that I had been expecting. Mele e Pere isn’t bad, but it needs to be far better with competition like Bocca di Lupo on its doorstep.
Name: Mele e Pere
Branch tried: 46 Brewer Street, Soho, London, W1F 9TF
Phone: 0207 096 2096
Web: http://www.meleepere.co.uk/ (website not working at time of writing)
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday noon-23.00. Closed Sundays.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Total cost for one person based on four courses including free tap water, service charge and drinks: £55 approx.
Updated 11/02/12 – incorrect price originally displayed – price amended (sorry folks, copy and paste error)