Independent Tottenham Court Road Italian
There’s a small clutch of Italian restaurants on the western side of Tottenham Court Road in Fitzrovia, but most are either yawn-inducing chains or dreary places serving up massive menus of slop. One of the very few exceptions is Sardo, a long-standing restaurant specialising in dishes from Sardinia. Not to be confused with its cafe spin-off next door, Sardo Cucina, Sardo is comfortable and just about quiet enough for a relaxed business lunch or a hazy meal with friends.
First things first
Few of my dining companions are more rambunctious than The Flame Haired Squelchie and The Randy Northerner. While we tried to avoid making an embarrassment of ourselves, the Squelchie started off with a starter of buffalo mozzarella, a small, effectively dressed leaf salad and chopped roasted vegetables. The Squelchie was especially impressed by the mozzarella – soft, yielding, intensely creamy at its heart as well as tangy without being too sharp or bitter.
The Randy Northerner skipped starters, but I opted to have the spaghetti bottariga as an appetiser. It’s a simple, but delicious dish – firm pasta dressed in a fruity, grassy olive oil and a coarse, thin, salty, very fishy dried mullet roe. It’s a personal favourite and always hits the spot.
The Randy Northerner almost always opts for steak if it’s available and this occasion was no different. Since Randy is lactose intolerant, he had to have the steak without the blue cheese that sets this steak apart from others elsewhere. Even so, he was pleased with the tender, juicy, slightly sweet steak, even if he insists on having it medium rather than medium rare.
I can never say no to a hearty sausage, especially sausages as coarse, herby, filling and girthsome as the charcoal grilled bangers here.
The Squelchie was pleasantly surprised by the intense flavour of the artichoke sauce topping her thick, rough tagliatelle. This pasta is usually served with a meat ragu, so it was good to see a vegetarian-friendly version here and one that was so strongly flavoured too.
The Squelchie loves both cake and pistachio, so it was no surprise when she went for the blueberry and ricotta cake with pistachio ice cream. Sadly, the ice cream tasted more like vanilla. The cake was better – soft and fluffy with a texture that reminded her of a light soufflé. There were only a few berries at the cake’s heart though which didn’t seem to infuse the rest of the small fluffy mound.
My own dessert of crema di limone may not look like much, but the lemon cream was not only zesty but managed to be light and tart, as well as fluffy and creamy too. Hints of burnt orange added a tantalising tinge to this deceptively simple, multilayered dessert.
The Randy Northerner wasn’t fond of his dairy-free dessert, a plate of almond biscotti. The occasional hit of almond livened up the otherwise dull, enamel splinteringly hard biscuits.
Going back for seconds
Sardo’s menu is relatively short, but is embellished by a regularly rotating selection of specials. The special of fregola with pigeon breast may not look like much, but the firm cous-cous like pasta went down a treat with the offally, woody meat. Slightly less pasta and a little more meat would have been preferable, but I had no complaints about the hefty helping of buttery courgettes and richly umami tomato pieces dotted throughout the fregola.
The grilled veal steak was moist and generally tender, but there were occasional tough spots. The veal depended on its fine crust of herbs and spices for most of its flavour which turned out to be a problem. The herby crust was, at best, mildly tingly and ultimately rather bland. There’s no need to order sides with this main though – a hefty helping of salty spinach and potatoes are included.
Sardo’s tiramisu isn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it’s still pretty good. The moderately thick layers of cream were surprisingly fruity and dotted with slightly boozy biscuit pieces and a hint of coffee.
Three is the magic number?
I revisited Sardo for a third and final lunch with the help of the Euro Hedgie who started off with the calamari. These weren’t dull deep-friend rings of rubber though, but grilled baby squid carcasses stuffed with a smoothly ground, herby, tightly packed minced squid meat. The filling’s zesty, tomato-ish and salty taste had a Thai-esque quality to it (as stupid as that sounds). The squid was far better than it had any right to be.
My own starter of raw and cured fish was by no means bad, but it didn’t compare to the deceptive simplicity of the stuffed squid. Many of the thin slices of fish were so cold as to be painful. After leaving the platter for a few minutes, the only slices which stood out were the firm, dense and meaty octopus carpaccio slices and the delicate slices of tuna which somehow reminded me of delicately cured ham.
Although not mentioned so far, it’s important not to overlook the complimentary bread basket for the table that appears at every meal. The thin, crisp Sardinian flatbreads were addictive thanks to their hints of fruity olive oil.
The Malloreddus alla Campidanese may not look like much, but this simple pasta dish was nonetheless satisfying. The hearty helping of small, tender pasta kernels that looked alarmingly like small grubs were smeared in a lightly moreish tomato sauce. The dominant taste here was of the fennel sausage pieces – the sausage bits may have been small, but their bold herbiness was a real pleasure.
The Hedgie’s main of calves liver was far better than I had expected. Still traumatised by the coarse, dry, heavy and badly cooked pig’s livers of my childhood, I was pleasantly surprised by the smooth tender lightness of the calves liver here. The portion is surprisingly large too. The muted balsamic vinegar sauce added little though and the vegetables on the side are nothing to write home about either.
The Hedgie’s bulging belly, caused in part by an ill-advised breakfast of a fried chicken bap, prevented him from having dessert. Having avoided such a schoolboy error, I opted for the mascarpone cheesecake which turned out to be a rather drab end to an otherwise quality meal. The mascarpone itself was smooth and mildly creamy, but the base of crushed amaretti biscuits was too thin so there wasn’t enough of it to provide much contrast in either taste or texture. The limp raspberry sauce was also underwhelming, adding little.
Sardo isn’t perfect with desserts a noticeable weakness, but there are more than enough successes to make this Sardinian stalwart well worth seeking out. The large portions and simple, homely yet unusual style set this restaurant several steps above its competition.
Address: 45 Grafton Way, Fitzrovia, London W1T 5DQ
Phone: 020 7387 2521
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon–15.00 and 18.00-23.00; Saturday 18.00-23.00. Closed Sundays and Bank Holidays.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including service, soft drinks and coffee: £35-45 approx.