Farringdon Britalian is a mash-up in more ways than one
Although there are Italian restaurants of every shape and variety in London for all budgets, it’s the expensive ones that I’ve always found most amusing. Along with French and Japanese, Italian restaurants can easily get away with charging high prices that would be harder for other cuisines, such as Chinese and Indian, to get away with in the eyes of many diners – even if the food justifies the prices.
Things have come a long way in London, of course, with the likes of Gymkhana, HKK and Yauatcha convincing at least some people that ‘ethnic’ cooking isn’t just ‘cheap’ fare. Even so, for many inside and outside the capital there still exists an implicit mental hierarchy that places greater value on the cuisines of some peoples and traditions than others. I find this hierarchy, and its implied system of ethnic biases, deeply distasteful.
All of this came to mind when eating at Luca. Although this Farringdon restaurant is the Italian-ish spin-off of the superlative Clove Club, you wouldn’t know it at first glance.
While Luca, like the Clove Club, eschews the expensive restaurant uniform of plush carpets and table cloths that has generally fallen out of favour in London, this place still feels monied as soon as you venture past the bar. A besuited maître d’. Inoffensively beige surroundings. An unnerving chorus of ‘good evenings’ as you make your way to your table.
While exceedingly polite, the somewhat stilted and uneasy demeanour of the front of house makes it feel as if you’re being served by a cabal of Westworld androids on the verge of a cybernetic midlife crisis. Especially when the soundtrack jolts between The Rolling Stones and 70s funk, indicative of a surprising uneasiness in meshing high-end polish with a more easy-going and relaxed attitude. That’s something The Clove Club managed with aplomb.
None of it is anywhere as ridiculous as some expensive restaurants, it’s still jarring if you’ve been away from finer dining for a while and have gotten used to tattooed, bearded and chirpily matey hipster waiters.
First things first
It’s easy to be blasé about parma ham, until you encounter a specimen so beautiful that it takes your breath away. Gauzy thin and tissue soft, these utterly splendid sheets of pig were deeply sensual with their musky, woody, umami smoothness.
Bread was soft and fluffy, but it was the crust that captivated my attention with its popcornish taste reminiscent of toasted maize. The olive oil for dipping was no wilting wallflower either. Initially grassy and bitter, it ended with a peppery finish. Although delectable, don’t go overboard – bread coated with an excessive dousing of the stuff was enough to cause a coughing fit with its overpowering flavour profile.
Turnip tops were seductive in their simplicity. The bitterness of the wrinkly greens was neatly balanced by the buttery sauce.
Latium is still the king of ravioli in London as far as I’m concerned, but Luca’s grouse ravioli is a worthy competitor. Supple, moderately thick and very sturdy pasta skins came stuffed with a dense, woody and earthy mince. A moreish sauce, allegedly made from potato and whiskey, was the cherry on top. Although an expert combination of taste and texture, I do wonder if the same effect could’ve been achieved with another, less controversial game bird.
Beef rump may not sound or look like much, but it was a lip moistening delight. Tender rolled saddles of beef may have only had a small strip of pancetta tucked away inside, but it ensured a consistent level of moistness throughout and a touch of unctuousness. It was the denseness, beefy tang and deep purple hue of the saddled cow that struck me most though – this was an exceptional animal that died for an exceptional dish. Don’t overlook the tender and gently earthy root veg accompaniments – the almost hash brown-like caramelisation of the salsify was just as notable as the beef.
Molten chocolate desserts tend to be deeply dull and uninteresting affairs, but Luca’s baked chocolate mousse managed to avoid this fate. The deep brown goo retained the bittersweet darkness of the base chocolate, probably the result of a skilled pastry chef choosing a robust yet characterful cocoa and exerting fine-tuned temperature control. The bittersweetness of the chocolate was offset by a refreshing cream that was neither too thick and cloying nor too thin and inconsequential. The so-called ‘prune kernel’ cream, whatever that is, didn’t taste of much, but that’s not a bad thing given the strong profile of the chocolate.
Going back for seconds
Kangaroo Face joined me for my second and final meal at Luca, providing an even higher class of verbal repartee than usual – one that was both erudite and expletive-laden. Although the generous heap of fennel salami took a surprisingly lengthy amount of time to arrive, we both agreed that it was an exceptional bit of charcuterie. The tangy and lightly bitter hits of fennel effectively cut through the meaty fattiness very well. Chunky bits of pork were discernible in each slice, as if they had just been packed into the sausage casing before slicing and was in danger of falling apart. Nothing so calamitous happened of course – these were sumptuously smooth slices of salami.
Disappointingly, the bread and olive oil weren’t as exemplary as they were before. While still mildly nutty and modestly grassy respectively, neither had the same depth of character as their counterparts from my first meal.
Although the alleged roe topping on Kangaroo Face’s turnip tops were marginal at best, this sublimely simple starter was just as well-executed as it was before.
Moderately thick and eminently fleshy slices of beef carpaccio were the smooth sinewy conveyors for a creamy, mildly umami oyster emulsion and a somewhat subdued scattering of capers. While far from terrible, this starter felt a little too subtle and cerebral for its own good.
Moderately thick, ribbed and coiled ribbons of garganelli pasta were soft and supple. The specks of pork sausage didn’t leave much of an impression though. The tomato sauce with reduced anchovies was also underwhelming, but it did at least cling to the garganelli like an overly affectionate bat. Kangaroo Face was more taken with this pasta dish than I was, but we both enjoyed the intermittent tickles of freshness from the touches of mint.
Cannelloni was also a dish of two halves. The filling of calves head ragu was neither here nor there, but the thin yet sturdy and silky pasta sleeves was one of the smoothest things to ever pass through my lips. It was made even better by the creamy umami of the melted, possibly blow-torched parmesan on top.
Kangaroo Face was taken with his yieldingly tender lamb chops, but less impressed with the rosemary breadcrumbs and vegetables served alongside it. While the lamb here was perfectly competent, it didn’t come close to matching the exemplary heights of the lamb once served by The Cornwall Project at The Newman Arms. Sadly, the Newman Arms’ dining room now has a new, unrelated team in its kitchen.
If the red mullet wasn’t caught only a short time before being butchered and served, then my next review will be of a Wimpey. Evocatively fresh, zingy and yieldingly tender fillets were topped by a satisfyingly crisp skin. This sublime interplay between different textures was made even better with the gentle bounciness and doughiness of the small-grained fregola pasta thrown in. The butteriness of this cous cous impersonator was an integral part of this dish, adding a degree of well-judged richness to some expertly cooked fish.
Luca’s dessert menu is a short and simple affair. Although bereft of the usual Italian dessert clichés, its selection of the baked mousse from my first meal alongside an ice cream, a sorbet and a cheese seems lacking in ambition. Whether this will change, or whether this says something about the pastry chef’s vision or lack thereof, is unclear.
Having said that, the baked mousse from my first meal was a delight as was Kangaroo Face’s hazelnut ice cream. It’s not billed as a gelato and rightly so – it wasn’t anywhere as smooth and dense as the best gelato in London. It was no dud though. It was very supple, despite its somewhat odd graininess which wasn’t anywhere as unpleasant as it sounds. Crucially, its profoundly bold hazelnut flavour was true to the original nut and more than made up for the tame salted caramel sauce.
I don’t drink wine (or any booze for that matter), but I can get an inkling of what it feels like to pay three times the retail price for something (or more) and get just a puny fraction of the whole thing in return by ordering cheese. The ‘five ages of parmesan’ is almost unjustifiably expensive at £21 which is triple the cost of the other desserts and costs almost as much as some of the mains.
There’s no doubting the provenance of the cheese morsels which gradually increased in umami and hard crumbliness as I worked my way clockwise around the plate from twelve o’clock. The penultimate selection had to be my favourite, with a powerful sense of umami and woodiness without being utterly overwhelming as was the case with the final, oldest morsel of parmesan.
As enjoyably decadent as it was experiencing the difference that time can make on the taste and texture of a cheese, I can’t get in good conscience recommend this dessert. If you like cheese as much as I do, then buy a wedge of parmesan from a knowledgeable cheese shop. That really is the best way to be as happy as a pig in fondue.
Luca’s cooking can be somewhat variable with some utterly superlative dishes making the merely satisfactory ones seem all the more mundane. This isn’t a surprise as The Clove Club also displayed some wobbliness, but that kitchen had the benefit of forging its own singular path while Luca fights in a far more contentious and fractious market for Italian(ish) cuisine.
Luca has immense potential and I don’t regret eating here one jot (not even the parmesan). But as exemplary as it can be, Italian-label or not, it can’t quite justify the high average cost per meal – even when taking into account the effects of London’s insane property bubble and the referendum’s effect on food prices. Luca will no doubt be a roaring success – it’s already a hard task securing a reservation – but this will be in spite of its niggling problems.
Address: 88 St. John Street, Farringdon, London EC1M 4EH
Phone: 020 3859 3000
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 18.00-21.45; Sunday noon-17.00.
Average cost for one person excluding drinks: £80-90 approx.