Posted on Tuesday, 12th May 2009
Up until recently, I was probably one of the very few foodies left in London who had yet to go to Bocca di Lupo. I know. Most people love it, and there has been an endless stream of great reviews that sing its praises. So why have I been so slow to go? Well, I was trying to let the excitement die down first before venturing there, or so I liked to tell myself. No, in truth, I was just flat right rejected for a reservation the couple of times I tried calling for a table at short notice. It seems that a lot of advanced planning is required if you want to eat at Bocca on a Friday or a Saturday night. So I decided to call early, weeks ago in fact, to secure a spot at the Chefs’ table (at the counter right in front of the chefs), and just prayed that I would happen to be free. Before you know it, the evening approaches, and to my surprise I actually find myself walking through the door of Bocca di Lupo.
Bocca is a lovely looking restaurant: glamorous and slick. It’s roughly divided into two sections. The first half contains the bar and the kitchen – a marble counter with bar stools runs parallel to both for customers to dine at. Next is the waiters’ station which is up against a wall, and beyond the wall is the second half of the restaurant with the dining room proper which is filled with wooden tables, lounge seating against the walls, and a large circular art deco light fitting overhead.
My dining companion was JK, whom I really enjoy eating out with. We always have a good laugh and a chat, and we invariably trade foodie stories, quid pro quo. This was the first time I had seen her since attending the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurant Awards, and as she loves salacious food industry gossip as much as I do, the ‘goss’ at the Awards became the headline topic of conversation. “So and so was such a flirt”, I said, to which she nodded in agreement. And “so and so was so fat, much bigger than his photo would suggest”, and so on.
Eventually we turned our attention to the menu, mindful that we had a two hour turnaround even though we were only seated 20 minutes after our reservation. The menu at Bocca is categorised according to raw and cured, fried foods, pastas and risottos, soups and stews, grilled and pan-fried, roasts and sides. It was pleasant to find that most choices offer both a small and a large option. The beauty of this is that you can order small and eat more.
I was fixated on having the risotto as I had read mixed things about this dish. So we ordered the small plate of scallop and fennel risotto with gremolata (£7). The risotto was under seasoned and overcooked to the point where the rice was soft. Nor did it have that wavy, spring-back-when-touched-with-the-back-of-the-spoon type consistency that is the trademark of a good risotto. Disappointing then, to see such a poor level of cooking in a most Italian of dishes, in an Italian restaurant. There was also no discernible taste of fennel either.
The next small plate of fritto di paranza (mixed fried seafood) (£7) fared better, but the batter was not quite crispy enough. From our spot perched right in front of the chefs, it was plain to see that the deeper fryer was consistently filled to the brim. Its constant use suggested that the oil was never allowed to get quite hot enough to allow the seafood to crisp properly. The seafood mix came with John Dory and anchovies (both delicious), calamari (not bad, but some pieces were chewy), and rather than prawns as stated on the menu, one piece of prawn (soft in texture). Interestingly, the dish also came with slices of fried lemon which I really liked and which were not too tart.
Our final small plate was lamb prosciutto with raw broad beans & peppercorn pecorino Sardo (£7). This, an uncooked dish, was our favourite of the small plates. The meat was tender and flavoursome, and the cheese mellow and served at the right room temperature, although the accompanying broad beans left a slightly bitter aftertaste.
A main of red mullet with tomato, olives and capers (£16) was lovely. Not available as a small plate, it came with two whole pieces of mullet which had first been griddled in a light coating of flour. It was then served smothered with a rich tomato sauce that was deep with flavour. But nice as the sauce was, it somehow lacked the proverbial ‘something’ to make it a really special dish. Also, the fish hadn’t been scaled properly for I ended up biting into a few scales. A side of cime di rapa (broccoli raab) with garlic & chilli was overcooked and soggy.
To the desserts list and I seriously contemplated ordering a Sanguinaccio (a sweet pate of pig’s blood & chocolate with sourdough bread) (£6), more out of curiosity than out of any great desire to eat it. But at JK’s behest (she had tried this on her last visit to Bocca and thought it was terrible), we instead settled on a dessert of cannoli with a ricotta & chocolate filling (£7.50). The filling was served separately in a bowl with three empty canolli rolls for self–filling. I’ve never seen a cannoli served like this, but this helped to highlight how the cannoli rolls were slightly oily when eaten on their own. The cream was a little disappointing for both an overabundance of crushed pistachios sprinkled on top, for the fact that the ricotta itself tasted slightly grainy rather than creamy, and for the lack of chocolate flavour.
We also shared a piece of calzoncelli, a fried chestnut, chocolate and anise pastry (£2). JK had wanted to order one each, but I managed to persuade her that we should only get to one to share as I was meant to be on a diet. “So what are you actually doing about this diet?” she asked in mock disbelief at my lack of effort and discipline thus far. Perhaps not much, but half of one piece, rather than one whole piece each, surely helped, no? In the end, it mattered not as the calzoncelli was awful. Both the pastry and chocolate filling were dry. Rarely do I leave a dessert unfinished (normally I just eat it all and suffer the bloated belly in silence), but on this occasion I did. We complained to the restaurant about this dessert, and as a consequence, they took it off the bill.
Sitting at the Chefs’ table was of course a fun experience, for it means you have a bird’s eye view of the kitchen. But peculiarly, the stools are quite low relative to the height of the marble counter. As JK and I are not the most statuesque of people, this meant that the food came all the way up to your chest and our elbows were bent at a 45 rather than a 90 degree angle. But as this fate seemed to afflict those diners to the left and right of us as well, we really can’t be that short. Sitting at the Chefs’ table also meant we escaped the overwhelming noise which is the echo of bantering that seems to permeate the dining room. But the most interesting thing of all about sitting there is that you are privy to a whole manner of sins, such as the waiters eating bread at the waiters’ station, which was easily visible from where we were sitting, although impossible to see from the main restaurant. Poor waiters, they must have been hungry, but it was a practice we found improper and slightly unhygienic. Other than this, the service was fine.
The food at Bocca di Lupo ranged from poor (the desserts) to average (the risotto) to good (lamb prosciutto). The food is inconsistent, and hardly special, not as special as proclaimed by some, and so Bocca doesn’t quite seem worthy of the idol status it has attained. But it has a Soho location, an elegant décor, and lots of good press. The wine list is also fabulous with lots of lovely wines by the glasses that are not commonly available at reasonable prices. And so it’s easy to see why on balance, Bocca di Lupo might just be so popular.
Bocca di Lupo at:
12 Archer St
London W1D 7BB
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 2223