3 April 2011
Veni Verde Vici
I was asked recently - by Daniel Young as it happens - where, in dining terms, I thought London is better than New York and vice versa. When you're discussing New York with one of its experts you don't want to come across as a complete arse so I panicked for a second or two as arsedom is quite possibly my natural state. Well, when I'm not being smug, obviously... But we're not going there again.
Actually, I'd spent a bit of time in the previous weeks trying to draw the parallels and the differences between these two great culinary cities. At the highest level, I think London holds its own. In terms of hole-in-the-wall places and neighbourhood secrets, we're able to hold our own too. If you'll excuse the rather clunky analogy, and the obvious exceptions that will spring to mind, I'd liken South London to the Lower East Side and North London to the Upper West Side. London's problem is the stupid psychological barrier the Thames throws up: if we had rivers on either side - and access to the brilliant Overland line - we'd be zipping about all over the capital. The Thames is a barrier that, frankly, is stopping too many people enjoying the good things in the other half of London.
Anyway, that doesn't really answer Daniel's question. What did - and, happily, in a satisfactory manner - was my recollection of Locanda Verde. Aside from gastropubs of varying quality, London, to my mind, stutters in the mid-range, those places where you could go and sit in charming surroundings, spend under £20 and enjoy a couple of courses and an excellent bottle of wine. That's not to say they don't exist (before you get all commenty on my arse - though suggestions are welcome) but my perception is you have to seek them out. In New York, you can't help but stumble on half a dozen every time you go out.
To some extent, Locanda Verde is the perfect New York restaurant. Looking back on the trip, there were so many highlights - and yes, the Le Bernardin worship will follow soon - but Verde is probably the one I'd like to repeat first and the one I'd recommend to any visitor. Le Bernardin was bloody amazing but then at $325 a head it blooming well should be. Locanda Verde was a fraction of that for four people, with some excellent wine choices, delicious hearty, Italian-influenced fare, an energy and atmosphere that just yell "New York" (all dark woods, white linens, A frame chairs and that distinctive "buzz") and some very happy staff. At the end of the meal, we even discovered that our waiter had got married that morning, was heading off on honeymoon after lunch but didn't want to miss his shift. That's either insane or indicative of extreme pride and a very nice place to work.
Starters come billed as Antipasti and arrive in portions that encourage sharing. Lamb meatball sliders were probably the stand outs (and the ones that encouraged Will to play "Land of the Giants"), although a fine Steak Tartare Piedmontese, mushroom-topped crostino and - yes, I do like vegetables actually - a vibrant beetroot and citrus salad gave them a run for the money.
The one "duff" note of the meal came as a shared pasta course. "My Grandmother's Ravioli" may hit the spot for chef / patron Andrew Camellini but didn't really press our buttons. That's not to say it wasn't nice - we still polished off each meaty little parcel presented - but the chef's obvious personal nostalgia didn't translate in the way, say, Douglas Santi's does with his mum's gobsmacking lasagne recipe at Babbo. Less a duff note then, more a very minor hiccup.
No such complaints with the "secondi" dishes. Hanger steak was as good as we'd eaten anywhere else this trip (and Lord knows how many cows died to make it all possible), fire-roasted garlic chicken was big, succulent and pungent, shaved porchetta sandwich was a fat-oozing joy, and the roasted scallops were rich, perfectly cooked and elegantly underscored and undercut with more citrus flavours. It was also good to see sprouts as a side dish and very tasty they were too: most vegetables are though if you roast them with pancetta and pecorino shavings.
Cheese (superbly kept) and a moist sticky pudding (of dates and toffee if I remember rightly, not that I got much of a look in) finished the meal, and us, off in belly patting style, fuelling Will and Iqbal for a return to the UK and Mrs L and me until, er, dinner at Le Caprice. Yes, it IS a tough job actually...