While Babs and I were still mucking about in South America, my very lovely foodie girlfriends Kopibren and Melf were already hatching a plot for the weekend that I got back to London, sans Babs, who was jetting straight off to Amsterdam for a stag do (yeah. I know. But you already hate us anyway). In particular, they wanted to take me out for a belated birthday dinner and were quite excited about an Italian place called Bocca di Lupo in Soho.
Soho? Really? I'd all but given up on Italian restaurants in London, frankly. The cheap outfits tend to taste and feel like canteen fast food, and the upmarket restaurants -- while very tasty -- still always leave me feeling like I could whip up something just as luxe for far less money in my own kitchen. Also, I don't remember ever having a meal of note in Soho. Rent requires tenants there to put forth more glitz than gourmet, perhaps? I had noted that while we were away, however, the recession had brought some renewal to the usually awful tourist-tat eatery belt that is Soho-Leceister Square-Covent Garden. From afar, I watched the London foodie Twitterati buzz about the arrivals of Polpo and Hawksmoor and Wright Brothers and Ottolenghi, all outfits whose main customers were food-fussy locals rather than hapless tourists fueling up before their West End show.
More importantly, Bocca di Lupo was recommended by our very reliable foodie friend Goz, who apparently would have to pull some strings with the maitre D' to get us in at all on a Friday night.
Ok, let's see if this wolf has teeth.
We sat down at 9.45pm to a little saucer of very fat green olives from Puglia. They were meaty and briny and not over-vinegared as many antipasti olives tend to be -- a taste I've managed to get only at The Fat Duck and Le Cafe Anglais before. They were gone before I remembered to whip out my camera.
Instead of traditional starters and mains, Bocca di Lupo simply lists a small or large size for every dish. Genius. Mostly because food-commitment phobics like us would get to try many more dishes than usual without (necessarily) invoking armageddon on our wallets. The effect is multiplied because we Chinese have grown up with a culture of sharing food and poking a fork into one another's plates, even at Western restaurants -- causing our Anglo Saxon compatriots, who seem to value hygiene over food promiscuity, varying levels of squeamishness.
The first dish of the evening damn near knocked me off my chair. The restaurant now had my full attention. The Burrida -- fish and shellfish stew with olives and basil -- was chockablock with a generous amount of bits and bobs of mussels, clams, fish and shell-on prawns. Although this dish hails from Liguria, the coastal north-western corner of Italy, it brought me right back to a very unexpectedly delightful lunch across the Italian peninsula in Bari, where seafood and fresh tomatoes and herbs were put together to cause a rustic but heavenly experience.
The broth, the broth (and I say again) the broth tasted like the entire Ligurian Sea had been boiled down to this little soup plate. Also, it was peppery enough on its own such that I didn't need to add any extra pepper, which just about never happens for me. There was some discussion at the table about whether it might be better to dilute the broth a bit if it meant there'd be more soup for everyone. The consensus in the end was a resounding noooooooooo. (So don't you dare, Chef Jacob Kennedy.)
Another starter -- Black fig, bresaola and stracchino, drizzled with a touch of honey -- hit all the sweet-salty-fatty pleasure buttons. Both hailing from Lombardia in the Italian Alps, bresaola is very lean air-dried salted beef, and stracchino is a young and creamy cow's milk cheese. The best way to eat this is to take a wedge of perfectly sweet ripe fig, smear a wodge (yes of course that is the technical term) of stracchino on it and then wrap it in a strip of bresaola. Pop the pleasure parcel into your mouth and tune out from social conversation for a few minutes. Try to keep your volume down when making embarassing noises of pleasure.
The third of our starters was fried artichoke and lamb sweetbreads, from Lazio, a little bit south of Rome. I can handle only small tastes of sweetbreads -- made from the animal's thymus and pancreas -- due to its richness, so am happy to work on the artichokes while the more sophisticated palattes of Kopibren and Melf feast on the sweetbreads. Kudos to the batter, however. Extremely light and non greasy.
And now onto the "mains". Behold, Girolles and pied de mouton mushrooms, trifolati, another dish from Lazio. Fried with bits of garlic and parsley. I'm a mushroom fiend, so I knew I was going to be a big fan of this unless they mucked it up royally, but they didn't. I probably ate an unfair share of this while Kopibren and Melf picked on other plates. They tasted like... how on earth does one describe the taste of a good mushroom? Meaty, is the shortcut answer. Melf once mistook a really good porcini for foie gras in San Sebastien. Imagine that. Meat-lite, due to the mushroom's high levels of amino acids. For you mycophiles out there dissatisfied with my probably too simplistic description, my research on how to describe the taste of mushrooms turned up this 9-page paper. Enjoy.
My only question is, why does Bocca di Luppo classify this as a side dish? I could eat a whole plate of this as a meal. It might bankrupt me, but that's a separate issue.
Here we have sardines, cooked in a Sicilian style with breadcrumbs, pinenuts and raisins. I had eaten a gorgeous pasta version of this dish this past July at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley Califonia (still need to work on that post) so I was keen to taste the no-carb version. Again, the sea-savouriness of the sardines and the sweetness of the raisins made for an odd but ultimately lovely couple. The peppery salad leaves on top were perfect for keeping the dish light.
We Chinese are very serious about our pork, and Melf and I trust only a few other groups of people to do it justice, especially when it comes to roast suckling pig. The Filipinos and Spanish make that very short list for Melf and me, even though we had a "meh" taste of this dish at Michelin starred Kursaal in San Sebastien. Suckling pig group dinners seem to be quite the rage in London over the last year, but after a shamefully bland suckling pig at The Albion in Islington, the English still have some case to make before they make it onto my suckling pig list.
Chef Kennedy is, however, helping to make that case for both the English and the Italians. The crackling was spot on -- crispy on the top and still just moist enough underneath. The meat was sufficiently salted and gorgeously moist and tender, falling away easily with each pull of the pork. It might do with some five spice and plum sauce or mustard, but that's just my Chinese upbringing talking smack.
I'm told this dish goes very quickly each day. Goz had to reserve a portion of this for us along with our table for us to get any at all. What a knight in crackling armour, eh.
The weakest dishes of the evening for me were the 2 pastas we tried -- pork and veal agnolotti with butter and sage from Peidmont (left), and, allegedly, pappardelle with ox cheek, black pepper and tomato from Tuscany (right). The noodle was fresh and soft and obviously handmade and all, but: 1) Can you spot any of the meats mentioned; and 2) Can you tell the difference between the two dishes? I can't. I know this is just my first weekend back after 15 months on the road. I'm still in my raggedy travel clothes and hiking boots. Had my palatte gone raggedy as well? Or did we get two of the same pastas by mistake?
Well, not something to stress out about for too long, cos here come the desserts. I go for the amazing milk-free expresso gelato, which I decide is not an exaggeration. Kopibren goes for a Bicerin -- hot chocolate with coffee and cream. I'm curious about Bocca di Lupo's other gelato offerings, so after dinner we nip across the little lane to Gelupo, the restaurant's takeaway gelato bar and deli.
I ogle at the flavours and strike up a conversation with the woman behind the counter about how and where the gelatos are made and where the various fruits are from. The figs are apparently from Turkey. I start to wonder what mix of the restaurant's ingredients are from the UK or Italy, vs everywhere else. Bocca di Lupo's menu lovingly states the region each dish comes from. But to what extent does the procurement process walk the menu's terroir-ist talk? I wonder.
I tell the woman I'll be back when I have better infrastructure for storing gelato. She replies: "Or you could try some now." She's clearly very good at her job, and I tell her so. So she takes me through a swath of samples: peach, melon, the very unusual grape leaf, and a couple of others I can't remember.
Kopibren snags a bucket of those amazing fat olives, so we get to treat of snacking on more of them the next day at hers. Her little fugu looks like it ate one too, python style. Teehee.
I'll be back to Bocca di Lupo, hopefully soon. And the gelato is just one of the many more things I'll be looking to wolf down. I reckon next time I'll try and get a seat at the bar, so I can watch the kitchen in action.
Dinner was a gift from my wonderful girlfriends, but for the sake of research I did sneak a peak and noted that the bill came to about £40 per person, for the food above and a bottle of wine.
Bocca di Lupo
12 Archer Street
London W1D 7BB
+44 20 7734 2223