"It doesn't have a Michelin star" was the combination of question and exclamation that I received back after texting my fellow chef about having lunch at Bocca di Lupo in Soho. It kind of reminded me of the old looney tunes cartoon of the dog that is enslaving a cat to get him a steak from different owners, only to exclaim upon receipt "What! no Gravy?". Now I'm really too old to worry too much about Michelin stars, often I have found that some of my fondest food memories have come in places that are unrated. Chef heresy I hear you cry. Well I think that often we chefs get too caught up and hold on too tight to the rating systems and the vanity and ego stroking that it comes with it. Be true to yourself, be true to the food and be true to your customer. Food is about generosity and nurturing not about a plaque on the wall. This is can be no more true than with Italian food so with great expectation I found myself at two London Italian restaurants. Bocca di Lupo in Soho and Four to Eight in Covent Garden. Although both Italian, this is where the similarities end. If these two restaurants were artists then its like comparing Ed Sheeran to Dire Straits. One a talented but paired back, the other, the full production.
Bocca di Lupo.
Bocca di Lupo was recommended by a friend and just around the corner from my favourite Ramen place, Tonkotsu in Soho. Given my love of all things Italian and after perusing the menu I was quite excited by the prospect of dining here. I knew what to expect and I wasn't disappointed. To say the food is simple buglises its complexity. I am reminded of Alice Walters from Chez Panisse serving an unadorned peach on plate as a dessert as she felt that there was nothing that she could do that would enhance it, only detract from it. This is the thinking at Bocca di Lupo and which is the charm and the difficulty of good Italian food. Letting ingredients speak for themselves, not trying to chef them up. The margin of error in this style of cooking can be great particularly if the produce being cooked isn't of the highest standard. Thankfully the produce at Bocca di Lupo is first rate. From my understanding the restaurant aims to provide regional Italian fare based on the seasonality, as the regionality of each dish is listed on the menu. I love this approach to cookery.
In the recent film "Chef" by Jon Favreau, his character Chef Carl Casper laments why he can't be a chef that cooks what he wants, rather than being forced to cook all the tired old dishes the owner wants. That is Bocca di Lupo, it is a restaurant that cooks what it wants and serves it accordingly. You order grilled mussels with chilli, you get a plate of grilled mussels with chilli. Nothing superfluous, just delicious mussels with a subtle hint of chilli, it is almost is daring you. This is what it is, this is how it comes, we dare you not to enjoy it. Same with the charred sirloin with rocket and lemon, a plate of raw snapper and the excellent risotto with griolles. Food laid bare, just good ingredients served simply.
We began with a small sized Sea bream carpaccio with orange & rosemary Veneto (small£9 large£18) and Grilled mussels with chilli oil Liguria(small£6 large£12) Thinly sliced super fresh fish topped with orange zest, finely chopped rosemary and fruity extra virgin olive oil, subtle and harmonious flavours. The orange providing a light sweet acidity counterbalancing the bitter fruity notes of the oil. The mussels were small in size but big in flavour simply served with a delicious pan sauce flecked with chilli.
My chef friend ordered a simply grilled steak whilst I had the Risotto ai finferli - with grilolle mushrooms Lombardia (small£10 large£20). Risotto is my test for any Italian restaurant. This one was served, correctly, flat on the plate. The rice was cooked but still firm and the yet creamy from its own starch with the griolle mixed though it. The steak came simply with a wedge of lemon and small pile of rocket. We finished with a delicate and light Torta mimosa - sponge cake filled with gianduja cream Lazio £6 a a double espresso.
The restaurant itself is like an impeccably dressed Italian man, mature, sleek, stylish and confident, wooden tables, beautiful stemware and table accoutrements. The place has a real buzz. This maturity is reflected thouhtout the service which is professional, knowledgeable and welcoming.
Loving Italian wine the way that I do, I did enjoy the well crafted and thought out list. Great selection of my favourite Tuscan wines either by the glass or a a carafe. My choice being the Vino Nobile Montepulciano Canneto Sangiovese grosso, Merlot, Cabernet, 2010 Toscana (125ml£8.7 500ml £31.6).
12 Archer St, London W1D 7BB
020 7734 2223