Avista is in the spot on the south of Grosvenor Square previously taken by Brian Turner’s venture, but with less fanfare, in the Millennium Hotel. This is the first venture as head chef for Michele Granziera, long-time sous chef at Michelin-starred Zafferano. The dining room is large, with a few pieces of abstract art on the cream walls, marble tiled floor and low-backed chairs with brown upholstery that seem to have been chosen for their looks rather their comfort. An unusual touch was that a part of the kitchen was set in the dining room, loaded up with vegetable produce (the main kitchen was tucked away behind this). As it was a big room and by no means full this evening, the management decided to liven up the atmosphere by playing muzak, initially Italian, then the kind of music you hear in elevators. I am unconvinced that music is ever a good idea in a dining room; if you have to, perhaps some quiet classical music or jazz is not too intrusive, but muzak like this.
The menu is appealing, with a wide range of Italian dishes. Starters are £6.50 - £11, pasta £9.50 - £18, main courses £14 - £24.50, with vegetables at £3.50 extra. The 11 page wine list is mostly Italian, with a few token choices from elsewhere. Fair enough, until you see the mark-ups. Jermann Vintage Tunina 2006 from Friuli was listed at a ludicrous £90 for a wine that costs £21 or so in the shops. The English Chapel Down 2005 Pinot Blan is £48 for a wine that you can buy for £11. This was more than four times retail price before you add service, so this wine is in fact nearly five times retail price. The cheapest wine on the list is a very pleasant Pinot Grigio, which to the wine waiter’s enormous credit was the recommendation he made without any prompting, and is what we drank. Presumably he knows the gross profit and acted accordingly. Excellent breadsticks are offered as you peruse the menu and gasp at the wine prices. Bread was mostly made here and is very good, including excellent tomato foccacia, made fresh for each service (6/10).
Nibbles of deep fried squid and courgette were very good, offered with both pesto and tartare sauces, the squid not at all chewy and the batter light (6/10). A simple dish of fried langoustines and prawns featured high quality seafood, offered with properly cooked assorted vegetables (carrot, beans, cherry tomatoes) and timed well, in a langoustine foam (5/10). Even better was ravioli filled with soft cheese (Taleggio and Brie I believe) with nicely cooked wild mushrooms; the pasta had excellent texture, the cheese was in the correct proportions and the mushrooms were very good (a strong 6/10). A main course of sea bass was pan-fried with artichokes and was very well cooked indeed, the fish firm and the vegetables tender (6/10). On the side, roast potatoes with rosemary were capably cooked but could have done with more rosemary flavour for me.
I tried a special, tagliolini with porcini, which looked particularly nice on the open kitchen counter; the pasta was again very good indeed, with fine texture, the mushrooms tasty (6/10). This was offered with a taste of pumpkin tortelloni with butter, Amaretto, sage and Parmesan sauce, where the sage was a nice touch and the pumpkin provided pleasant sweetness, though the edges of the pasta were just verging on hard (5/10). For dessert, blended apple sorbet topped with an apple crisp is in the style of a North Italian dessert but made with apple and in this case beefed up with prosecco and vodka; this was pleasant but for me the apple taste could have come through stronger (5/10). Panacotta was better, with smooth texture, with according to the menu orange, plums (which were actually prunes) and Armagnac; very pleasant (5/10). Coffee was good. The bill came to £79 a head, which included the cheapest wine on the list, so this is hardly cheap, though the cooking was to a high standard. Service was friendyy and attentive.
The restaurant is large (it can do 80 covers) and was pretty quiet tonight. I suspect this is due mainly to a hotel setting (with no separate entrance to give it a distinct identity) and the daft wine prices, which is a real shame since the chef can really cook. Sorry about the poor photos but this is entirely a function of the imprecise lighting in the room.