When in Rome...

Saturday, September 27th , 2008

To begin with the UK, regular readers will be aware that I have been impressed in the last year with Cambio de Tercio, a long established Spanish restaurant that seems to have really shifted up a gear or two in its cooking, despite having the same head chef. Cambio has a simpler bistro opposite it in South Kensington, and has recently opened up a new tapas bar in the rather less salubrious Parsons Green. This venture, Tendido Cuatro, has most of the tapas menu options that can be eaten at Cambio, but with a simpler feel (and Cambio itself is hardly formal). I find tapas an appealing approach to food, and the winning dishes at Cambio can be eaten here e.g. the pata negra and the modern version of patatas bravas (though much less well presented). The trouble is that everything is a rather inferior version of the food at Cambio, yet the prices are almost the same, just a fraction less. I see no reason not to just keep on the District Line a few stops further up the line and eat the real thing at Cambio.
Haandi is one of the most reliable restaurants that I frequent, serving excellent vegetable curries, good bread and capable tandoori food, all at a price which is hard to reconcile with eating in Knightsbridge (our meal tonight was barely £20 a head, including drinks).  As a non-food related aside, I was also pleasantly surprised to be sitting almost opposite Wallace Shawn, an actor who I will always love for his portrayal of Vizzini in the Princess Bride. In London restaurants there are plenty of celeb sightings on offer, but while in the past I had no trouble being the cool Londoner, leaving Madonna studiously in peace and ignoring Mick Jagger (and Liv Tyler, and many others), and only interacted with Michael Douglas when I stumbled over his outstretched leg, I couldn’t resist acting like a star-struck imbecile with Mr Shawn. He was utterly polite and probably bemused to be accosted by a grinning middle-aged man praising a performance he gave over twenty years ago.
I also revisited the Greenhouse, which has had a refurbishment since I last came here. There is now a wooden floor, taupe walls and green upholstery, with tables well spaced and an airier feel than I recall. Chef Antonin Bonnet (who trained at Michel Bras and under Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room) is still firmly in charge, and turning out elegantly presented dishes using fine ingredients. I enjoyed my meal here this week more than on previous visits, partly because I found the specials very appealing (langoustines, grouse). I still feel that with many a la carte dishes the kitchen is trying a little hard to be determinedly modern, with assorted unusual powders and infusions, but perhaps I am just getting a bit reactionary in my old age.  Certainly the langoustines with white beans with truffle were lovely, the grouse was cooked beautifully and I was particularly impressed by a modern version of the classic “Pear Belle Hélène”.   I have bumped up the score here from 6/10 to 7/10 based on this experience.
We fitted in a short break to Rome, a city with remarkable monuments and traffic to match. The last time I went to Rome was at a conference, and I had some vile food, so was determined to do better this time. Thanks first to MJ, who recommended Roscioli, a really authentic, simple restaurant tucked away in the old town. Part deli, part bakery, part restaurant, this is the kind of place that seems to me Italian cooking at its best: hearty, honest, based on the flavour of fine ingredients. 
How easy it is to go wrong in Rome was shown by the one Michelin star Baby, a thoroughly dispiriting experience all round. Though some dishes were OK, that was the best that could be said, and in between some decent dishes were some shockers. A main course here costs about the same as a whole meal at Rosciola, and I know which I preferred.

However, Italians can do high end cuisine in Rome, even if they need to find a Germany chef to show them how. Pergola showcases beautiful Italian ingredients, top end modern technique and sensible, appealing flavour combinations. Throw in a spectacular setting at the top of a hill overlooking the city, flawless service and ornate surroundings and you get a very fine experience indeed. I had heard slightly mixed reports of Pergola, but we had a superb meal and were treated very well indeed by the fine team of staff. The pasta dishes such as the fagotelli (pictured) were superb. This was the only 3 star restaurant I had not been to in Italy.

Next week's blog will be a day later than usual due to some further foreign travel (yes, I know, the lengths I go to entertain you).