A Cena (“at dinner”) is a neighbourhood Italian restaurant just on the far side of Richmond Bridge, so strictly speaking is in Twickenham rather than Richmond itself. It opened in 2002 and is a few doors along from the excellent Tangawizi. The menu was conventional enough, though it seemed weird to offer just a solitary pasta dish plus a risotto.
The wine list ranged in price from £22 to £395, with selections such as Lugarara Gavi de Gavi 2015 at £26 for a bottle you can find in the high street for £17, Poggio St Polo Rossi di Montalcino 2014 at £54 compared to its retail price of £18, and Isole e Olena Capparello at £115 for a bottle that will set you back £56 in a shop. At the posh end of the list the mark-ups were steep, rather than tapering gently off, as is usual at the high end of a wine list. Tignanello 2012 was a chunky £210 given that it retails at £85, and Poderi Aldo Vigna Cicala Barolo was £295 compared to its current market value of £117. This is a frustrating wine list. There are some good growers, but the better wines are marked up aggressively, so customers are pushed towards the low end of the list. A good list should encourage customers to trade up, where cash margins are higher but the customer normally gets a better relative deal, and will have a better overall experience (hopefully) from drinking better wine.
The dining room was long and narrow, tables quite close together, the white tablecloths made of thick paper rather than linen. The loud American diner two tables along from us could probably be heard a few doors away, though that was hardly the fault of the restaurant.
The meal began with a salad of celeriac, fennel, radish and pomegranate seeds with parmesan also had “white truffle oil”. As an aside, there is no such thing – virtually all jars of commercial truffle oil use no truffle whatever but instead a chemical called “2,4-dithiapentan”, which resembles white truffles in the way that a Triumph Dolomite resembles a Ferrari. It turns out that the essential oils in real truffles are not soluble in oil anyway. They are soluble in water, but only last a few days. This explains why you can buy the stuff for about a fiver whereas real white truffles sell for thousands of pounds a kilo, but does not explain why people use it in kitchens or put it on menus other than to fool the gullible into paying more than they should. In this particular salad there was no noticeable flavour of it anyway, and the celeriac and fennel were decent enough, the slight sourness of the pomegranate seeds was a reasonable counterpoint to the earthiness of the celeriac (12/20).
This was better than my pork and cannellini beans, red onions and parsley. This was certainly not going to win marks for presentation, but the real issue was that the pork lacked flavour and was a touch stringy, though the beans were decent (11/20). Sicilian risotto, made with red wine rather than white, along with chicken stock and Parmesan, was the best dish of the meal. The texture of the rice was reasonable, the stock bringing quite good flavour (13/20). Sea bass with broccoli and mash was less satisfactory. The bass was clearly farmed and lacked flavour, and was a little overcooked. The broccoli was distinctly on the soggy side, though at least the mash had reasonable texture (11/20). Caramel ice cream was pleasant enough, having sufficient caramel taste and smooth texture. Even if bought in, it was serviceable (12/20). Coffee was Musetti and was raspingly bitter.
Service was efficient, with all the waiting staff that we encountered seemingly from Eastern Europe. The bill came to £45 a head, with just beer and a single glass of wine to drink. If you ordered three courses and shared a modest bottle, then a typical cost per head would be around £46. All in all this was acceptable enough for a basic neighbourhood restaurant, but even in that category there were issues such as the lack of pasta dishes and the peculiar wine list. It was doing very well however, despite my reservations, turning tables on a Monday night, so has clearly hit upon a formula that works well enough.