Al Boccon di’vino (“divine mouthful”) is a Venetian style restaurant in Richmond, open since late 2009. It has a small, cosy dining room with eight close-packed tables, with bottles of wine displayed on the walls. Chef/owner Riccardo Grigolo offers no menu, just whatever food he has selected for that day.
What is not apparent when you book is that the no-choice meal meal is lengthy. We sat down at 7:30 p.m. and left after 11:30 p.m., and indeed so did everyone else, because the dishes appear all at once for every table. Some nibbles appeared, then there was a long gap, then some vegetables and fish turned up, then another long gap. Finally some pasta put in an appearance, then a main course, and finally dessert. Four hours is a long, long time in which to serve a not especially complex dinner. It reminded me of an overlong dinner party.
There is no wine list, and yet wine is served. When you sit down you are asked whether you want red or white, and by default you will end up with the £25 house wine. If you glance up at the walls there are plenty of good wines on display, yet there is no list. After I pointed at a few wines it became clear that these wines were for sale, but I had to ask about them one by one, and short of getting up and leaning over other diners there was no way to actually see what was really on offer. This is a shame since the mark-ups were probably quite fair: Tignanello 2009 was £120 for example, compared to a retail price of £69. Corkage is not allowed at any price – I asked, at some length, about this when I booked. When I said “but what about if I, hypothetically, paid £100 corkage – could I bring my own wine then?” the answer was “No, never”. I have no idea why the owners seem to discourage the sale of good wine and yet then refuse to offer corkage in this way, especially given in this case that their house red that they were so anxious to push was pretty grim (I tasted it). Why not just have a printed wine list and let people choose? There were actually some good bottles displayed on the wall.
The food that appeared was very basic, though it was in general competently cooked. Ham came with tasteless grilled aubergine and red pepper, rather soggy strega bread and potato crisps that ranged in texture from crisp to foldable (10/20). A fried potato was quite enjoyable (12/20), as was a lamb meatball in tomato sauce (11/20). Fried asparagus had soggy batter and lacked flavour, as well it might at this time of the year (10/20).
A strip of sea bass had no obvious flavour though it was cooked through properly, served with smoked salmon (11/20). The waiter confidently presented “oysters” (his words) that were in fact a pair of overcooked scallops, still in their shells (10/20). Prawns in tomato sauce were slightly overcooked (10/20).
Pasta in two different forms was slightly soggy in texture in both cases. Ravioli with beer and Emmenthal cheese was rather too soft but edible (11/20), whereas pasta parcels with tomato and Mozzarela were just mushy (10/20). The main course was lamb served with boiled potatoes. This was harmless enough, the lamb cooked rather too long but with crisp skin, the potatoes decent (11/20). My wife had some grilled prawns, which were of low quality and lacked flavour, but were at least cooked properly (11/20).
Dessert was bizarre: strawberries (in January) were unsurprisingly tasteless and paired with utterly dry, unpleasant panettone. Having eaten stunning panettone in Venice just weeks ago at Quadri, this was particularly hard to stomach (8/20).
The bill came to £88 a head before tip, albeit with one bottle of good wine. If you just had food and the house wine then the bill would come to around £65 a head, which is hardly a bargain given the level of food that appeared. Service was well-meaning, though rather overbearing at times. However the overall impression was of a wildly elongated dinner party, with each course served to guests at the same time, and with very basic food. Two of the eight tables seated this evening gave up well before the main course and walked out. A long meal with an unknown number of courses may have a certain mystery, but if the food is not very good and the gaps between courses are too long then the concept falls apart.
The cooking as such was mostly competent, in that things were generally cooked properly rather than being raw or burnt, but there was an almost complete lack of flavour throughout. This came about due to a mix of cheap ingredients, lack of seasonality and a surprising absence of discernible seasoning. The restaurant was full this evening, and seemingly is very popular with the locals. I suppose that some people regard £45 (plus wine and service) for a meal of many courses as some sort of bargain, but actually it is not that cheap, especially if the food is less than inspiring. This restaurant is somewhere that I tried quite hard to like, but eventually the pushy service, their weird attitude to wine and, above all, the mediocre food served at a funereal pace drove out any pleasure from the evening. This was four hours out of my life that I will not be getting back.