Editor's note: this restaurant has now closed.
Assunta Madre opened in April 2014 on the old Semplice site, the sister of a well-established fish restaurant in Rome. Very unusually, the restaurant imports its fish daily from the markets of Terracina to London, an expensive business reflected in the prices it charges. Owner Giovanni “Johnny” Micaulis, once a fisherman by trade, is pictured on his Rome restaurant’s website with assorted celebrity customers, and certainly the restaurant in Rome has impressive turnover and is difficult to book. The restaurant is named after the fishing boat of the owner.
The London version has its 90-seat dining room on the ground floor, a low-ceilinged room with prints on the walls, wooden floor and comfortable chairs. As you enter there is a large lobster tank on the left, a welcome desk to the right, with tables closely packed. The menu is exclusively seafood-based. Starters are priced at £10, raw fish dishes generally £20 to £40, pasta £25 to £40, main courses around £40 with side dishes at £6.
The mostly Italian wine list had examples such as Planeta Chardonnay 2011 at £60 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £22, Jermann Vintage Tunina 2011 at £100 compared to a retail price of £36 and Antinori Tignanello 2008 at £180 for a wine that will set you back about £66 in a shop.
Tuna tartare came with good quality Orsini olive oil and served on a bed of mash. The tuna and olive oil were fine, but I was not sure what the mash really added, and I think it could have been seasoned more (13/20). Tagliolini with mixed shellfish including langoustine and prawn was good, the pasta nicely cooked and the langoustine in particular having good inherent sweetness of flavour (14/20). Better still was trofie pasta (a short, twisted pasta from Genoa) with sea bass and lemon, the fish excellent, the pasta having good texture and the lemon in just the right quantity to provide freshness (easily 15/20).
John Dory with cherry tomatoes and olive oil was properly cooked but lacked seasoning (still easily 13/20 due to the good fish). A mixed grill had turbot, prawns, squid, octopus and langoustine as well as grilled vegetables. The squid had no trace of chewiness, the prawns were good and the turbot in particular was excellent (a strong 14/20).
Desserts, with one exception, are not made in house but are bought in from a supplier in Italy. Apple cake was rather ordinary, lacking enough acidity (barely 12/20) but a chocolate cake that resembled a Black Forest gateau was surprisingly good (14/20). Ice cream that was made on the premises was the best thing, a genuinely classy hazelnut ice cream with lovely flavour and texture (16/20).
Service was very friendly, if somewhat rushed at times on this busy evening; I recognised one waiter who had worked at Zafferano. The restaurant had been open just two weeks, yet every table was taken, several tables were turned and when we departed, well after 10 p.m., there was a queue of people by the door waiting to be seated. The crowd seemed to be mostly Italian, elegantly dressed and in many cases with small children, all of whom were impeccably behaved. There was a real buzz to the place.
The bill came to £208 for two, including service and a bottle of champagne. If you ordered a modest wine to share then a typical bill might come to around £90 a head, but it would be easy to spend more. Assunta Madre has very simple cooking, but is based on excellent quality ingredients. It would be better still if they made more effort with their desserts, but I certainly enjoyed my meal. Prices reflect the high ingredient cost, but this did not seem to be deterring the crowds of diners tonight.