It is now a decade since Theo Randall left his job as head chef of the River Café and moved to The Intercontinental to open a restaurant under his own name. Located on the ground floor of the hotel just to the right as you enter, the room has recently undergone a major refurbishment, and is certainly an improvement over what was here before. A windowless room is always a challenge, but the use of light wood and decent lighting means that the dining room is probably about as welcoming as it can be in the circumstances, and does a pretty good job of avoiding the dreaded “hotel dining room” feel. The main room can seat around 80 guests at capacity. On the side is a private dining suite that by default is split into two rooms, but is somewhat flexible due to the presence of a partition wall and can seat up to around 60 in all.
The menu is as Italian as one would expect. Theo may come from Kingston but his heart is in Italy. He worked from 1989 at The River Café for seventeen years, working his way up to head chef and bringing the restaurant a Michelin star in 1997 in the process. The dish choices at his eponymous restaurant are appealing though it is not a menu that could be accused of innovating, or indeed changing much at all over the years. The flipside of such stability is that you should at least see consistency in the cooking. Some chefs are restless in their menus and some are not – Tetsuya’s in Sydney used to offer a solitary, identical and unchanging set menu for years, and yet gained plenty of accolades.
The mostly but not exclusively Italian wine list is organised in a peculiar way, mostly by season e.g. “summer whites” but also by grape in places “Nebbiolo and friends”. It is hard enough navigating a large wine list trying to find some label that that you know and like, so while this kind of whimsical idea probably sounded good in a brainstorming session after a few glasses of Chianti, it does not translate well to the page. Sample wines were Alta Quota Gran Sasso 2010 at £54 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £17, Roccalini Barbaresco 2011 at £80 compared to a retail price of £22, and Isole e Olena Chardonnay Collezione de Marchi 2013 at £100 for a label that will set you back £31 in a shop. For those with the means, Cannubi Boschis Sandrone 1999 was a chunky £380 for a bottle that costs £130 to buy in the street, and Gaja Sorri Tildin 1998 was an unnecessarily greedy £780 for a label whose current market price is £231, 3.8 times retail once service is included, and a cash mark-up of £646 in all; nice work if you can get it.
As you browse the menu some nibbles appear. A generous plate of fried zucchini (courgette) was very tender and focaccia was good, but the star was bruschetta. Here tomatoes from Campania (the region that includes Naples) had superb flavour, though the kitchen also uses tomatoes from Sicily, depending on what is best at the time (15/20 nibbles on average, more for the bruschetta).
Papardelle ragu featured freshly made pasta and beef slow-cooked in Chianti with San Marzano tomatoes. The pasta was excellent, the sauce had plenty of flavour and the seasoning was accurate (15/20). Risotto is always a good test for a restaurant, especially a vegetable one where the stock can easily be watery compared to the traditional chicken stock used for a meat risotto. Here the featured vegetable was violet artichokes but the star was the rice, having excellent texture and the stock used having a surprising depth of flavour (15/20).
Lemon tart had excellent pastry and used Amalfi lemons in a nicely balanced filling (16/20). The coffee was Musetti, and as ever this catering brand was mediocre in flavour. Restaurateurs love Musetti because it is inexpensive, but it is a pity that the last taste you have of the restaurant is something cheap and a touch bitter, like a day spent losing money at a dog track. This is something that surely is simple enough to fix, and should be remedied.
The bill, with just water to drink, came to £39 a head for lunch. At dinner, sharing a modest bottle of wine, a more typical bill would come to around £85 per person. The staff, let by a suave Sicilian gentleman called Ivan, seemed well-drilled, and service today was friendly and efficient. Overall this was a most enjoyable meal, the cooking precise and dishes full of flavour, and the new room is a better setting for Mr Randall’s understated talents.
Further reviews: 01st Jul 2007