San Carlo London
by Nick Harman - Monday August 27, 2018 10:08 am
2 Regent Street Saint James's, St. James's, London SW1Y 4LR, UK sancarlo.co.uk
Good Italian restaurants are not as easy to come by as they might be, but San Carlo has managed to create somewhere rather special in St James
Just as brunch is not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, the lower half of Regent Street is not quite Piccadilly and not quite Pall Mall. So what is San Carlo, a theatreland place to cater for discerning tourists or a posh pull-in for St James’ people? Well actually it succeeds in being both.
On the outside they’ve managed to create a fancy outside dining area that’s far enough away from the road to be fume free. It looks very classy with its linens and silver, but we go inside for lunch.
Here the feel is of a grand transatlantic liner of the old school. Opulent and golden with large roof panels cleverly giving the illusion that above is only open sky and not simply the first floor of the building.
Tan colours create a warm feel and every part radiates subdued class; you really wouldn’t guess this is part of a chain of restaurants stretching from the original in Birmingham through Bristol, Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and here to London where the empire even includes one on Selfridges roof.
Chain Italians are of course usually dire - rubbery mozzarella on tasteless Dutch tomatoes, greasy fritto misto and steaks of poor quality camouflaged in pizzaiola sauce and a wine list made up of teeth staining reds from the bottom of the barrel. Oh, and the infamous giant pepper mill.
Having tried Alto by San Carlo at Selfridges, I have high hopes for this one though espeially under chef Alberico Penati. I get the impression this chain cares about quality, so we eschew the good value set lunch, ideal for tourists, and go a la carte, ideal for oligarchs.
Our pre-lunch Negroni sets the scene, I’ve had so many bad ones before. Here though the gin, vermouth and Campari are perfectly balanced, I find some places are bit stingy with the gin meaning the Campari over-dominates and bitterness prevails. Well, even more than bitterness usually does in my life.
J kicks off with mozzarella or to be precise Burratina Di Andria Con Barbabietole, Avocado E Pesto - Andria Burrata with beetroot, avocado and pesto.
Beautifully presented the burrata is a pure joy, the classic purse shape with its unctuous filling of cream and the ‘unwanted’ bits of mozzarella called stracciatella.
The beetroot adds the dash of colour normally provided by tomatoes and the pesto gives the basil a fragrant kick that all too often barely emanates from one sad and forlorn leaf. Top quality olive oil laps around the bottom. J likes it a lot
It’s always surprised me that veal and tuna could work together, it sounds about as promising as onions and custard, yet it does and here Vitello Tonnato Classico Piemontese - cold sliced veal and tuna sauce Piedmont style is superb.
The veal is pinkly, juicily perfect and has been sliced with a razor into a lavish tumble on the plate. Oven-roasted small tomatoes add a vibrant acidity, the tuna is creamy and I like the sudden pop of caper and the crisp sliver of spring onion. It’s a pretty dish and very satisfying.
These days I can't do a big pasta before mains, but that’s okay as San Carlo have a section of the menu dedicated to smaller sharing plates and so J and I both go for classic linguine Cav. Cocco with black clams to share. This can be a tricky one to serve, you can all too easily end up with just a plate of pasta and shells and the growing suspicion someone else has got all your ‘meat’.
San Carlo solve this by piling the pasta, dressed with the cooking liquid, into the centre and arranging the clams around the outside.
And what clams they are; precious tiny jewels, we just tweak them out the shells with a prong of the fork and savour their sea-fresh flavour. The Cav.Cocco is a superior brand of dried pasta, better than fresh, and has been well infused with the clam cooking juice.
And so to mains, J is a truffle hound and hits the Risotto Vialone Nano with fresh black Norcia truffle with one doggy leap.
It comes laden with shaved truffle which is generous, but that may be because it’s not the most pungent of truffle. I think this is because this truffle needs heat to release its full power and also, it’s not at its best in summer.
Nonetheless J has no complaints, searching every last grain of rice out with glee.
I have the cod with red and yellow peppers and it’s a delightful hunk of fish, perfectly seared on the skin side and cooked through just enough to keep it moist and tender. There is a soft and gently savoury fresh tomato sauce and the peppers are glossy, and not stewed to death.
We share a bowl of deep fried, seriously salty, courgette slivers, addictive is not too strong a word for them. On the only duff note, the sauté potatoes with bread crumbs are flaccid and uninteresting.
Throughout we’ve had various excellent wines by the glass, as suggested by the twinkly, rather mischievous, sommelier and enjoyed them all - neither of us are wine buffs but the combinations seemed fine and the prices fair.
And so, to our just desserts. Rum baba has always been a weakness of mine, even though I prefer the junk ones with the glace cherry, but I could easily eat San Carlos’ Neapolitan babà with limoncello again and again. Loose, delicate sponge is oozingly saturated with limoncello, it succeeded in being both heavy and light, like Ed Sheeran singing Iron Maiden.
J went for Pistachio sponge cake served with pistachio ice cream and pistachio sauce and, funnily enough, concluded it could perhaps have done with a bit less pistachio - ‘vanilla ice cream’ he suggested, while still making sure his plate was scraped clean.
So, to the summary. Of course, for Italian, the cool kids go to Lina Stores which is good and cheap and classically simple, while for a solid pasta fix there’s Pastaio but it can be a bit too busy and casual.
There are also, as mentioned the well-known high street chains of which only Spaghetti House is really worth the visit.
What San Carlo StJames has done is create a place that is posh enough for people who want a proper sit down meal, with napkins, sommelier, and all the other fancy trimmings, but who don’t necessarily want to go overboard on price.
And for me, that’s amore.