Food & Drink: Taste from A - Z

Seven of London's best restaurants have the same owner. And one has been voted Britain's No 1. What is their recipe for success? asks Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
LONDON'S BEST-KEPT secret is out. Those of us in the know are dismayed, because we've all been keeping strictly mum about this, the very best of best restaurants. Now we'll never be able to book a table there again. Zafferano in London's Belgravia has gone about its business so quietly for two and half years that many will have never heard of it. But you can be sure that London's top chefs know all about the brilliant skills of Giorgio Locatelli, Zafferano's chef and proprietor, for this is a man who produces some of the best Italian cooking anywhere. Now everyone will know.

This week it was voted the Restaurateurs' Restaurant of the Year. This inaugural award, established by Hotel and Restaurant magazine was presented at the Restaurant Show, Olympia; its voters, significantly, are professional chefs and hoteliers.

Interestingly, one of the places that the oh-so-low-profile Zafferano pipped to the post was its sister restaurant Aubergine whose profile this year rose so high it eventually rocketed into space. It closed dramatically in July, following a sensational bust-up between its proprietor/chef Gordon Ramsay and its backers, the A-Z group.

Former Glasgow Rangers footballer Ramsay had steered Aubergine to two Michelin stars and was generally tipped to win a third. Not only that, but it was the hottest ticket in town, booked solid for three months ahead, lunch and dinner.

Aubergine and Zafferano are two of the seven hugely successful restaurants in the A-Z group. There is the so-called French division, Aubergine and L'Oranger in St James's; an Italian division, led by Zafferano, with two restaurant-style pizzerias, Spiga and Spighetta; and a Chinese division embracing the two Memories of China (in Ebury Street and Kensington High Street) founded by the late Ken Lo.

Then in July, boom! L'Oranger was the flashpoint. Chef Marcus Wareing, who'd been appointed by Ramsay, was dismissed by the businessman and banker Giuliano Lotto, the managing director of A-Z Ltd. The entire staff of L'Oranger walked out in protest, and were joined by the staff of Aubergine, a total of 45 in all. Then, even more dramatically, Ramsay resigned, furious that his "right-hand man" had been sacked. He complained of A-Z: "They override my decisions, so what is the point of continuing my consultancy?"

Nothing like this has ever happened on the London restaurant scene, and the trade looked on, shocked, wondering what A-Z would do. They had to close the two restaurants, but Giuliano Lotto, and his two fellow directors, Claudio Pulze and Franco Zanellato, decided to say nothing.

Now, three months on, Giuliano Lotto is finally prepared to talk. L'Oranger is open again. Aubergine has been relaunched, its prices slashed, its waiting list down to near-zero, with a new chef in place: William Drabble, aged 27, a precocious talent who achieved his first Michelin star at Michael's Nook in Grasmere, Cumbria.

And Ramsay himself is up and running with his own new restaurant, under his own name. He has taken over the old premises of La Tante Claire in Old Hospital Road, Chelsea (vacated by Pierre Koffmann, his former teacher), and completed a pounds 1m make-over with the avowed intent of winning that elusive third Michelin star.

It has all been a very painful experience, says Lotto. "It came as a complete shock to me. It was completely unexpected. I was hurt. I was saddened. I didn't understand it at all."

It is six years since he and his co-directors bought an ailing restaurant called 11 Park Walk, and converted it into Aubergine; by hiring Ramsay, Marco Pierre White's number two, they achieved almost instant acclaim, cooking modern French food to impeccable standards. L'Oranger was another instant hit, winning a Michelin star under chef Marcus Wareing. "I have nothing but admiration for what both of them did," says Lotto.

But of their differences, he can only surmise. Certainly A-Z was looking to maximise on the Aubergine name. Lotto had hoped that Ramsay would help the group expand, perhaps opening an Aubergine in New York, and another in Bermuda. It wouldn't have been appropriate to open further Aubergines in the UK, though there might have been a case for an Aubergine Bistro (there is a precedent in Paris for Michelin-starred chefs to cash in on their reputations with satellite operations: lower-priced cafes and bistros).

Gordon Ramsay said he didn't want to put his name to an "Aubergine pizzeria", which he saw as a dilution of his reputation. Giorgio Locatelli, consultant to the Italian division, on the other hand, has been happy to oversee A-Z's pizzeria restaurants, Spiga and Spighetta.

Giuliano Lotto was born in Milan, but has lived in Britain since he joined University College, Buckingham (as one of the first students at this college founded by Margaret Thatcher). He graduated in economics and set out to pursue a banking career.

It was after meeting Claudio Pulze, who'd successfully converted an ailing Chelsea Harbour restaurant, the Waterfront, into the Canteen with the aid of Marco Pierre White, that Lotto saw the possibilities in building up a group of restaurants.

"This business is all about getting in the right people. If you can do that, it's easy," according to Lotto. Claudio has the inspired eye for the best premises, chefs and staff, he says, and Franco has the feeling for day-to-day management. Of their seven restaurants, every one has been a bull's eye.

"If I had to write a book called How to Start a Restaurant," says Lotto, "I'd base it on Aubergine. If I had to write a book How to Start the Perfect Restaurant, I'd write it about Zafferano."

What is the secret, then? Zafferano was another under-successful restaurant, a Wheeler's, when they bought it. The site, in Belgravia, was a good one. Claudio Pulze had been a customer at Olivo in Victoria for some time, tucking into Giorgio Locatelli's delicious pasta three evenings a week.

A-Z offered him a stake in Zafferano and it was a resounding success. "We kept our prices down," says Lotto. "We haven't tried to make a lot of money out of it. We would rather have it full all the time. Then, when we are ready, we can respond to customer supply and demand."

On the day I had lunch, demand looked as if it had already reached full capacity. Not only was it full of animated, greedy customers, but many were revealed to be members of the gastronomic league: one group included Yen Kit So, the leading writer on Chinese food, protesting she'd been unable to get a table for dinner. Another was the head at the world's most exclusive chocolate company, Valrhona, who was heard promising: "I'll be back."

How true. The restaurant business is a game of snakes and ladders. As Aubergine slides down the slimy serpent and is forced to make a new start, an obliging ladder is put in place by the top prize in the Restaurateurs' Restaurant of the Year awards, making Zafferano top of the pile.

And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Giorgio Locatelli, now 35, started out in a kitchen at the age of 11, helping his uncle and aunt who'd opened a hotel on Lake Maggiore. "I was too clumsy to work in the front of house, always banging into chairs and dropping glasses," he jokes.

Locatelli was ambitious, and worked his way up to a post at the the famous three-starred Milan restaurant Villa Marchesi, and perhaps the nearest to French-style aspirations. "France has haute cuisine," he says, "but Italy doesn't. Each region tends to keep to its own style. I've always thought that Italian cooking had the heart, it had the palate, but it lacked technique."

Locatelli set out to learn these techniques, first at Laurent on the Champs Elysees and then at La Tour d'Argent, a useful if miserable experience (in which be lost several stone in weight). Then, speaking no English, he headed to the Savoy Hotel in London throwing himself at the mercy of Anton Edelmann, with a persuasive friend acting as interpreter.

A ludicrous spell followed, working in an Italian restaurant in Surrey. "It was awful," he says, laughing. "I resolved never to cook Italian food in England again." He didn't think it was possible using British ingredients. But he's come to terms with that at Zafferano, imposing stringent demands on his suppliers: six for fish and six grocers, three butchers, with two importers. One brings in mozzarella di bufala from Italy - so fresh it gets to London before it reaches Naples. His rocket is grown from seed he himself brought in from Italy and gave to Frances Smith, the Kent herb grower.

Here, then, is a taste of his cooking.

RAVIOLI OF PHEASANT WITH BLACK TRUFFLES

Serves 4

1 pheasant, deboned

100g/312oz pancetta (or good dry-cured bacon)

4 shallots, peeled and chopped

2 glasses dry white wine

olive oil

1 tablespoon double cream

1 tablespoon truffle trimmings (if available)

1 dessertspoon truffle oil

about 30g/1oz Parmesan

pinch of nutmeg

salt and freshly ground black pepper

about 100g/312oz dry white breadcrumbs

rolled-out pasta (see below)

1 beaten egg yolk

For the sauce:

knob of butter

sprig of rosemary

slices of fresh black truffle (optional)

To make the pheasant stuffing or farce, cut the breasts from the bird, halving them, and set aside, reserving the larger part of the legs. Keep the wing bones and the carcass to make stock for the sauce.

Pre-heat the oven to 375F/180C/Gas 5. Heat the oil in an iron ovenproof frying pan and cook the pheasant, seasoned with salt and pepper, skin- side down at first. Add the pancetta, and cook together.

When the meat browns, add the shallots, scraping up the sticky bits in the pan. Add a splash more olive oil and cook for a few minutes. Pour on enough white wine to come three-quarters of the way up the meat. As it comes to the boil, transfer it to the oven, and cook for five minutes or un- til some of the liquid has evaporated.

While the meat is still warm, pass it through a mincer twice using a medium disc (or use a food processor to chop it, but not to a paste).

Put into a bowl and add the cream, truffle trimmings, truffle oil, Parmesan and nutmeg; season. It should not be wet, so add just enough breadcrumbs to make a soft but not firm mixture.

Roll out two sheets of freshly-made pasta. With a teaspoon, place the stuffing at equidistant intervals to make the ravioli. Brush between the little heaps with beaten egg yolk and lay another sheet on top. Use a ravioli cutter to cut the ravioli out.

Put the ravioli into a pan full of plenty of boil- ing water and when they rise to the top, remove with a slotted spoon and plunge them into iced water. When the ravioli are cool, mop them dry with a cloth, and place between oiled layers of clingfilm and keep in the fridge.

To make the sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan, adding the rosemary and a pinch of salt. Add the pheasant stock and cook to reduce, but not too thickly. When ready to serve, heat the ravioli though in the sauce. They should be moist and well-flavoured. Serve with extra Parmesan and if you have it, sliced black truffle.

PASTA

Serves 4, generously

400g/14oz plain flour

4 fresh eggs

pinch of salt

12 tablespoon olive oil

Put the flour on a work-surface in a mound. Make a hole in the centre with your fist, break the eggs into the hole, add the salt and the oil and begin to knead it together. Use only the tips of your fingers and gradually blend in more and more flour. Finally work with both your hands, energetically rubbing and rolling. This is a very sensual and wonderful feeling so do please try to enjoy it!

When you have a smooth and elastic dough, begin to roll it out as far as you can go, fold it in half and roll it again. Do this over and over and over again, until you hear a "popping" sound. This is when the air pocket in the fold releases the air it is holding as the rolling pin goes over it. Only now is the pasta ready to cut and use.

Roll it out as thinly as possible or as required by the recipe, then cut it to the required shape before using. Don't let it dry out for too long before cooking it. Practise a few times before you attempt home-made pasta for an important occasion. Remember that all fresh or egg pasta takes much less time to cook than the hard factory-made variety. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to time fresh or egg pasta, so check it frequently.

BABY SPINACH & SALTED RICOTTA SALAD

Serves 4

250g/9oz baby spinach, washed and picked over, stems removed

200g/7oz salted ricotta cheese, divided into four

1 red onion

1 tablespoon best extra virgin olive oil

For the vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roast the unpeeled onion in a hot oven till tender (about 30 minutes). Cut onion in half, crosswise, and break into rings.

Mix the vinaigrette (the oil and vinegar with the salt and pepper). Sprinkle a little on the onion and leave to marinate.

To serve, arrange two or three onion rings on each of four plates. Dip the spinach leaves one at a time into the vinaigrette mixture, and place around the onion rings, making a flower composition. Crumble the ricotta on top. Add more black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

BABY SPINACH WITH SMOKED RICOTTTA

Make it the same way as above, omitting the onion rings and using smoked ricotta instead.

CHARGRILLED CUTTLEFISH SALAD

Serves 4

approximately 750g/1lb 8oz cuttlefish or squid (two of medium size will yield four flat sheets of 7x9cm/3x4in)

1 sac of cuttlefish ink (ask your fishmonger to advise)

200g/7oz onions, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil for frying

500ml/1pt fish stock (head and bones from white fish, simmered with chopped onion, carrot, celery, peppercorns and herbs for 25 minutes and strained)

2 tablespoons vinaigrette (olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper)

a generous handful of mitzuna or spicy salad leaves

Separate the cuttlefish bodies from the heads (the part which includes the tentacles) and reserve them. Rinse and clean the cuttlefish, cutting each in two, allowing one sheet per person. With a sharp knife, make criss- cross cuts into the flesh about 0.5cm (14in) apart.

To make the sauce gently cook the onion in the olive oil until soft and sweet. Then add the cuttle-fish heads and simmer. Liquid will run out of them, and this needs to reduce. Add the ink and cook on a high heat briefly, before adding enough fish stock to cover the cuttlefish heads by the width of about a finger.

Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, scraping up the bits which have stuck to the pan. Strain through a fine sieve, and cool. Keep in the fridge till ready to use.

To serve, heat the sauce, reducing it to a gooey, thick texture. Season the cuttlefish and brush with olive oil. Chargrill on highest heat till it starts to scorch, about 30 seconds. Don't overcook, as it gradually gets tougher the longer you cook it.

Toss the mitzuna or spicy salad leaves in a vinaigrette dressing, and arrange a layer on each plate in a flower composition. Place the chargrilled cuttlefish on top and drizzle the sauce over it.

For our review of Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant, turn to page 61

French

Winner: La Tante Claire. Other finalists: The Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche

Game

Winner: The Grill at the Connaught. Other finalists: Rules, The Savoy Grill

Seafood

Winner: The Seafood Restaurant (Padstow). Other finalists: Nobu, Livebait

Modern European

Winner: The Ivy. Other finalists: The Square, Aubergine

Meat

Winner: St John. Other finalists: Paul Heathcote's, Champany Inn (West Lothian)

Italian

Winner: Zafferano. Other finalists: Walnut Tree Inn (Abergavenny), the River Cafe

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