Pasta paradiso


Al Duca; 4/5 Duke of York Street, London, SW1, 0171 839 3090. Lunch Mon-Fri noon- 2.45pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6.45-11pm. Three-course dinner £19. Discretionary service added at 12.5 per cent. Credit cards accepted, except Diners

Al Duca; 4/5 Duke of York Street, London, SW1, 0171 839 3090. Lunch Mon-Fri noon- 2.45pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6.45-11pm. Three-course dinner £19. Discretionary service added at 12.5 per cent. Credit cards accepted, except Diners

UNTIL THIS month, the best pasta dish I'd ever eaten was either the one with aubergines I once had at a lorry drivers' caff in Messina or the ricotta ravioli with courgette flowers at Teca. But then I went to Al Duca and tried a dish so smooth, so creamy yet grassy and bacony, so mouthwateringly, ambrosially delicious that for a few gorgeous seconds I was reduced to a quivering wreck.

"Yes! Yes! YES!" I cried. (Well, I probably didn't but it makes for a better story.) "This is the sort of food that makes my job worthwhile."

The dish was called reginette all'uovo con piselli e pancetta. It sounds much sexier in Italian than it does in English: home- made pasta with peas and Italian bacon. But the latter merely confirms a theory of mine that, in smart restaurants, the more boring a dish looks on the menu the more exciting it will be on the palate, because the chef is bound to try that extra bit harder to make his simple ingredients sing.

As it later transpired, this theory is deeply unreliable: my boring-sounding main course turned out to be as boring to eat as it looked on the menu. Before I tell you about that, though, you'll probably be wondering where Al Duca is (St James's, just off Jermyn Street), what it looks like (designer beige), who the chef is (Michele Franzolin, formerly of Zafferano and Spiga) and whether it's worth visiting for any reason other than that wondrous pasta dish (most definitely).

Contrary to the snooty froideur you might expect from a restaurant in stately St James's, the atmosphere felt more like that of a small, friendly, family-run trattoria. Dozens (or so it seemed) of eager waiters vied for our attention. When we quizzed the head waitress as to the respective merits of the dishes, she described them all with loving, knowledgeable intimacy, and the food was conveyed to our table by a man with grizzled stubble, chic Armani-esque threads and an air of enormous pride. It was the chef/patron himself, Michele Franzolin. And I know we hardened restaurant critics aren't supposed to be impressed by that sort of show-off behaviour, but I was.

Anyway, if I were as talented a chef as Franzolin, I think I'd want to serve my customers in person, too. Take his gamberoni saltati con zafferano e patate croccanti. Besides being immaculately presented on a bed of green herbs and topped with crunchy shards of potato, these tasted a zillion times better than prawns have any right to taste. As fresh as anything you'd get on a beach in Goa, they had been marinaded in a saffron vinaigrette and cooked with such split-second accuracy that my eyes filled with tearful gratitude.

X was similarly blown away by her thinly sliced smoked swordfish with aromatic leaves (exactly as it sounds but none the worse for that). And though Eddie the DJ superstar felt he could have done with more of the advertised goats' cheese on his sliced cured beef with rocket salad, I reckoned this was a mite unfair. Anything more than tiny, runny cheese dollops would have wiped out the subtlety of the first-class bresaola.

And that was just the starters. Because the menu is temptingly priced at £22 for four courses, we felt it would be madness not to go the whole hog and have the extra pasta course as well as the main course. So X lucked out by choosing that pancetta and pea dish; Eddie and his wife, Tai, had the linguine al vongole (Eddie loved it, especially the big juicy clams; Tai would have liked more chillies, but then she's Thai); while I ended up being mildly disappointed by my aubergine and ricotta ravioli (nice enough but a bit claggy and, in parts, oversalted).

Prize for the best main course went to Tai's coschia d'anatra con lenticchie (duck legs' confit with puy lentils) - you get this dish everywhere, but Al Duca seem to do it better than most. This was closely followed by Eddie's trancio di tonno con rucola e pomodoro (meltingly tender chargrilled tuna with rocket and tomato), and X's merluzzo e fasioi alla veneta (roasted cod with white beans and spring onions, perfectly set off by a delicate persillade).

I, unfortunately, picked the bum deal with my battuta di pollo alla brace: chargrilled chicken breast with potatoes and spinach. The only point of interest was that the chicken had been hammered steamroller-flat. "Uh, yeah," said a bemused Eddie when I gave him a taste. "Thin chicken." Mind you, I think I might have appreciated it a lot more if I hadn't ruined my appetite with the ravioli and half of X's pea and pancetta dish.

We had no room for pudding and neither will you if you have three courses beforehand. But the lemon tart with fresh raspberries and the fresh fruit with sorbet which we nobly squeezed in for review purposes were both excellent. So that makes a total of 11 brilliant dishes out of the total 13 we tried. A pretty good hit rate, I'd say. Al Duca deserves your custom.

What's on the wine list

Richard Ehrlich's selection

Some of the names are unfamiliar or just vaguely familiar. But the wines I do know signal that the list is a serious one, which in turn makes the unfamiliarity mildly thrilling rather than worrying. Truth to tell, I'd be willing to have a go at anything here. The strength lies at about £25 and up, but you won't grumble if the £20 hinterlands are your usual territory.

Vermentino di Gallura 1998, Capichera, £25Italy is not a land for white wines of great nobility, but the Vermentino grape from a good producer on Sardinia is usually a deliciously fragrant mouthful

Valpolicella La Grola 1996, Allegrini, £25.50If your familiarity with Valpolicella is confined to mass-produced swill, you have a real treat coming from this single-vineyard wine

Moscato d'Asti 1998, La Spinetta, £19.50A good Moscato d'Asti, like this one, is a wonderful way to enda meal - with or without dessert

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