On paper, there are two big strikes against Refettorio. It's in the City, where interesting restaurants are about as numerous as St Paul's Cathedral.
On paper, there are two big strikes against Refettorio. It's in the City, where interesting restaurants are about as numerous as St Paul's Cathedral. And it's in a new hotel, one of those super-modern jobs whose anonymous public spaces make Lost In Translation look cheerful.
So why is it that on a Friday night in its opening week, Refettorio is a glowing oasis of conviviality, its huge tables filling up with a crowd notably short on City drones and long on groups of Italians having a good time?
Look no further than the involvement of Giorgio Locatelli, Britain's most passionate and talented Italian chef. As Refettorio's consultant chef, Locatelli has imported the perfectionist approach of his own restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, to this less formal venture, not to mention his top-notch suppliers and former right-hand man, Pasquale Amico.
Those suppliers are key to the whole project. The first thing you see on entering Refettorio from the hotel lobby is a wall of chiller cabinets stacked with haunches of cured meat and truckles of Italian regional cheese. So magnificent is the sight that it's tempting just to pull up a barstool and sit drooling at them, like some kind of epicurean Homer Simpson.
This profusion of goodies isn't just for show; a selection of two dozen cheeses and salume form the heart of the Refettorio experience. They can be ordered as a light meal in themselves or picked at while you feel your way around a menu which, while having no obvious regional bias, offers authentic delights such as chickpea and clam soup, fresh tagliatelle with rabbit ragu, and char-grilled mackerel with tomato, basil and capers.
The room is carved into two potential dining areas, the less formal Convivium (think Carluccio's meets Busaba Eathai) and a smaller restaurant tucked round the corner (think The Dead Zone.) On realising we would be the only customers in the latter, we hastily relocated ourselves in Convivium, where we had an eight-person table to ourselves, though the no-bookings policy meant that if things got busy, we might end up breaking bread with strangers.
But what bread! Our selection included oil-rich focaccia studded with rosemary and tiny tomatoes, hand-rolled grissini flavoured with Parmesan, and focaccia laced with cloves of sweetly caramelised garlic. It was wonderfully, laughably, good.
The modish brown leather/brown wood décor of the room is carried through, ill advisedly, to the menu, whose brown-on-brown printing scheme left us squinting like two old biddies during the blackout. "I need a torch," hissed my friend. Eventually I had to read the main courses out to her. Oh well, it passed the time. And it certainly deterred anyone else from joining us.
This is the place to come if you're on the Atkins diet. Of the twenty-plus varieties of regional cured meats on offer, at least half were unfamiliar to us. Our £14 selection, which came with plump green olives and marinated wild chicory, included prosciutto di norcia carved from the bone, translucent bresaola, silky lardo (cured pork fat) and salame which provided a rush of Mediterranean otherness.
From a range of fritti which includes artichoke, zucchini and gnocchi, we sampled fried squid, pale, crunchy and exquisitely fresh, and generously priced at £4. Next, in the Italian manner, we slipped in a pasta course. Bucatini, or giant spaghetti, came in an exemplary amatriciana sauce, with soft pork cheek replacing the more usual bacon (£8) . My friend was less keen on her paccheri (£6.50), a speciality of Pasquale Amico's native Naples, which is a kind of eggless pasta that retains an inner crunch; the accompanying sauce, a classic mix of broccoli, sausage, olive oil and garlic, would have worked better with orechiette.
While I'm telling Britain's foremost Italian chef his business, I might as well draw his attention to my disappointing £19.50 main course, involtini di annecchia (beef filled with pine kernel and garlic). The rolls of ground meat were dry and pasty, and the tomato sauce too similar to the one I'd just had with my pasta. My guest's breaded veal cutlet (£12.50), a Desperate Dan cartoon version with protruding bone, was impeccable, as were accompanying spinach and roasted potatoes.
You'll have noticed that we ate rather a lot. What can I say? It's that kind of menu, informally structured so that before you know it you've slipped in all kind of little extras. The spiced rhubarb compote we ended with deserved more than we had left to give it. Ditto the all-Italian wine list full of interesting regional bottles, many priced below £30. You could spend as little as £20 a head here, or double that.
Giorgio Locatelli's vision for Locanda Locatelli was always that it would be a convivial, family restaurant, but it feels a bit too showcase-formal for that, and besides, it's hard to drop by for a spontaneous bite when a place is booked up weeks in advance. At Refettorio, a short stroll over Blackfriars Bridge from Bankside and the Tate Modern, that vision is realised. And if the food doesn't quite match the brilliance of Locanda Locatelli, it's still very good indeed.
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