Warm up for bonfire night with Margot Restaurant‘s beautiful roast pumpkin soup with burrata pugliese, amaretti crumble & toasted pumpkin seeds. Another cosy dish for these chilly autumn days, risotto with wild mushrooms and Parmigiano Reggiano. Margot’s Casarecce al Tartufo is simple, delicate yet packed full of flavour. Glamour, elegance and authentic cuisine; Margot restaurant London is a true celebration of Italy!
Margot, 45 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AA (020 3409 4777). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £140
You can smell the money at Margot: both the cash that has been spent on opening it and the cash that will now be spent inside. There are fat leather banquettes in the shade of deep grey favoured for suits by Gieves & Hawkes. There are details picked out in copper and bronze and a soothing downlit lustre that the tieless men lunching here must imagine lends them more than a hint of Tom Ford, their crisp white shirts unbuttoned just so.
There are silly things, too. Who in their right minds puts a waiter in a dinner jacket in 2016? The answer, of course, is a fancy Italian joint – one that’s trying to waft the scent of La Dolce Vita to your nostrils alongside all that lazy, unhurried Italian charm. If a waiter in a dinner jacket turns up tableside bearing unrequested grissini, you know what you’re dealing with. It’s that easy, relaxed style around food which really pisses off the French because they haven’t a clue how to do it. I’d use the term sang froid to describe it, but that might piss off the French, too. At Margot they can offer you a special of tagliatelle with white truffles for £55 and not even raise their eyebrows while doing so. Well, of course, it’s that much because that’s what the good stuff costs. Order, don’t order. Your call.
It’s easy to get this wrong – to make nose-bleedingly expensive Italian style look like shamelessness. Savini, the venerable institution from Milan, set up shop in the Criterion space over on Piccadilly Circus a few months back and did just that. Every time I walk past it appears empty. On the one hand I’m delighted. It’s a clumsy operation run by people who appear to think their customers are idiots. On the other hand, I’m sad the beautiful Criterion space is being wasted.
Still, at least we have Margot here in London’s Covent Garden to show them how it’s done. It’s the kind of place where the men’s bogs smell of jasmine. Not everything is perfect, but there’s an awful lot that does please. It’s been created by Paulo de Tarso, former maître d’ of Bar Boulud, and Nicolas Jaouën, former general manager of La Petite Maison, who both worked together at the flashy Mayfair fish restaurant Scott’s.
They know how to do spendy urban brasseries; how to create a reassuring space where you drop more money than you know is reasonable, on carefully poised comfort food. The man supplying the cooking is Maurizio Morelli, whose pasta dishes I fell in love with at Latium, and whose pasta dishes I’ve now fallen in love with all over again.
The menu appears to be lengthy, though only because there’s a sizable choice of cheeses and cured meats at the front, listed individually. We get a mixed platter of the latter and the selection is very good indeed, as it should be for £15. The standouts are a butch salami perfumed with the high notes of fennel seed, and a 24-month aged prosciutto which manages to challenge the great hams of Spain. I would love to try it hand-cut in the Spanish style, but here a machine has been at work. Still, it means it’s thin enough to pile up in sweet silky folds. It comes with exceptionally good bread – a white with a loose, lightly sour crumb and a crust of high-baked crunch, and a foccacia that is all spring and lusciousness.
Pasta dishes come as both starter and main-course sizes. Morelli really has got this nailed. In principle, pasta is simplicity itself: flour, egg, perhaps a little salt. How you work those ingredients together, how you get the glutens to move in the way you need them to, is a different matter. Here, a coil of butter-yellow tagliatelle, ready for slurp and bite and soothe, comes piled with a ragù of that most boisterous and visceral of game, hare. The pasta is the perfect vehicle for a braise of animal that is the very depths of muddy field in autumn.
That old stager vitello tonnato here has had a slightly mannered makeover, the rosy veal served in thicker slices to one side (rather than in thin plate-covering rounds as per), but with the requisite puddle of the tuna and anchovy-flavoured mayonnaise. Land and sea hold hands and dance away together.
Game gets another showing in a robust dish of venison, served pink, with glazed chestnuts and braised Savoy cabbage with bacon; a reminder that Italy can be as northern European as it is Mediterranean. Green beans with a lemon dressing are there to make us feel like we’re being jolly good boys and girls.
Can it all be as good as this? No of course not. It rarely is. Here comes an overcooked fillet of cod, which is all dry flakes and disappointment and the certainty that it was at its best 10 minutes before I met it. A squid ink risotto of pearl barley is slippery rather than comforting. A side dish of garlic and rosemary roast potatoes is just a crashing, puritanical bore. The humble fish shack at Tynemouth got these exactly right. Theirs were that perfect mix of crisp crust and squidge, and enough hot fat to reassure you that you were being bad. These are pursed-lipped and dull. And yes, at £18.50 for the cod and £4.50 for the potatoes, I should be outraged.
But I can’t quite summon the will because, oh my, here comes dessert and these are glorious. A cylinder of the lightest lemon sponge laid flat is back-filled with a little flavoured cream. It’s thinly iced and comes with a lemon sorbet that wolf whistles at you, a dollop of boisterous lemon curd and some caramelised peel. And then there’s the rum baba with tangerine, the savarin sponge properly soaked in syrup. You can’t see it when you cut in. It doesn’t look drenched. But it’s there as you press it against the roof of your mouth. And on the side, chilled whipped cream. I sigh and spoon. How can I not love a restaurant that does a rum baba properly? Yours for £7.
And all this with old-school charm. Naturally, the wine list has some stupid numbers on it, but it also has a very good Gavi de Gavi by the glass for £6.50. No, Margot is not perfect. It needs tuning. But it is a special kind of right. Just don’t go unless you are prepared to give yourself to the bill.
You get what you pay for. At Padella by London’s Borough Market you get brilliant handmade pasta dishes from the team behind Trullo in Highbury, but you’ll have to queue for it and it’s counter seating. Then again, the most expensive pasta dish is £9 which could be for tagliatelle with smoked eel and Amalfi lemon. (The menu changes.) The cheapest, tagliarini with olive oil and black pepper, is £5 (padella.co).
Next week sees the launch of the National Cookery School Guide website, which kicks off with 50 entries. Those included have not paid for the listing, but have been chosen by a judging panel made up of food writers and editors. Backing comes from Kenwood (nationalcookeryschoolguide.com).
Just published: Sensational Chocolate, a recipe book written by Paul A Young, with contributions from the likes of Emma Thompson, Nigella Lawson and Brian Blessed. It’s all in aid of the Children’s Air Ambulance which provides inter-hospital transfers for critically ill children.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010