Following the Cicchetti Trail – a Restaurant Crawl around London:
In my naive student days I got my hands on my then boyfriend’s A-Z. Remember the days of those paper map books? His had stars marked in pencil. Being a little distrustful I immediately though that was where his ‘other women’ lived, or perhaps where he met them, or something like that. There really were a LOT of stars. A few minutes of painful inquisition later it turned out that they were actually the locations of Fuller’s pubs in London. The pubs had a passport scheme and you had to get your passport stamped in different venues to qualify for a free pint. That’s what he told me anyway.
I guess the London Restaurant Festival Trails are grown-up version of those pub crawls that most of us tried in our youth. Rather a good kind of grown-up version in my book – one that lets you eat great food and sample six restaurants for just £50.
My first destination was Theo Randall at the Intercontinental. Still smarting from having missed out on the Theo Randall masterclass, I was keen to see what was on offer. I’ve been for tea at the Intercontinental Park Lane and eaten at the Cookbook Cafe on a few occasions. But I’ve never been to the the main restaurant even though Theo Randall has a wonderful reputation for perfectly cooked and served simple Italian food.
A pretty bowl of calamari in padella – pan fried squid with fresh borlotti beans – tasted as good as it looked and although the Zucchini fritti were not quite as moreish as those I rave about from Tinello, they were exceptionally succulent little fingers of courgettes in the lightest of batter (and would work brilliantly as a contorni, as they appear on the main restaurant menu).
A glass of prosecco to help me on my way seemed like an excellent start to the trail. Actually, I would have been quite happy to just stay there for the rest of the day and eat more calamari;)
Theo was in the kitchen and came out to say hello. His insight into the purpose of the event coloured my attitude throughout the day. He told me that he had taken part in some way in the London Restaurant Festival for the last five years. A great way to introduce people to new places or ones where they might not otherwise have ventured into.
It is a low-risk way to explore. With a budget of £8.50 per restaurant (which includes the complimentary drink), I can’t imagine anyone is making a lot of money. But of course it’s crucial that what is served is tantalising enough to make visitors want to return – and Theo Randall certainly achieved that.
Next on the list a complete contrast at the lively and very busy San Carlo Cicchetti on Piccadilly. Quite apart from the London Restaurant Festival this place was packed. And with good quality small dishes between £5 and £10 perhaps that’s not surprising on a Saturday lunchtime. The festival menu was pleasantly comforting.
Truffle and Pecorino Ravioli was two generous sized ravioli topped with a creamy onion sauce, truffle oil and a few shavings of black truffle. The Grilled Octopus was served on a board with a light accompaniment of fresh tomato and herbs.
My second glass of fizz for the day, a *proper* bellini with peach puree topped off with prosecco was prettily served. A find for anyone looking for a light lunch or for a sharing menu to eat with friends, this place is just outside hip and trendy Soho so you might not have to wait too long for a table!
The third destination, Massimo, had a time restriction and leaving San Carlo at 2.30pm we had to rush a bit to arrive at 2.48pm by the clock on the wall of the bar. Undaunted by the front of house who initially told us we were too late, he agreed to serve us and sat us down in the nearly empty restaurant next to a table occupied by some fellow restaurant trail customers with small children. Peroni was brought to the table before we had a chance to mention that one of us doesn’t drink alcohol and one doesn’t like beer. It was swiftly replaced with some mineral water and fruit juice, although no other alcoholic option was offered.
We’d eaten squid and octopus at the earlier venues so I chose the pumpkin and amaretti tortellini with sage butter and Parmigiano. It was hard to get too much of an impression of one ‘fine dining’ sized piece of pasta and definitely impossible to share. My companion’s sea-bass was considerably more generous and nicely cooked with a crispy rice wrapper, although the fennel broth seemed to have nearly run out and she thought the fish was a little over-salted.
Leaving Massimo we headed up to Soho, about 10 minutes walk away, to Mele e Pere.
I was charmed by the home-made vermouth and our two dishes were refreshingly hearty portions of comfort food. Homemade fregola with broccoli in a romanesco sauce and grilled king prawn was excellent – with a perfectly cooked prawn topping a pretty bowl of fregola.
And the fried panzerotti turned out to a sort of bread which was served with salami rather than the spicy tomato sauce on the trail passport. Very delicious and beautifully presented.
By the time we reached da Polpo it was approaching pre-theatre dining. I’ve been there before and it does tend to get busy at certain times of the day. Generally, I avoid going there when I might have to queue and we were lucky this time and just made it. Perched at the bar, there was a bit of a feel of a restaurant under siege all around us.
The staff were kind enough to replace the Peroni with a glass of red wine without hesitation and we went on to share one of each of the Cicchetti on offer. Mostly crostini these suffered from appearing to have been made earlier in the day and looked pretty but lacked a wow factor.
For me, the arancini were rather better, nicely flavoured and with a sticky cheesy rice filling, but a potato and parmesan crocchette was far too dry. Disappointingly I got the feeling that our presence was really not that welcome. Which is sad because it’s not what I’ve experienced on previous occasions. Perhaps it was just bad timing – I’d always recommend going there outside of the pre-theatre dining hours (5.30 – 7pm) and unfortunately, we didn’t manage that this time.
Our final destination was in Bloomsbury.
Oh it’s only a short walk
Said my companion who will never again be trusted!
Half an hour or so later we arrived and thankfully it was definitely worth the hike across town. For me, the best Italian food is simple, made with great ingredients and served with a smile. In Parma worked just as well as the more refined and upmarket Theo Randall. The tables might have been rather wobbly and the wine served in ‘authentic’ bowls but the meats were fantastically flavoured – a PDO Prosciutto, Salame Felino and Mortadella Bologna PGI.
And a similar plate of morsels of cheese – Gorgonzola, Taleggio and Parmigiano accompanied by bread and all washed down with Lambrusco fojetas.
There’s still time to take part in the London Restaurant Festival by going on the Cicchetti trail or the tapas trail this weekend. It’s an excellent way to preview places without spending a fortune and draw up a bucket list of where you might try again. After all, we all have different ideas of what makes excellent food, service and ambience. Give it a try – it’s cheaper than hitting the department stores on a Saturday afternoon and definitely more fun than staying at home.
This event was part of the London Restaurant Festival which runs from 3-21st October. I was a guest of the London Restaurant Festival on the Cicchetti Trail – there is a range of exciting events during the Festival which can be booked through the London Restaurant Festival website above.