Friday, 16 December 2011

SpagWednesday, Andrew's Café

Ah, the humble food cliché.  It seems that a day doesn't go by without another lovely turn of gastronomic phrase being thrust into our lexicon.  All you need to do is watch an episode or two of Masterchef to suffer an aural assault of tired terminology: "source everything locally," "let the ingredients speak for themselves," "artisanal endangered organic napkin rings," to name but a few.  

However, some of these are used in actual, earnest, wonderful situations where they are surprisingly accurate, in this case the tried and true duo of just a few simple, fresh ingredients cooked well coupled with the aforementioned let the ingredients speak for themselves.  The occasion for trotting out these phrases was the SpagWednesday "Made-In-Sicily Pop-up" with Giorgio Locatelli.  I have never had the pleasure of dining in Mr. Locatelli's eponymous restaurant - on the occasions where I've been looking for a place a bit special, they generally have nothing available within my 15-day window.  And as I am a huge fan of all of the events I've been to run by Young & Foodish aka Daniel Young, I snapped up tickets for this as soon as I got the announcement email.

The Mrs. and I took our seats with 4 others at our table, the communal element of these events always being a fun bonus (we have yet to meet any unpleasant people, generally like-minded eaters on the whole).  Wine was already poured, and a few minutes later our starter of Arancini, Panelle e Insalata di Mare (Rice balls, Chickpea Fritters & Seafood Salad) appeared.  The small square panelle had a delightfully flaky texture and retained the chickpea flavour quite well; I thought that the oil they were cooked in tasted a bit old, and that gave the slightest hint of  bitterness to them.  Not that this stopped me from scoffing them all.  

The rice in the arancini was just right: soft saffron-infused grains sticking together gently as day-old rice will do, but the centres still retained a hint of bite.  This surrounded a healthy dollop of ragù with a handful of peas in there as well.  The ball was covered in a light breadcrumb coating and fried.  Not a revelation, but a very competent effort that tasted very good indeed.

Rounding out the opening course was the Insalata di Mare.  Unfortunately my lexicon is currently bereft of many (or indeed any) Italian superlatives.  So feel free to insert your own here.  This dish was absolutely outstanding, and I was highly impressed.  Mussels, prawns, octopus and squid had all been boiled to perfection and then tossed with thin slices of celery and chopped parsley.  A squeeze of lemon on top added the perfect hint of acidity.  But nothing got in the way of the freshest flavours imaginable from all of the seafood; I honestly didn't have one imperfect bite.  It was highly pleasing to have one of those "eyes closed" moments so early on.

Bear with me, because it's a bit of a recurring theme.  We had a couple of minutes of reflection and wine drinking before the pasta course arrived, Busiate al pesto trapanese, which isn't easily translatable.  Busiate is usually a hollow corkscrew pasta made from durum wheat and water - no eggs.  I didn't ask, but given the colour of last night's pasta I suspect this might've been an egg-based variation (please correct me if I'm wrong).  Pesto trapanese is a sauce from the Trapani province in Northwest Sicily.  It usually consists of almonds, fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, a bit of pecorino and some oil and seasoning.  In this case, mint was substituted for basil, and I didn't taste much garlic.  The tomatoes were puréed raw and tossed with the pasta, mint and oil, and then a healthy handful of almond bits topped the pile.  

This was special.  Expertly made pasta, which is then cooked correctly, will always make me inordinately happy, and this was no exception.  Add to this just a few ingredients that are all perfect indicators of just how good each individual bit can be and you've got a damn fine dish indeed.  The extra virgin olive oil had a deep, earthy flavour to it, and we agreed that we could've drunk it by the glass.  So far, so damn good - my comment at the time was "annoyingly revelatory."

There was a bit of a pause in between courses for us to steel ourselves for the second half of the meal.  The meat course was a sea-bound variety, Braciolette di pesce spada (Swordfish steaks with breadcrumbs, capers and cheese).  3 thin slices of swordfish had been seasoned, breaded, rolled and fried with some whole bay leaves, and they were served on a bed of couscous that contained capers, tomatoes, fresh parsley and cucumber.  A lightly dressed green salad filled out the other side of the plate/bowl.

The fish was incredibly fresh and delicate, but I found it a tad overcooked.  I realise that swordfish won't have the firmness of other standard, fish-and-chips-type white fish, but it was quite mushy if I'm honest.  The breadcrumb coating was a touch on the greasy side, but the flavour was still overall highly enjoyable.  The couscous salad was fresh and complemented the fish well, although there were a good number of clumps suggesting that it hadn't been fully fork fluffed during preparation.  Green salad was unremarkable if tasty.  The cucumber added a bit of a contrasting texture to the rest of the dish, although I personally would've liked a bit more of it.  Overall though it was a tasty success.

On to the final course, which was La cassata della Locanda.  Cassata is essentially a layered cake, with sponge, ricotta, candied peel and a cream similar to that found in cannoli.  Daniel described Chef Locatelli's version as "his own interpretation;" he retained all of these ingredients with the addition of some other elements.  Candied peel, squares of pistchio-infused sponge and nibs of chocolate were mixed into a combination of the cream and ricotta - imagine a delicate, airy semi-sweet whipped cream with a salty edge from the cheese.  Atop the pile lay a glistening quenelle of silky smooth pistachio ice cream.  An absolutely heavenly combination, and I was happy that the word "deconstructed" never made an appearance.

Whilst enjoying a perfectly made Illy macchiato, Daniel brought Chef Locatelli out of the kitchen briefly to allow us to express our thanks.  The Chef spoke of how he would frequent Ferraris Snack Bar in Smithfield when he came to London in the mid-80's, and that he loved the "English Cafe" as an eating and gathering spot.  He truly enjoys running his Michelin- starred restaurant, but he also loved the idea of running a simple trattoria, and this was a great experience for him to cook for eager punters outside of his normal white tablecloth-ed realm.

And thus ended another special night from Daniel where we felt truly privileged to be eating splendid food from a very talented chef.  I continue to be highly impressed with all of the Young & Foodish events I've been fortunate enough to attend, and this one was no different.  

It was some fresh, simple ingredients cooked perfectly, allowing the individual flavours to truly shine THAT is one clichéd sentence.  (*whispers* but it's true)

Andrews Café
160 Gray's Inn Road

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