For all that tonight was a cracking experience, god it was intense. To sit at Bocca Di Lupo’s Chef’s Counter is to sit so close to the trattoria’s beating heart that it possesses you of a real instinct to snap to it every time a new order comes on. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t make a deliberate point of reserving places at it – because it strikes me that if you want the best angle on this place then you absolutely should – rather that, while they’re certainly box seats, these aren’t date seats. I don’t know. I wonder if perhaps my inability to properly detach in this environment made the evening’s spectacle more distracting for me than it would for most. What I do know is that so vivid a reminder of front-line action has no more made me inclined to take up chef-ing as it has to join the circus.
Taking down a kitchen’s fourth wall is a big shout. Sure, it adds an obvious element of theatre, and a point of interest for those with a curiosity as to a restaurant’s inner workings. Also, unlike other ‘chef’s table’ offers -whereby I’m not sure the concept isn’t just a ruse to charge a premium for a peek behind the curtain – it demonstrates a balls-out confidence in, and a bold honesty about, the quality of your food. For a chef, signing up to work in an open kitchen must be like committing to a relationship of brutal truth, or else like going to work with no trousers on. I mentioned whilst we were sat there staring down the barrel that to me a closed kitchen was like a refuge; the dark glasses to my p-p-p-p-poker face. Pans aren’t the only things in there letting off steam, you know? And yet here, from their perspective, it was as if that wall was still there. Eye contact, at least until later when the pace began to let up, was absolutely minimal and focus was intently and reassuringly on the job in hand. Mistakes were made and the occasional strip of dignity torn off, but restraint, discipline, and even good humour, all prevailed. On a fairly high-octane Saturday, I think this impressed me as much as the food.
On that, I’ll start by conceding my frame of reference in regard to going Italian is limited at best. I don’t necessarily qualify as the guy to tell where you might reasonably expect to find better or worse contextual examples of regional cooking. You’ll know if you’ve read this before, though, that the Hymnal’s only ever going to take a place, most operatively in this case, at face value. And this was pretty fucking good.
We chose, just as we did at Sheekey’s a couple of weeks ago, to go little and often. First wave comprised of Lamb Prosciutto with Pecorino and raw Broad Beans, an oily Artichoke a la Giudia – through which our Sicilian Cavallina Grillo (£16) cut quite brilliantly -, an extraordinary Nettle and Chard Pansotti with Walnut Dressing, and a risotto of Morels, Peas and Sweetbreads. All under a tenner and of a size that all three of us could get a decent handle on. Centre stage among the second salvo was a Pork and Foie Gras Sausage with Pearl Barley and Porcini, with which arrived an assortment of sides; Borlotti beans with tomato, basil and a good amount of chilli, broad beans with smoked ricotta and mint, and Asparagus with Lemon Oil. The, again excellent value, Puglian Negromaro (£19.25) went uncannily well with everything.
A drawback for any restaurant allowing this kind of behind-the-scenes access is, of course, that any momentary lapses are magnified. Said salvo, for example, we could see sitting under the heat lamps for a good few minutes before a sous-chef questioned why it hadn’t been picked up. The ‘waiter’ he’d addressed, whose sole function seemed to be to run the rule over each plate’s presentation and contents and then take a tissue round its rim, and who had thus far played it far too cool for school, was for a brief moment made to look less calm and collected than carelessly complacent. The upshot once it had arrived was to have grounds to argue the sausage, to which I was looking forward the most, was not as hot as it should have been. No real biggie. The point, though, is that from here you can see anything and everything that you’d otherwise, and probably rather, have missed.
Service was informed and jovial. Tamsin, the maitre d’, my associate had been especially impressed with when booking and she was indeed a sweetheart; professional, tactile but not invasive, and armed with a smile from here to here. The venue has been criticised for poor acoustics and if whomever did so means that it’s noisy to the tune of people having a nice time then, yes, it is. But far from making it supersonic, all the hard surfaces amount to in real terms is somewhere that’s smartly turned out. The tightly ordered seating to my right gave a sense that, if pushed, they might be inclined to squeeze too many along this run of the bar, although I’m not sure I wasn’t just made aware of this as it was straightened once too often by a surplus of staff.
Listen, we read a melange of other reviews before we went to Bocca di Lupo. Some raved about it, some were pretty unkind. As I say, while my palette doesn’t represent the best barometer by which to conclusively say which of my wannabe contemporaries are right and which are wrong, what I can confirm is that I absolutely caned everything I had. On that basis, and on that of a proper dining experience, I’d absolutely recommend you try it for yourself.
[Dessert was enjoyed accross the street at BDL's new gelateria and deli, Gelupo]