by Jay Rayner, The Guardian, December 30, 2015
Sartoria, 20 Savile Row, London W1 (020 7534 7000). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £150
When I last reviewed Francesco Mazzei’s food, I concluded it made sense to sell my house and move into his restaurant L’Anima, because nothing bad could ever happen there. It was all snowfields of white linen and walls of glass and clean lines, and plates of food that cheerfully pinched one cheek while kissing the other.
Seven years on and Mazzei has moved from the hard lines of the City of London to the over-filled cushions of Mayfair. This gives me a perfect excuse to eat his food again, though this time I’m not considering moving in. Mazzei has entered into a partnership with D&D London – yes, them again – to take over Sartoria, named for its location on Savile Row, where the grand tailors of London operate. Here, it is all plush and deep pile. At the old place a dropped glass would shatter, here it would bounce and roll. There are stuffed sofas and thick rugs for the arm chairs to get snagged on. If I sat here for too long I’d never get up again. It’s a sweet padded cell for wealthy people.
Because Mazzei’s food still costs. It costs in the way clumsy root canal surgery hurts. But that food is also comforting and domestic. Generally, the more you spend in restaurants, the more onerous the eating experience becomes. With expensive food, there’s just so much bloody admin. There’s enough silverware to build a Claes Oldenburg installation. There are ingredients placed just so, which must be introduced to each other according to protocols complex enough to baffle a UN ambassador. Which is odd, because if money buys you anything surely it should be an easier life, not one that’s more complicated.
Comforting and vivid: ‘a big, fat slap of the sea and something earthier, too’: fregola. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer
Mazzei’s food makes things easier. It starts with the ingredients. The olive oil for dipping their breads into, for example, is all you would hope for: there’s that high bitter note, then a pronounced pepperiness followed by something light and sweet and bright. It could happily sit on a dressing table to be dabbed behind the ears. From the list of antipasto, a heap of hand-cut, raw Black Angus beef with pickled black truffle and spoonfuls of anchovy sauce, is what a steak tartare wants to be when it grows up. It’s a rare moment where truffle brings something to the party, though not quite as much as that anchovy sauce which is a super-powered guitar solo full of grand posturing. We wipe the dish clean.
From the pasta dishes I have to order the fregola, as I did every time I went to L’Anima. Occasionally Mazzei has been criticised for offering the same dishes continually over the years. And it’s true he has things which have never come off his menu. But when they’re this good, why should they? I would much prefer long-term brilliance, rather than outbreaks of half-arsed innovation for its own sake. Fregola is soaked semolina, dried and toasted and then added to a ripe tomato-based fish stew, full of razor clams and sweet plump prawns, mussels and flakes of cod and a bunch of other things besides. It is both comforting and vivid: a big, fat slap of the sea and something earthier, too. Imagining you could make this yourself would be the ultimate home cook’s delusion of grandeur.
Pastachijna, described as a southern Italian lasagne, is another Mazzei stager from L’Anima days. It arrives looking more like a terrine on the plate. It’s a long, thick slice through the layers, revealing long- roasted pieces of aubergine, soft, crumbly egg yolk and tiny pieces of meatball, punched up with fiery nduja, the chilli-spiced soft salami from Calabria. It turns the business of lasagne into a cheery variety pack, albeit a slightly stodgy one.
‘Milan looking north to Vienna and shouting, “Call that a schnitzel?
This is a bloody schnitzel”’: veal Milanese. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer
For our main we share veal Milanese, the huge breaded and fried veal chop on the bone, sliced tableside and laid under heaps of wild rocket and tomato salad dressed in more of that olive oil. It’s Milan looking north to Vienna and shouting, “Call that a schnitzel? This is a bloody schnitzel.” As a side dish we have an overflowing pot of his zucchine fritte, because to not do so would be idiocy. They were the best courgette chips in London when I had them last and they remain so. They are also a minor miracle. How they manage to turn a vegetable that is mostly water into these matchstick thin frites that rustle against each other like the fingers of satin opera gloves is beyond me. Put down the fork. These are what your hands were invented for.
We finish with zabaglione – a dessert seen all too rarely these days, perhaps because it’s tricky to get right. Here it is the classic: egg yolk and sugar beaten unto fluffiness, with Marsala and nutmeg. It is delivered to the table in its own shiny copper pot, from which it is shared out into glasses. The copper is then left there for refills. It’s the Jessica Rabbit of desserts. It’s not bad. It was just whipped that way. This is how I imagined adulthood would be when I was a kid, all my meals ending with me spooning away boozy clouds.
‘The Jessica Rabbit of desserts’: zabaglione. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer
This being Mayfair, you do have to take a strong hand with the waiting staff who are ever present, and likely to turn your table of two into a threesome. Tell them you’ll pour the wine yourself and they’ll eventually leave you in peace. Obviously given the location, the wine list offers opportunities to ignite the plastic, however it does open in the teens and offers an intriguing tour of Italy.
Being a D&D restaurant, though, there are other outbreaks of silliness. For example when I first phoned to book, the Italian chap on the other end of the line insisted he had no tables at all for my chosen day and time. I told him I didn’t believe him. He insisted it was so. I told him he was lying. He said he could seat me at 5.30pm. I laughed at him, hung up, went online and was offered every single time slot possible including the 8.30pm table I wanted. This is Mayfair and they do things differently there.
Obviously I arrived here as a fan of Francesco Mazzei’s cooking. What’s important is that I leave still a fan. If you can get the cash together, order that raw beef starter, the fregola, the courgette chips and the zabaglione and it will be one of the most satisfying meals you can eat in London right now. You won’t begrudge a penny.
Jay’s news bites
■ Giorgio Alessio’s Lanterna, a Scarborough landmark for almost 40 years, has built up a loyal following. Pick carefully and you can eat well here, especially from the specials which include his velvet crab spaghetti and fish off the boats, perfectly grilled. But no pilgrimage is complete without the zabaglione, which Giorgio whips up tableside. Each serving makes the room smell of Christmas (lanterna-ristorante.co.uk)
■ The Summer Isles Hotel, once a beacon for terrific cooking on the west coast of Scotland, is up for sale. The 13-bedroom hotel in Achiltibuie is for sale for £700,000. It is named after the islands that it looks out over. I can confirm its dining room has one of the most glorious views.
■ The Clink Charity, which operates six restaurants inside prisons providing training and skills for inmates, has launched the Clink Canapé Cookbook. It includes recipes from the likes of Albert Roux, Giorgio Locatelli and Cyrus Todiwala as well clink trainees and graduates. It costs £14.99 (theclinkcharity.org)
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Jay Rayner from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.