As a long-term Londoner, I am sure I am not alone in having favourite haunts. Those city places that make you feel you are at home. You belong, in a physical and emotional sense. You eat, you drink where you feel comfortable, somewhere where the atmosphere consoles, somewhere that satisfies not just your taste buds. Tall order. For me, that often means a return to once-debauched often-seedy-decadent Boho- Soho and its environs for a coffee at Bar Italia or a drink at The French Pub before buying something to rustle up at home from I Camisa or Lina Stores. Living History. Other times when I want to be nourished and looked after, I love heading to that historic anchor Spaghetti House, for a dish of reliably nourishing pasta , before the tube journey home. Its history is part of my history. It’s been around for over sixty years and it’s not only surviving in the face of stiff competition in the ever-changing world of central London restaurants ..its positively thriving and often thronged. In spite of notoriously fickle diners who embrace new dining concepts quicker than a new moon has time to resurface ..going by my recent visit to the flagship Goodge Street restaurant on a recent Friday night ..this family-run Italian restaurant group will be going strong for years to come.
So what makes it stand out?
There is something incredibly appealing about being greeted with a big smile when you enter a restaurant. and if a glass of superior Prossecco swiftly follows, alongside some nifty nibbles, you immediately feel relaxed. It augurs well for an enjoyable evening ahead. And so it proved at a recent pre-Christmas food tasting event hosted by Spaghetti House at their landmark Art Nouveau building in Goodge Street.
On arrival, I knew there would be a lot of food on offer so I just went for these fresh green olives from Sicily. Addictive.
Followed by a demonstration from Executive Chef Achille Travaglini and his team
Two dishes were swiftly magicked up and to my delight they were both fish dishes.
Cocktail Di Gamberetti was followed by Branzino allo Scalogno
Why does familiar food sound more enticing when it is written and spoken in Italian?
I will admit to being rather sceptical about the inclusion of the ubiquitous Prawn Cocktail and we all recognise sea bass, a fish we regularly eat at home and one that haunts most restaurant menus these days. That was before I tasted it the Spaghetti House way … but I jump ahead. Here are some swiftly taken photos ..these guys don’t hang about ..of the dishes in the making ..alongside some cheffy tips ..
Is that brandy going into the sauce?!
It might be better known that tomato ketchup goes into the homemade mayo for the Marie Rose sauce ..
but did you know that orange zest adds the most incredible zing?
and that fresh lemon added to the chopped baby gem lettuce base really lifts the dish? Most refreshing! Also, thank goodness for the adherence to small sweet prawns which is traditional and for good reason ..some might smirk at the retro feel of this dish , but I’d hazard a guess that it has been on the SH menu, give or take a few modernising tweaks, since the beginning and for good reason. It’s justifiably popular because it tastes great!
Branzino or sea bass is often cooked whole on the bone but here it’s freshly filleted, which makes it easier to eat and there was no compromise on taste. crispy skin, fish finished off under the grill, well timed (I hate overcooked fish!). I loved the sweet shallot dressing (shh there was some brown sugar added to enhance the sweetness .. and a glug of white wine) and the accompanying mash was made memorable by the addition of grain mustard. I was surprised by the subtlety, very smooth texture, lovely.
Next time I cook a fillet of fish I am going to go all geometric with the presentation and place the greens in between (here it’s quickly cooked spinach, perfect)
A drop of balsamic, job done. Quietly and assuredly. The love of food and the pride in its simple but careful preparation really came across from Exec Chef Achille and his team. (Clearly not one of those shouty kitchens!)
We then got to sit down at a long communal table, dressed up in all its Christmas finery.
Look at the table mat! More geometrics … Triangles Rule!
and no Italian Christmas would be complete without Panettone …
A truly amazing soup! A first for this soup lover and one I will attempt to replicate at home. Crema Di Ceci E Castagne. A delectable combination of chickpeas and chestnuts, made from chick peas cooked from scratch (but you can cheat and use tinned, with vacuum-packed pre-cooked chestnuts available in most supermarkets at Christmas time). Comfortingly rich and creamy but also with some remaining texture from the chestnuts to add to the interest and a spike of rosemary oil contributing to the depth of the soup. Think umami! A winner! oh and I want those cute “saucepan” serving dishes!
Swiftly followed by Involtini Di Melanzane al Forno (baked aubergine, stuffed with basil and ricotta with Napoli sauce). Truly tasty, rib-warming ,certainly filling enough to be counted as a small main and a good choice for Vegetarians.
Just when I thought I had to save some room for dessert, along came a pasta dish. Hardly a surprise there..no self-respecting Italian restaurant could fail to include a festive take and here it was handmade Tortelloni Al Funghi & Tartufo .. I feel hungry even writing the name! Clearly a substantial dish for colder weather but so much a heart-warming part of this joyful Menu Natalizio. So mushroomy and another great choice for Vegetarians. I loved the inclusion of black truffle oil alongside a creamy sauce and crispy sage. again with a judicious addition of fresh lemon zest. I’d have loved more lemon to cut through the richness, but that’s all down to personal taste and it is a magnificent celebratory dish.Was there a hint of nutmeg in there?
And finally .. to finish ..to end a delicious meal ..in such a venerable Italian culinary institution.. it has to be … eyes to the right.. oh what a Tiramisu! honestly, one of the lightest I have ever had and I do like to end a meal on a lighter note. that said ..eyes to the left, my second favourite dessert of the evening was the hot bramley apple crumble melting its way into the cold vanilla ice cream. actually there was a lot about the food this evening that was meltingly delicious. Celebratory twists lifting the bar of the comfortingly familiar.
It only remains for me to thank Stefana, our generous host and daughter of the co-founder and also to extend my appreciation to the hard-working chefs and everyone involved in making the evening so special. Having enjoyed the food experience all the more because of the convivial company of other food writers, it’s time to mention that this Christmas Menu is only available for groups of eight upwards. For the quality on offer, the relaxed central London venues, it offers incredible value at £16:95 for two courses, £19:95 for three . For an extra £10 throw in half a Lt carafe of specially selected Friulano Bianco or Merlot IGT Veneto. I’d say its ideal for a staff party or a family get together this festive season. The menu is rolled out on November 21st but if you book before 28th October, there’s a flute of that luscious Ca’del Console for each person, guaranteed to get your party off to a good start!
Dedicated Christmas Line: 020 7395 0390