Tue. Jul 5th, 2022


I’m not sure what’s turned Smithfield into Little Italy, but the glorious ruins of the old meat market now contain the two best Italian restaurants in London. I realize that’s a deeply contentious thing to say because neither place is run by Italians.

In Greenhill Rents, you’ll find Gross Trattoria. Opened in the maelstrom of lockdown by Russell Norman, the man behind Polpo and something of a darling of the industry, the food is excellent, as you might expect. But what’s keeping them solidly booked for weeks in advance is the atmosphere – authentically London louche in a setting that could have been lifted from I Vitelloni.

Norman has a theatrical background and understands mise-en-scène like no one else in the business. If he wants you to think you’re in an unfashionable but somehow photogenic backstreet of Florence circa 1951 – where the godfather is struggling with pay-offs to the mafia and the waitress has formed a doomed love affair with a ragazzo of astonishing beauty who, even now, by the back step has pulled a switchblade from his threadbare pinstripe, glinting in the gaslit glare – then he’s succeeded. The only way he’s messed up is not doing the entire thing in black and white.

A couple of hundred meters away on St John Street is Luca, a restaurant from the brilliant mind of Isaac McHale, which bills itself as “British seasonal ingredients through an Italian lens”. It is a terrifically competent set-up with interior design that inspires an entirely different kind of awe. The front is a normal Victorian commercial building but, in the back, designer Alexander Waterworth has erected a glazed enclosure that almost abuts the grimy old London brick of a walled yard.

It’s a space with a high canted roof in modernist style that really thrillingly reminded me of the room where Eva Marie Saint shoots Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The place is decorated in achingly restrained tones and endowed with a soundtrack curated to remind you that you’re having a dreamlike evening in the most gloriously sophisticated setting. It feels like a semiotician designed it while in thrall to an obsessive romantic infatuation. This is where I’m eating tonight.


When a waiter says “would you like some parmesan fries? ”, I’m trying to think of any set of circumstances where my answer might be“ no ”. “I’ve had my jaw wired shut” is as close as I can get and, as I have not, I order them. You know the stuff they put inside those amazingly cheesy Spanish croquetas? Imagine squirting that into hot oil like a churro. I mean. . . it’s just not fair to offer people crispy sticks of cheese custard and expect them to restrain themselves. But this stunning tour de force was, it turned out, just a parlor trick compared to the main action.

Few chefs can roast an Orkney scallop to keep an internal juiciness, even fewer might have the bright idea to smear it in n’duja, but unless the chef possesses preternatural delicacy and judgment, it’s going to be like putting a kitten into a skip with a crack-fueled alligator.

Chef Robert Chambers has that kind of judgment. He’s ex-Square and, more importantly for fans of superb English ingredients, the Ledbury. It’s the peculiar talent for recognizing, isolating and then reframing just a few absolutely astonishing points in the ingredients and then laying them out for appreciation. Take the tartare of Hereford beef, which is not seasoned to hell in the normal way. There are no sauces, chopped onions or herbs, hardly any appreciable salt, just the really quite spectacular scent of aging. It’s marinated in Nebbiolo, which brings all the rich, meaty umami of the wine into harmony with the beef and then tops it with a creamy paste of Riseley cheese, a washed-rind English minger with mushroomy, cave-like notes. It’s an act of balance that seems to be about the similarities between the ways things age, but it’s less pretentious and more delicious than that.

I’d expect these guys to cook a piece of Scottish halibut well, and the mussels that flanked it were a joy. It reminded me of a Reubens painting where an ample and improbably fleshy central protagonist is born in by chubby little putti. But what raised it to the sublime was – to flog the art-historical metaphor to a bloody death – what one might call the background: a braise of coco beans so smooth and seductive it could have worn a thin mustache and a scandalous reputation. And the signature on this great work was the saffron. It was there, but so very evanescent that I paused to check it was real. I felt like a dung-drenched laborer in a tannery two miles downwind of the harem, who picks up just a hint of chypre and oud on the breeze and spends the rest of his life weeping for its lost beauty.

I ordered a lemon-based dessert, expecting something austere and cleansing, but I could not have been further off the mark. Lemon curd had been somehow coaxed into a cylinder and then set and dipped in cocoa butter. The texture and infantile pleasure of a room temperature choc-ice with all its joyous crack-and-dribble, a light and fragrant sorbet-thing and topped with shattered sheets of meringue. Good, it was, dear reader. Austere it was not.

Both Luca and Brutto take such huge inspiration from Italy, but Norman, the front of house pro, takes the imagined soul of the culture and repackages it. McHale, the chef, takes the flavors as inspiration, a stupendous Italian wine list and delivers it in a place of glorious international neutrality. It’s fascinating to observe how and to what extent either is “Italian” and how they choose to deliver the glories of that nation and culture.

I love both. Both charge a decent amount to deliver “somebody else’s” food culture, but in a way that makes me believe they are towering twin columns of London dining.

Gross

35-37 Greenhill Rents, London EC1M 6BN; msha.ke/brutto

Starters: £ 7- £ 13
First courses: £ 11- £ 17
Second courses: £ 12.50- £ 17
Desserts: £ 5- £ 8

Luca

88 St John St, London EC1M 4EH; luca.restaurant

Starters: £ 18- £ 23
First courses: £ 17- £ 21
Second courses: £ 34- £ 48
Desserts: £ 10- £ 12

Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and email him at tim.hayward@ft.com

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