db Eats: Olivocarne2nd January, 2014 by Lucy Shaw
On the early November evening I visited Sardinian restaurant Olivocarne in Belgravia, the Mediterranean island was in the grip of an apocalyptic storm, christened Cyclone Cleopatra.
But while Mother Nature was busy wreaking havoc in owner Mauro Sanna’s homeland, the fourth opening in his ever-expanding Olivo group was the picture of civility.
Housed down the pretty end of Elizabeth Street, where fairy lights flicker and sweeping bow windows of chic boutiques offer tantalising glimpses into other worlds, on entering the restaurant just after 7pm, I was hoping to be enveloped by a raucous Italian welcome of gesticulating waiters and giant pepper mills, but the atmosphere was decidedly subdued. The place was yet to spark into life.
Designed by Pierluigi Piu, like Italy, Olivocarne is long and thin in shape. Its palate is modest and understated – chairs are black and tables white. One wall offers a splash of aqua while the main stretch boasts a bizarre but charming bucolic scene of rural Sardinian life, populated by silhouettes of farmers, peasants, horseman, hunters and shepherds surrounded by their flocks, as the island is home to some four million sheep.
Sanna entered the restaurant business in 1990 with Olivo in Belgravia, following up with the more casual Oliveto in 1995, which gives Franco Manca competition on the pizza front.
Next up came seafood-focused Olivomare in 2007, with the 80-cover Olivocarne, the newest in the group, opening in August 2012, along with ice cream parlour Olivogelo and wine shop Olivino.
As the name suggests, Olivocarne is concerned with the pleasures of the flesh, with the likes of wild boar and sucking pig taking centre stage. Kicking off my meat feast with a refreshing glass of La Farra Prosecco and unable to commit to just one starter, our charming Sardinian waiter lured me in the direction of the chargrilled courgette salad with ricotta, rocket and truffle oil.
While simple in nature, the combination of flavours and textures was inspired, the shards of salty ricotta enhanced by the smoky crunch of the courgettes, peppery fire of the rocket and the decadent trace of truffle oil.
Also in the starting line-up was beef tartare with grated bottarga (grey mullet roe) and chili. Served as a fat medallion in an upmarket twist on surf ‘n’ turf, while the flavour of the meat was clean and iron-rich, it was given added interest and depth by the judiciously judged chili and salty bottarga, which rested on top as a fine orange powder offering an additional savoury layer.
It could have easily fallen out of balance, overpowered by either the heat of the chili or the flavour of the fish, but the three elements worked in unison to create one of the most interesting and alluring dishes I’ve eaten all year.
To pair with it, fizzing with enthusiasm for wines from his homeland, our waiter insisted we try a glass of Sella & Mosca Monteoro Vermentino 2011. A simple drop imbued with an underlying minerality and notes of crisp green apple, it was lively, undemanding and quite lovely.
Keen to eat like a local, for the main event I chose the suckling pig ragu with pappardelle. While the wide ribbons of pasta were wonderfully al dente and soaked up the sauce, the piglet stole the show, the meat achingly tender and packed with porcine flavour.
Enhancing an already sublime experience was a bottle of Cordero di Montezemolo Barolo Monfalletto 2008. Allowed to breathe for nearly an hour before enjoying the first glass, it was worth the wait, rewarding with Barolo’s signature haunting flavours of tar and roses. A masterclass in the balance of power and elegance, this iron fist in a velvet glove charmed with a robust body and silky finish. There are some wines that transport you, Barolo is one of them.
Lost in the pleasure of it all, I looked up from my glass and realised that the restaurant was now buzzing with the animated banter of its well-heeled clientele, the majority of which I suspect were locals – David and Sam Cameron are said to be regulars.
Proving just how tiny the wine world is, while deciding what to devour for dessert, I was momentarily distracted when Lebanese wine legend, Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar, sashayed through the door with his son. I suggested he order the sucking pig.
Dessert was the least spectacular moment of the meal – my arm was twisted to try a local delicacy in the form of a fritter drizzled with honey and stuffed with cheese.
Its crispy shell tasted like a lemon puff biscuit and the sweet-savoury interplay worked up to a point, but after a few bites I was defeated.
Olivocarne no doubt lives and dies by its regulars, but it has a self-assuredness about it that I respect and admire.
While this neighbourhood gem has gone largely under the radar since it opened in 2012, the food is definitely worth the detour.
Relaxed, intimate and away from prying eyes, dishes are simple in composition but full of authentic, rustic flavours. Olivocarne isn’t doing backflips to impress. It knows itself and is confident in its stripped back simplicity, resulting in some of the finest Italian food I’ve eaten all year, perhaps ever. Both the Barolo and the tartare will linger long in the memory. I wonder what Sanna has up his sleeve next?
Olivocarne, 61 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W 9PP; Tel: +44 (0)20 7730 7997