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db Eats: Semplice

Perhaps this says more about my skewed priorities than anything else, but I thought I had all London’s 47 (if you count Richmond) Michelin starred restaurants indelibly tattooed on my radar. But Semplice? Never heard of it. Nor had anyone else I spoke to.

It’s not as though we’re talking about some Ethiopian café in the backstreets of Kennington; this is a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in Mayfair.

Maybe that’s part of the problem: there are so many smart Italians in this part of London that an Ethiopian restaurant would at least find it easier to stand out from the crowd. Semplice manages to make life even more difficult for itself by having an identically-named but lower maintenance sister trattoria across the street.

Having made sure we’d picked the right sibling, we settled into the sleek, minimalist dining room for some tasty amuses bouches and an aperitif of sparkling Franciacorta, a corner of Lombardy which inspires much of the menu here. The traditional method production and Chardonnay-led blend offered a fine and fitting alternative to Champagne, with a slightly more sophisticated edge than typically offered by Prosecco’s frivolous charm.

The Parmesan bites looked a little like miniature rock cakes, but were altogether lighter and tastier, even if the texture was slightly reminiscent of polystyrene, or whatever it is they use to make the bodywork on those flying saucer sweets. The vegetable crisps which accompanied these were deliciously delicate, gossamer thin mouthfuls of dried autumn leaves; a promising demonstration of real lightness of touch in the kitchen.

Venturing beyond Franciacorta, we ordered a carafe of Fiano d’Avellino to see us through the next couple of courses. If I hadn’t been immersed in some serious girl talk, I might have queried how long ago the bottle had been opened. In any case, my friend’s gazpacho, given a starry upgrade with thin shreds of crabmeat, was impressive enough to distract us both from the wine and our gossip. My carpaccio enjoyed the distinction of coming from the Piedmontese Fassone cows, a suitably tender, simply served dish which nicely summed up the restaurant’s name.

The pasta course brought some beautifully light ricotta gnocchi with Scottish langoustines and asparagus sauce. Gnocchi aside, it didn’t exactly scream Italy, but was nevertheless a burst of fresh, green, summery flavour. I tried the day’s special of broad bean and black truffle tagliatelle, which was tasty and earthy, although the broad beans couldn’t quite make their mark flavourwise in the same way that they might have done earlier in the season.

By this stage we were both running out of steam, due in part to the extremely tasty bread selection which seemed to be offered every time we drew breath. The kitchen helped out by neatly dividing a dish of veal with courgettes and shiitake mushrooms (again, a slightly unnecessary departure from the Italian theme) onto two plates.

Just as we were leaning back in our chairs to admit defeat, a chariot of Lombardy cheeses pulled up with a carafe of Barbera. Soft goat cheese, gooey young Gorgonzola and alpine Monte Rosa were just a few in the line up which made it easy to see why Italians so rarely feel the need to venture beyond the gastronomic confines of their local region.

It’s odd then that Semplice’s menu seems to waver from a focus which could make it stand out from the Italian crowd. Few food lovers would grudge the occasional stray over into Piedmont, but Scottish lobster? Peruvian peppers? It just seems unnecessary and undermines the restaurant’s confidence in its native ingredients.

This carried through into the polished but determinedly neutral décor, which could have belonged to any ambitious hotel dining room or indeed cuisine. Not that we wanted chintzy photos of nonnas rolling gnocchi but, like everything else about the country, Italian dining has a real charm which felt slightly starched out of existence here.

Don’t get me wrong, Semplice ticks all the boxes. The kitchen was turning out beautiful dishes which at time showed real flair, service was spot on and the room was buzzing with reassuringly Italian-sounding clientele. Perhaps this goes to show that, as with music or art, the most rewarding, memorable restaurant experiences reach beyond a check list.

Ristorante Semplice
9-10 Blenheim Street

Tel: +44 (0)207 495 1509

Gabriel Savage, 24.08.2010

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