Heinz Beck is an unusual chef. He came to Italy not knowing much about the country’s cooking, and now runs one of Italy’s best restaurants. It is the only 3* in Rome, and bears the name La Pergola. Being from Germany (from the same district of Bavaria as the pope), he is a hard-working, precise cook, one who tastes every dish, every day. So, when I heard of his new venture in the Lanesborouh in London, expectations were high. The chef here is not Beck, who wouldn’t leave his kitchen in Rome to split his time, but Massimiliano Blasone, who was head chef at Castello Banfi, where he held 1*.
Upon entering the beautiful room, one immediately sees that no penny has been spared to create a cadre, worthy of fine cooking. The sommeliers can retreat into two rooms, where the wines are stocked. Leflaive’s Batard Montrachet, Petrus and other very fine wines are sold by the glass (albeit at mind-boggling prices), which must be great, if you dine alone and can afford such fine drops. Otherwise, the wine list is amongst the more expensive ones in London, but hell, we’re at the Lanesborough after all and there are some fair things on there too.
Service throughout was great. Completely male (as in La Pergola), the brigade was perfect. Most, if not all were Italian, and masterfully handled our lunch. According to Beck, who wrote a book on the « art of the service », women are either too beautiful, or ugly to work in restaurants, hence the all-male brigade (that’s at least what a German TV programme said). The menu is not overly expensive, with most starters around £25, primi around £17, mains in the higher twenties, and desserts around £10. Tasting menus are available at £65 and £95, which is again very fairly priced.
Bread was very good. The different types on offer were all well made, and far from the usually bland, uninteresting bread in Italy, or Italian restaurants. With it was served some good olive oil.
To start us off, we were served a Terrina di fegato grasso di anatra con lenticchie e gelato all’ aceto balsamico. Paired with a 1997 Chateau Filhot, this was a most successful start. The main element, the foie gras was exceptional. Cured in passito, it was most tasty, nearly creamy and perfectly seasoned. A very fine piece of liver indeed. With it came a brilliant balsamico ice cream, which had a perfect balance between sweetness, acidiy and richness. The accompanying brioches were also hard to criticize, and in general I was only able to struggle with the lentils. Not because of any errors in cooking or seasoning, but in terms of quantity. There weren’t enough of them to stand out, or to be a match for the incredible foie. However, when eaten with the deep-fried sweetbreads (whose role on the plate I could not work out), they went down very well. I certainly did not expect anything of such high quality from a restaurant as new as this. Excellent.
Next up was a killer of a dish. Ravioli di cacciagione con crema di zucca. A nice amount of game ravioli came nestled atop a pool of squash cream, sauced with a little game jus and sprinkled with beetroot cubes. Well, pasta in London has always been a bit of a disappointment for me so far. Now, things began to look up it seemed. This was some terrific pasta, with great bite to it, an intense, juicy filling, and a great partner, in the form of the squash cream. It was interesting to see that classical Italian combination of squash and amaretti, as their slight sweetness gave the dish a whole new dimension (if used very carefully only, too not dominate the rest). If the pasta at the Pergola is as good as this, or even better, I can understand why Beck has risen to such a reputation in Italy. This was pasta among the finest I’ve encountered so far. Excellent.
The following dish was a classic of Beck: Fagottelli alla carbonara. Little parcels filled with an emulsion of egg yolk, parmigiano, and a few other good things, topped with crispy pancetta, this is simplicity at its best. When biting into one of them, they literally explode in your mouth, and fill it with the intense, rich flavours of the classic carbonara. An absolutely brilliant composition, which alone was worth coming for, even if there still were a few treats to come up. Fantastic.
It was time for the main course. Crepinette di Pernice con polenta incatenata. Now this was (like the game ravioli) a dish from the lunch menu. However, it was quite impressive again. The crepinette was cooked perfectly, with incredibly tender pheasant, and an incredibly powerful taste. With it came luscious, creamy polenta, wild mushrooms, a few pieces of pan-fried foie gras and a hearty jus. All in all, this was highly refined, perfectly executed rustic cooking, the way one would hope to find it in more good Italian restaurants. A combination of such elements already reads fantastically well, but in terms of taste it was even better. Every element was of fine quality, well cooked, and very well seasoned. Excellent.
Desserts here, I was told are in a class of their own. So when my chocolate based dessert arrived, I was more than looking forward to seeing, in how far my sources were right. Indeed, this was a most convincing dessert. What looked like a rather uninspired, classical Opera style gateau, turned out to be something completely different. There was an incredibly light and pungent chocolate mousse, some nutty praline, and a very well made ice cream. Overall, this was yet again a fine plate of food, which was much better than I would have imagined in my wildest dreams. Very good.
All in all, I was very impressed by this lunch. There was not a single letdown here. Each dish was coherent, very well executed and based on very good products. This was the kind of cooking I was hoping to find at other “better” London Italian restaurants. Combined with the great service, a good Pouilly-Fume from Pascal Jolivet (£45), this lunch left me wanting more. After my Christmas holidays, I shall try dinner, and hopefully repeat this most promising experience. The Michelin guide’s release in January could indeed become most interesting…