There is a certain etiquette one must adhere to when reviewing a restaurant’s soft opening. If you have something negative to say, you say it constructively, and if exceedingly good, you convey it reservedly. A thorough and incisive review of the restaurant can only take place after the restaurant has been properly launched, finding its feet after a couple of weeks of service. The lowered prices, more diverse clientele, and the tactile proactivity of owners should be enough preparation for any customer, let alone a restaurant critic to take everything with a pinch of salt. Of course, chefs and restauranteurs would prefer an imbalance with regards to publicity– to hush up the complaints and trumpet the exhortations – but a reviewer must maintain balance for the sake of his professional rectitude and the tempering of public expectations.
As it stands, I am already rather reluctant to write bad reviews. Though it may be fun to read and – for some insensitive or vindictive individuals – to write, I find it a categorically unpleasant activity simply because I would rather forget a bad meal and wasted money, than have to recount them. Some may argue that such reviews serve as cautionary messages that prove helpful to those tentatively interested in a particular place – and to this I am in agreement – but even then, it is still a painstaking process. When a restaurant is great, we relish in the minutia of flavour, presentation, service and ambiance, but the very opposite is true when the standards are not kept. Especially for someone who finds nice restaurants difficult to afford, it is hard not to pucker with bitterness.
Since it is still only the start of my career, it is important that I write them anyway; I am not yet at the stage where ignoring a restaurant on column is just as damning a response as putting critical pen to paper. The practice of critical writing in itself is fundamental to my improvement, and though time is more enjoyably spent elsewhere, I do recognise that effort of writing constructively is not only helpful to chefs and diners, but also in the conveyance of my ability to provide it, which is not a bad reputation to have.
With all this in mind, the soft launch of La Tagliata, a new Italian restaurant about a six-minute walk from UCL in Fitzrovia, was yet an exhilarating and enticing prospect. A new restaurant is a new restaurant, bringing with it all the promise of exuberant cooking and energetic service. If still in doubt, one may be reassured by the successful reputation of their sister restaurant in Spitalfields, the primordial La Tagliata. Head chef Antonio Tonelli’s passionate attention to detail and his respect for authenticity, carried on from his years in Al Volo and now deeply ingrained into the ethos of the La Tagliata, can be trusted enough to warrant your attention.
If you walked by La Tagliata on one of the three soft launch days, you would notice a bustle about that place that seems peculiarly uncharacteristic. The black, well-finished exteriors compel assumptions of sophistication and finesse within, but seemed to expel contrasting groups of people: from guys in casual tees jocundly strolling out patting their bellies to trios in well-pressed suits conversing about the stock market. It was funny but made the imposing restaurant seem more accessible.
I had tried to book a reservation online but had unfortunately received no reply. Since I missed the first day of the launch I decided to go anyway, but at lunch, to have a better chance at finding a table for one. It was busy when I got there, albeit with a few tables available, and I was sat quickly opposite the iridescent bar near the entrance.
If I had to describe La Tagliata with one word, it would have to be: shiny. From the table-tops to the cutlery, from the wine bottles on the shelves to the art on the walls, everything glistened with newness. You would struggle to guess from the restaurants appearance what the cuisine was: modern art on walls, coupled with a pristine classy bar and dumbwaiter, stylish mirror frames and low hanging orb-like bulbs with filaments like frozen trickles of molten lava, all producing a mishmash of modernity that was not immediately identifiable though not unpleasing to the eye.
There were three members of staff on duty, one manager and two waiters/bartenders, who seemed to be only just holding things together. To be fair to them, there were about a dozen people who entered in three groups right after I did, so there were a lot of orders coming in at the same time. I was there fifteen minutes before someone came to take my order, which I was not bothered by in the least. What I did not account for, and I should have, was the fact that some of the dishes would not be available on the second day of the launch. Both the bruschetta (Bruschette) and the dry-aged steak (La Sublime) were out of stock, so I was forced to settle for other options – again, not really an issue with such a well stacked menu.
I cannot stress how happy I was to simply sit by myself and soak in the lively atmosphere and the aromas of fresh Italian cooking at La Tagliata. Of course, I would have rather shared the experience with someone else but, if I’m being honest, I was too lazy to think about inviting anyone until it was too late. The constant glances at my empty table from the staff, however, obviously cognisant of the fact that other tables who had been sat after me were getting their appetisers earlier, did make me feel as if I was supposed to feel hard done by, projecting their impatience on to me. In their busyness they must have forgotten that a melanzane alla parmegiana takes time and care to get right – and get it right they did.
You can find the dish eaten all over the world, at weddings, family dinners and even in packed lunches. This dish, mainly comprised of cheese, tomato sauce and aubergine, should be a mainstay on any vegetarian’s comfort food shortlist. But it must be said that melanzane alla parmegiana (aubergine parmesan) is deceptively easy to get wrong. Either it comes out bitterly tinged because of unsalted and unwashed aubergine, overly sloppy with the aubergine overcooked and completely disintegrated, irrevocably soggy due to the application of too much cheese, sauce, or the aubergine being cooked in too much oil, or even wrongly constituted with the absence of parmesan, an ingredient that constitutes the soul of the dish, in favour of an overwhelming deluge of mozzarella. In order for the aubergine to maintain a solid consistency its innate moisture must be pressed and salted out of it and then fried before it is put in the oven with the other ingredients. When I’ve made the dish, I know I have been successful with the cook of the vegetable when its texture is like a perfectly cooked mushroom. If you get this part right, the rest is pretty straight forward and usually takes an hour and a half for the whole cooking process. Though I was not expecting to get my starter after that amount of time, you can understand why I was willing to wait a little longer than I would have for say, the bruschetta.
The dish came in a small pot, smelling like an Italian grandmother’s kitchen. Just by its presentation I could tell that the traditional recipe was tweaked a little. Lashed across the crisp-edged top was a basil pesto-like sauce that elevated the traditional recipe. While the simplicity of adding the garlic, basil and oregano to the tomato sauce within had its own rustic charm, the implementation of the green aromatic sauce, concentrated with garlicky flavour, was a pertinent innovation. I was pleasantly surprised with how little oil oozed from the pot, even after digging deeply through the layers. The cheesy interplay between the bland gooeyness of indulgent mozzarella with the strength and depth of integrated parmesan made me have to close my eyes in solemn appreciation. It was spectacular.
After a half an hour wait, my main finally arrived with the manager’s sincere apologies. Time evidently seemed to be moving a lot quicker for me than it did for them. The Tagliata di Manzo, a Tuscan classic, included a sirloin steak which was a quality cut of meat, with palpable grill marks and cooked absolutely to a medium-rare worthy of praise. Elegantly sliced and placed meticulously beside a fresh rocket, parmesan and cherry tomato salad, in a plate literally signed by Tonelli with a sumptiuous balsamic reduction, I could not have asked for a main more suited to my taste. Furthermore, the garlic butter spinach ordered besides, beautifully wilted and luscious, proved a respectable alternative to a trite order of potatoes.
As desserts come, my tiramisu was splendid: creamy mascarpone, with the perfectly balanced mixture of espresso and alcohol well-soaked by the layers of soft textured ladyfingers, topped with a glorious coating of cocoa powder. Every bite was an indulgent re-inscribing of the wonderful meal I had just had, a worthy finale, one that kept me smacking my lips on my walk back to university.
After all my deceptive foregrounding at the start of this review, La Tagliata represents a breath of fresh air, a sigh of relief and a welcome stirring in the chest and belly that reminds me of why I love doing what I do. I normally do not divulge much of how I feel about a restaurant to the staff after a meal, especially ones I am to review, but this time, recognising how perturbed they were by their own perceived negligence, I could not help but convey how sincerely grateful I was for the lovely food I’d just had. Yet vulnerable in the tumult of its opening weeks and still ironing out the kinks that perhaps escaped my notice, eating at La Tagliata was a pleasure that was truly mine. I look forward to going back, to witness the finished product and to pay full price for an experience that is justly deserving of what they ask.
112 Whitfield St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 5EE
Gli Antipasti £6-£21; La Pasta £7-£17.5; Le Tagliate £16-£28; I Contorni/Sides £4-£4.5