I've been asking for a Barbour for my birthday since I was 16 years old from my parents, and this year I've finally succeeded. I don't turn 22 until next month, but when the guys at the newly re-vamped Cucina Asellina inside the Me Hotel on The Strand invited me down to sample their new style menu on Monday, Mummy and I took it as the perfect excuse to head into town for a spot of lunch at the hit up the Barbour store. (In case you were wondering, we ended up in Liberty's, and I opted for this navy Liberty print number.)
Cucina Asellina serves up Italian sharing dishes; Polpo instantly sprang to mind as I was browsing the menu. They do so in a simply beautiful copper dining room with a lovely long bar, which would be the perfect place to grab a drink in the evenings just before or just after a show at the many West End theatres that are just a stones throw away from the hotel. Or, it is just perfect for a spot of lunch.
We decided to start our meal with a spot of cocktails while we waited for our food to arrive. Mummy had her all time favourite, a classic Bellini (which was perfect, absolutely delicious), and after much deliberation I went for an equally well balanced, delicious and fruity La Bianca, a white sangria blend of Absolute Peach, lime, lychee juice and Moscato d'Asti.
There are just two comments I want to make about our cocktails, which is more about the service in the restaurant, which was probably the only thing that was not very good about our visit. I said we wanted our cocktails before our meal (there is a fantastic wine list at Cucina Asellina we wanted to sample to go with our food!), but the service was so slow in the restaurant that they ended up coming exactly the same time as our food; not the greatest pairing. If I were running a restaurant, I would not have many staff working a Monday lunch time when there are not many diners around either, but I would make sure the staff knew what they were doing. In such an empty dining hall you'd hope that your order was taken quickly, and when you were not sure which cocktail to order, you'd expect the waiting staff to have at least tasted each of the offerings so they had a clue what to recommend, or that you would not wait 10 minutes to fetch the bar tender to answer your question. However, our waitress was very good at quickly clearing away our eaten sharing plates without disturbing our lunch, and it is only their second week I think with the new menu concept of small plates; the service would not put me off going back because I think it will improve in time.
While it would have been more enjoyable with our wine, the food was still rather lovely. Both of our favourite dish were the fat veal meatballs, drenched in a simply delicious tomato sauce. They could have done with being a little warmer out the kitchen, but we soon forgot about that biting into the juicy and tender meat.
It seemed like it would be a bit of a crime to head to a restaurant with pizzetta (mini pizzas) on the menu on National Pizza Day, so we opted for the margarita number topped with lots of buffalo mozzarella, tomato sauce and fresh basil. Again it could have been a bit warmer, and in my mind nothing beats the Pizza Pilgrims in Central London, but it was a good solid dish we both enjoyed. It seems like a little thing, but I especially liked how it already came segmented into easy quarters for picking up and munching on. It's the small things.
My other favourite dish which be both loved was the Herb Fettuccine and Venison Ragu. The sauce was rich and came with a very very generous serving of meat, and the pasta was fresh and tender, balanced beautifully with just the right amount of herbs. The perfect dish for this time of year, with a good glass of Italian red.
The fourth and final savoury dish we ordered to share was the Salmon Tartare with Rocket, Avocado and Italian Citrus. I have to say that I personally did not enjoy this dish, and did not want to eat more than a few bites. The avocado was still a bit solid, and drinking my cocktail with the meal instead of wine, the flavours clashed terribly that made the salmon taste smoked. However, when I cleared my palette it did improve, but I think it may have been left to stand in the kitchen too long so the citrus had cooked the fish a little too much and affected the flavour? I'm not sure. My Mother on the other hand really enjoyed it, so I think that perhaps it is just not a dish for everyone? Interestingly, while I love all types of raw fish usually, she is not usually a fan.
We finally got the chance to have our red wine with our dessert. We both decided to opt for different reds, and tried each others. I had the Cantele from Puglia, the cheaper of the pair. It was a little harp on the nose, and to taste it was slightly acidic, but with a nice smoothness to the end of it. It was our favourite of the pair, and full of character it would have paired nicely with the ragu. Our other glass which my Mother had was the Chianti, which was dry, rough and would have gone well with probably anything on the menu.
For dessert, along with our wonderful glasses of wine we shared what was both of our favourite dish from the whole meal: Crystallised Ginger Panna Cotta, which was served with a generous smear of a balanced (not too sweet but not to tart, either) chocolate sauce. The panna cotta was gently flavoured with just the tiniest hint of lemon, and it was rich and creamy with just the perfect amount of wobble. And hey, that plate looks very pretty, too!
I compared Cucina Asellina to Polpo at the outset, and I'm going to be honest. You're going to get a much better meal if you go to the other side of Covent Garden to dine at Russell Norman's cult restaurant. However, we live in the real world. You can get perfectly lovely food at Cucina, and on the plus side you can book your table ahead; I've only managed to dine at Polpo at frankly stupid times of the day. As for other Italians I frequent in the area? Cucina is the place to go to if you're planning a meal ahead for a big group of you and you want good, solid food in a simply beautiful and stylish setting.
Cucina Asellina is a great place to go for a pre-diner drink or some small plates with either a large group, or if you are feeling not all that peckish but still want to dine, and want to just order as much as you fancy without being overwhelmed with big dishes. Or, if you're like me and you get such bad order envy you always want to try something from absolutely everyones dishes. I'd love to hear your thoughts if any of you have been to the new concept.