Winter has hastened from our little island up here in the North and the trees are budding, daffodils blooming, song birds practicing their scales, and this chef is relieved to see another season change and make way for new produce, new recipes, and a slew of new restaurants in the city.
The other morning, flipping through my iphone before I’d even ventured from bed, I learned that La Esquina, Balthazar and The Spotted Pig – all favorite eateries from my New York days - are making the transatlantic jump to merry old England. Upon reflection, New York style dining is having quite the renaissance here in London and these are the kind of restaurants I’m drawn to, without being conscious of it. Every other review I read throws in the phrase, “New York style” as a sort of catch-all description to denote a bar area that is distinct from the restaurant, some gritty exposed ductwork, beautiful people drinking elaborate cocktails from frosted glasses, and a £££ price point. When I think of New York style it’s more of an energy that consumes the room and the food must match that energy in its consistency, execution, flavors, and daring.
Darling husband has returned to me safe once again, and to celebrate his return and the arrival of Spring, we decided to go to the center of town and just wander. Before we got started though, we wanted to head back to a favorite spot in SOHO, most definitely a New York style joint.
Categorized as a North American Diner in Time Out London, Spuntino opened a year ago to a great deal of buzz. This was, after all, from the same guy who brought us Polpo and Polpetto – you could just imagine the first come first served queue growing. Everyone mentions it’s meagre 25 seats, almost all of them at the room’s horseshoe shaped bar. There’s an extravagant use of white subway tiles, exposed bulbs, a zinc bar and crumbling brick walls. I think to be a member of the staff you must have a tattoo, if you’re a man you must have a character moustache and if you’re a woman a blacker than black Betty Paige hairdo. Spiced popcorn is offered to you in a white tin cup and all of the portions (including the drinks) are in cute mini me sizes.
In spite of all of the clichés, my meals here have been very good and that energy that I mention up above, pulsed through the small room. My first visit was alone on a similarly gorgeous early spring day. I snagged a stool right by the entrance and tried a couple of the small plates, including their beef marrow slider which was as delicious as it sounds, and if I recall correctly, I also tried the battered soft shell crab and a chopped salad – topped off with a mini bottle of diet Coke. It was divine (and the people watching was terrific too).
Sunday and I pried my dear out of bed and was eager to take advantage of the day and the rare weekend together. I had read that Spuntino was now one of the many hot spots taking advantage of another new fad in London, brunch. Being overly competitive and not patient about waiting for food, I hoped we’d be first in line when the doors opened.
SOHO on a Sunday morning – well, noonish – is sad. There are empty takeaway containers, piles of vomit and condom wrappers littering the streets. Maybe these things are always here but are concealed by the crowds, but the crowds had peaked a few hours before we arrived and left behind their waste. Sputino is at the crossroads of two alleys renowned for their sex shops and strip joints. A sad, overweight middle aged bureaucrat came hustling out of one of these, looking furtively at the ground. A few families from out of town hurried through averting their children’s eyes from the flashing neon lights and overt promises of sex, sex, sex.
We were 15 minutes early and had nothing to do but watch this very different version of SOHO and eagerly anticipate the food. A small group of middle Americans came and looked at the menu – I was ready to do battle and rush for my favorite corner of the bar – but they walked on. When the staff finally ushered us in, there was only one other couple eating. So much for the bustling brunch scene and New York energy.
|Truffled Egg Toast|
We scanned the menu and while much was the same, there were subtle changes. I was happy to start eating my way through but thought we should show some restraint and only order a couple of small plates each. We could always order more. As long as I had my bloody mary and some popcorn to start, I would be content.
The stuffed fried olives came first and really, if you go, you must order these. They are green olives stuffed with anchovies and then fried. It’s simple and delicious. Next came the truffled egg toast – a new one for me and on their special brunch menu. The waiter said it was his favorite and it was very good – a thick square slice of white bread toasted with a square cut out of the middle, egg yolks broken in the hole, drizzled with truffle oil and then Asagio cheese melted all around the outside of the bread. My husband said he would have left the bread under the grill longer to allow the cheese to get bubbly and brown and I have to agree. Next we each got the sliders we had ordered. I had the pulled pork with pickled apples and he had the smoked mackerel. I LOVE pulled pork. I make it myself, I think it could be added to almost any savory dish and that dish would be improved. Somehow the chef at Spuntino missed the mark. It was a small mound of dry pork sitting on thinly sliced granny smith apples that tasted like vinegar – like the chef had went, oh, shit! On the menu it says these are pickled and I’ve got to do something so why don’t I sprinkle some cider vinegar on them??? Really, really wrong. The mackerel was a good fishcake, but really it shouldn’t be served in a hamburger bun with a few strands of purple cabbage. Commit to them being a fishcake – and a good spicy thai style one, at that – and serve it as such with a little slaw on the side. Finally our vegetable came. A waterlogged roast cauliflower with chermoula and smoked almonds. No roasting had gone on here – the chermoula sauce was put on after the veg was drowned in unsalted water and there wasn’t a hint of smoke in the almonds.
|Sliders & Bloody Mary|
Needless to say, we didn’t order anything more. Spuntino had been on my list of no-brainer go tos. Alas, no more. Part of my definition of a New York style restaurant was consistency and execution and on both of these Spuntino fell short. I know the feeling of being in the kitchen on a beautiful Sunday morning after a long Saturday night shift. It’s not good and you don’t feel like cooking, but you’ve got to.
The saving grace to this meal was the fact that the manager was showing a new girl how to make all of the classic cocktails on the menu. There were eight different drinks on display, from a Manhattan to a gin fizz and after he was finished with the demonstration he offered them to us. For the record, this did not effect my ability to judge the food as this happened after we’d eaten, and yes, they were delicious and yes we stumbled a little more happily out into the warm sunshine than either of us anticipated.