I suspect, though this may be romanticising, that if a French lorry driver with hitherto suppressed culinary tastes won France’s national lottery, and booked a table at the local much-rosetted restaurant, he would know what to expect. A great chain of culinary being would connect him to the heights of gourmandisme.
In the UK, we lack a gastronomic tradition. As a result, when it comes to assessing food, inspissated snobbery often takes the place of inspired gluttony. There are superb chefs: Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, the Roux family. But there are also instances of pretentiousness: no names, no pack drill. These characters forget that the glory of a good cook is to make ingredients sing, however humble in origin.
That said, the range of dishes available in London surely exceeds that of any other city on earth. ‘London, thou art the flower of kitchens all,’ as Dunbar almost wrote. As in all cities, fine restaurants become clubs. Wilton’s, Boisdale and J Sheekey are three obvious examples. Many others will be irritated to be left off the list. But there is a further factor. For all its size, London is an agglomeration of villages, and as such sympathetic to restaurants du quartier.
St James’s is a quartier of urban palaces and the imposing retail outlets created to sustain them, such as Berry Bros. But it also has little tucked-away squares, some of them on the site of former mews. Then there are the alleyways. In the 16th and 17th centuries, in the service of St James’s Palace, the oldest retail trade flourished in its shadow: whorehouses. Did the girls dart along the alleys on their way to secret entrances? When one of the convenient byways was named ‘Crown Passage’, was this a bawdy pun?
Today, at least as far as I know, tarts are confined to restaurant menus. Crown Passage can boast an excellent pub and a delightful ristorante di famiglia. I was introduced to the Red Lion by Alan Clark, whom I never associated with public houses. Other, more discreet premises might have been a different matter. But I could see why he approved of it. The ale-wives who run the Lion are shrewd and sardonic. There is excellent beer and no music. It claims antiquity and it accords with tradition. This is a proper place.
Opposite is Il Vicolo (‘The alley’ — so appropriately named). For 26 years, it was run by Giacomo, who won the loyalty of important figures from St James’s Palace, Christie’s and other local gaffs. He died, far too soon, at the beginning of lockdown: nothing to do with the virus. There were fears for the restaurant’s survival, which proved groundless. His three daughters took over and they have changed… nothing.
The menu has a southern Italian flavour, and is particularly strong on seafood. The pasta is excellent and the chef — a cousin — understands vitello and fegato, though he rarely tackles bistecca. So far, so pleasant. Then come the truffles. Vicolo’s ravioli with black truffles: grouse excepted, there is no better dish on any London menu today, and it would make an excellent antipasto to a grouse. The white truffles, even more toothsome, are to come. The girls will also tempt you to have pudding and should you succumb, the taste will outweigh the guilt.
To drink with all this, there is a range of bottles, from Soave and Negramaro through a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, plus some sound Chianti before reaching Villadoria Barolo and a Brunello Frescobaldi. They are all good examples and, by London standards, reasonably priced. Above all, Vicolo is fun.
A couple of days ago, I was discussing this with a friend in celebratory mode; his fears for lockdown had not been realised. He produced an ’85 Mouton. We agreed that this was a perfect luncheon wine. We also raised a glass of it to toast Il Vicolo.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10