Il Borro, 15 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8DY. Starters £14-£35, pasta £17-£53, second £29-£75, desserts £11-£16, wines from £50
It was when they started pumping a sweet, melodious cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart into the dining room that I really started to lose the will to live. We had already been subjected to sterilized versions of Madonna classics. Now the Il Borro DJ was giving us an ugly, disfigured cover of Manchester gloomster’s finest. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the lousy music or the seafood pasta with just a langoustine, prawn, three clams and three mussels for £46. In fact, I was sure. The music was very bad. The average pasta was really pathetic.
Il Borro opened last November in a cavernous two-storey marble and blonde-wood site near London’s Berkeley Square, and is a spin-off from the upmarket Italian Cellar Il Borro near Arezzo, owned by luxury fashion brand Salvatore Ferragamo. In Mayfair, this last sentence functions as preliminaries. The restaurant’s website says it wants to introduce us all to their ‘Tuscan way of life’. This Tuscan way of life involves enough beige furniture to excite a White Company buyer, terrible tartan suits for the head waiters, and a menu whose price is partly bored by the wealthy.
So why go there? Two reasons. First, this man can’t live off small plates and “tidy” lists of natural wines served only in old warehouses. Shadow and light, people. Light and shadow. And second, Il Borro has the words “Tuscan Bistro” above the door. It’s intriguing because London had one just two months before it opened. Russell Norman’s Brutto is something of an elbow-room spot on the table in Clerkenwell, knocking out robust plates of panzanella for £8.40 and penne for ten. The basic proposition is exactly the same; the price and the approach, a little less. Obviously, Il Borro has Mayfair rents and laundry fees to meet and a DJ with extremely questionable tastes to support. But even taking that into account, I wanted to know: does more money buy you better food?
No. It lets you into a strange, roaring alternate reality, where tables of open-necked men stare at their phones, their faces bathed in a blue glow, or bark at each other about the latest best deals. HSBC Global. Vaguely terrified-looking waiters walk around with decanters of aggressively priced reds, their beaks so long and slender you don’t know if they’ll fill punters’ glasses or probe them. Maybe I fantasized there.
We get exuberant talk about how all the ingredients are organic, in keeping with the winery’s deep commitment to sustainability, and how much is transported from the winery itself. One dish mentions the “little Tuscan chicken”. I ask the waiter if that means the chicken is literally from Tuscany, a feat considering the current state of air travel. He checks with the kitchen. Yes, he said enthusiastically, it’s a Tuscan chicken. Because obviously no mediocre British chicken will do. If the hens made the trip, none of the whites on the estate did. They are not on the list. Other things are. The cheapest bottle here is £50. I find a delicious Villa Sparina Gavi at £80, which I could retail for £16.45. It would therefore only be an increase of a factor of four. Shut up and drink your wine.
Anyway, we’re here for dinner, so let’s go. Sometimes, when an experience goes from mediocrity to “I want mommy”, I fear that a superb dish will present itself, the praise of which will interfere with the flow of my rantings. I have to be fair. At Il Borro, that never happens. It starts with an average selection of poorly made breads, including swabs of focaccia with the dense, moist texture of a soggy Tena pad. It’s strange. London is full of great focaccia. Tuscany too for that matter. How can they think that big piece of blood sausage is OK?
Beginners take an age to keep up with servers giving out unrequested updates. Unfortunately, they eventually arrive. Calamaretti and gamberi fritti are soft, as if the bright surroundings gave them performance anxiety. This suggests that they sat on the pass for a while, long enough for the thinly sliced fried zucchini filling to take on a strong fishy flavor.
Then there’s this skinny seafood pasta for £46. When you find yourself counting seashells and you only get to three, something happens. The sauce is dull and sweet; the modest amount of al dente pasta is the only solid part of the dish. This extremely well traveled chicken is described on the menu as spicy. What happens is dull and numb. He made the trip in vain. The most extraordinary is the peposo, a famous Tuscan stew of braised beef and peppercorns. At Brutto, it’s a luscious and comforting winter stew, full of tangled meat and bright spices. It costs £15.80. At Il Borro, the braised meat is in chunky, mouth-drying chunks. It costs £41. Blimey, eating like a rustic Italian is expensive these days.
The peposo comes with tanned, hard-cornered fried polenta bricks, like Jenga blocks, but not nearly as fun to play. A humble Italian ingredient was engineered within an inch of its life to become less food and more a fashion item. Wear it as a brooch. As a consolation prize we order a £9 side of their triple baked fries with rosemary salt. They, too, arrive lukewarm and chewy and, for what it’s worth, without a hint of rosemary. I don’t usually complain about mediocre dishes lest I tell them everything is less than happy. I’m afraid they don’t cooperate when we ask to send a photographer. These are so ridiculously bad I can’t help it. I invite the server to try them. Why should I suffer alone? They are removed from the bill. From a list of uninspiring desserts, complete with cheesecake and panna cotta, we split a £12 tiramisu.
The bill is £334 with no surprises. What’s really depressing is the lack of ambition in a city full of great Italian restaurants. What is even more depressing is that he is doing a roaring trade. It’s full of people eating lousy food without caring about the prices. But the most depressing thing, at least for me, is that nothing I say about any of this will make the slightest difference. There was only one thing to do. I went home and listened to Joy Division to cheer me up.
One of the founders of Toklas in London, rated very positively on this page a few weeks ago, is behind a new business which will open next month in Margate. The Fort Road Hotel, located inside one of the oldest buildings in the city, describes itself as an “art and gastronomic destination” thanks to the involvement of Curly magazine founder Matthew Slotover of Toklas and artist Tom Gidley. There will be artwork by Margate-born Tracey Emin and a pork terrine menu with pickled cherries, clay oven-baked sea trout and wild blackberry pancakes. To fortroadhotel.com.
Robbie Lorraine, last seen cooking up a slightly crazy but utterly compelling menu at his Only Food and Courses restaurant in Brixton, will be the head chef at Boys Hall, a new hotel which will also open in Kent in September. Its menu will include lobster fritters alongside braised pork belly with bacon jam, black pudding and pork crockery. Visit boys-hall.com.
Generally, crowdfunders are used to help open restaurants. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that chef Damian Wawrzyniak started one to help close his own. Faced with rising costs on all fronts, Wawrzyniak has decided that the last service at his modern Polish restaurant House of Feasts in Peterborough will take place on August 21. In a new venture that may not be welcomed positively by all, he is now looking to raise £50,000 to help pay his staff and suppliers. He then intends to find a new location. You can read all about it here.