9/10 Blenheim Street
London W1S 1LJ
Tel. 0207 495 1509
Food type: Italian
Food rating: 4/10
Nearest tube: Bond Street
Website: Ristorante Semplice
Semplice opened its doors in March 2007 to great reviews. Amongst some of their plaudits include Giles Coren who infamously said ‘I had never been much of a one for risotto, but I am now. By God, I am now.’ Strong praise indeed. The restaurant, which means ‘simple’ in Italian was recently awarded a Michelin star in the 2009 guide, joining a small but elite group of Italian restaurants in London to have a star.
Head chef and proprietor, Marco Torri has an impressive resume having worked as Head Chef at Teca, the Halkin and Locanda Locatelli. Before that he had trained in Italy under the eyes of three-starred chef Gualtiero Marchesi. He also had stints at two other three starred places – Lucas Carton (under Alain Senderens) and el Bulli (with Ferran Adria). At Semplice he is joined by manager Giovanni Baldino whom he worked with at Locanda Locatelli.
The restaurant is located on Blenheim road, but if you are going there please do not enter their bar/ trattoria (also of the same name) by mistake. Well it could happen to anyone, but unfortunately I ended up sitting at their trattoria for a good 15 or so minutes before I realised that I was actually in the wrong restaurant. It didn’t help things to begin with that my surname is very common and by coincidence they did have a booking under that name. J was sat there wondering why I would take her out to eat at a place where either of us could have produced the food ourselves. It is to the credit of the manager of their trattoria that he handled the situation very well and expedited our transfer to the restaurant proper.
After being more than half an hour late, we finally made our way to the restaurant proper. Stepping inside, we were greeted with an amber glow which resonated on the shiny mahogany walls. On the other side, walls are embossed with textured gold waves. Floors are wooden and uncarpeted with cream and black leather chairs and cream coloured tables. A single red candle holder provides contrast to the bronze-themed background. Small pepper grinders are filled with Sarawak black pepper which is prized for its robust flavour.
The menu is listed in true Italian fashion, divided to Antipasti, Pasta, Mains and Desserts. The prices here have increased a little since they were awarded a star.Starters are priced between £8.50 – £13.50, Pasta £9 – £13.50, Mains £18 – £26.50 and Desserts £7 – £9. Side orders are £3.50 each. Like Zafferano, the restaurant sources many of its produce (over 60%) direct from Italy. What this means is that the vegetables actually tastes of something instead of the usual dross that is local produce.
Bread is made on the premise and served with some high quality extra virgin olive oil. I tried the rosemary and sea salt, foccacia and walnut. These were passable although by no means truly outstanding. One thing that really irks me is that for some reason restaurants like serving their bread cold. (5/10)
Five medium sized diver-caught scallops was cooked a fraction too long. The scallops was spiced with a bit of ‘faux’ pepper which complemented the sweetness of the scallops. This was served with a few slices of home made pickled ginger and some very good frisee salad. All in all this was a pleasant dish, although this is hardly exciting cooking. (4/10)
Lingua di Vitello Piemontese, Passatina di Ceci, Germogli di Piselli e Focaccina di Ceci
Cold poached calf’s tongue was accompanied with chickpea puree. The tongue had a mild subtle flavour which was well balanced by the delicate puree. A small handful of delicious pea cress sad on top an understated chickpea foccacia. I personally felt that the calf’s tongue could have done with more seasoning. (4/10)
Bucatini con Ragu di Coniglio Nostrano, Rucolo e Olive di Gaeta
One of the best dishes of the night was a rustic bowl of bucatini and Italian rabbit ragu with plenty of black olives and a few rocket leaves to add a peppery note to the dish. The pasta was well made with plenty of chunks of melting tender rabbit and the black olives giving well-judged bursts of saltiness. The simplicity of the dish was evident but it delivered when it mattered in terms of flavour. (6/10)
Risotto alla Milanese
A highly anticipated risotto alla Milanese (risotto cooked with saffron) was creamy, unctious and rich with three squares of roasted bone marrow accompanying it. The rice itself had not absorbed enough stock resulting in it still slightly crunchy. I would have preferred it to have a softer to bite (not mushy) while still retaining some texture. The risotto was served on a spread out on a plate which also means that the rice would cool very quickly although they somewhat overcame this problem by serving it on a very hot plate. (5/10)
Tagliata di Manza Fassone, Insalata Mista e Fagiolini
Beef is sourced from Piedmontese and the breed used here is Fassone. The restaurant proudly states on their menu that they only use female cows because of its tenderness. This was char-grilled and served pink on a bed of french beans with a bowl of mixed salad tossed with a bit of balsamic vinegar. While this was a pleasant dish, being the most expensive item on the menu at £26.50, I was expecting a bit more than just a plate of grilled beef e.g. a balsamic reduction of some sort. (4/10)
Filleti di Sogliola alla Milanese, Fritto di Bietola e Salsa in Agrodolce
Sole, Milanese style, in essence flour coated fried fish, is served here with some Swiss chard tempura and a sweet and sour sauce. The fish itself was slightly overcooked and a touch dry although the swiss chard itself was timed perfectly. I particularly enjoyed the sweet and sour sauce which was spot-on and had good balance of sweetness and acidity. (4/10)
Tartelletta al Gianduia con Pere Speziate e Salsa alla Vaniglia
To finish, I tried a praline tart with two types of poached pears – one poached in sugar syrup and another poached in red wine with cinnamon and star anise. The combination of pear and chocolate is tried and tested. Unfortunately the dish suffered from rock hard pastry, which by no means inedible, is rather sloppy for a restaurant of this caliber. (1/10 just, because of the pears)
Cuppa di Cioccolato con Mousse e Crema di Limone
A second dessert of chocolate cup with lemon mousse and lemon curd had good balance of acidity and sweetness although hardly going to set the world alight. (3/10)
Almond Biscotti, Dark Chocolate & Sea Salt’ Discs’
Petit fours were some almond biscotti and dark chocolate and sea salt discs. The biscotti was particularly well made (6/10) with good texture and plenty of almond flavour coming through.
Service was friendly and relaxed although they were rather slow to take our orders and to bring our courses. In general, staff were helpful and credit to the sommelier for suggesting a cheaper wine than the one I had selected.
The cooking at Semplice was fine – as its name suggest its simple, uncomplicated, no frills attached. Here in lies the problem though because of its Michelin star status. With a Michelin star comes greater expectations – I want food which is consistent or a dish or two which will wow me. I did not experience either at Semplice. The risotto and rabbit buccatini were good but by no means amazing while the rock hard tart is simply unforgiveable (the tart would have been better off using instant store bought pastry). I can’t think of one reason why I would ever want to return.
I know that the words ‘Credit Crunch’ have been bandied around a lot but during these hard times, restaurants really do have to offer value for money. When I am spending money eating out, I want it to be something that I could not reproduce at home without a significant amount of effort. Since I am talking about the issue of pricing, raising the prices of food at a time where most restaurants (including Semplice themselves) are finding it hard to completely fill up on a weekend night is plain daft. As a direct comparison, I spent an average of £55 per head for 4 courses while a 4 course dinner at Zafferano is £54.50. I know where I would rather spend my money.