Ristorante Semplice marks the inaugural ‘lunch with’ for The Arbuturian. Our guest here is Al Senter; theatre writer, broadcaster, interviewer and a man whose little black book is a veritable who’s who of British acting and directing talent. With a little insider knowledge of our guest’s tastes, we’ve chosen Italian. Supreme Italian. Michelin starred this year, chef Marco Torri’s modus operandi stresses a return to the simplicity of Italian food. Semplice by name, Semplice by nature then. As is customary for The Arbuturian’s restaurant reviews, we’re tucking into the set lunch and, having been awarded Tatler’s Best Value Set Lunch this year, evidently the bar was set.
Tucked down a side-street off New Bond Street, we almost walked into “Trattoria Semplice”, which certainly looked the part with its awning, outdoor tables and large façade windows. Almost opposite, however, and cunningly disguised as an office building was our true destination and, short of a secret knock, we entered its small but inviting interior. Its seemingly unpretentious décor is touched with a Deco giving it elegance without being distracting and provides ideal ambience for delectable lunch.
As we arrive, Al is already seated at a table and admitted he, too, nearly walked into the trattoria. Whether he tipped off the management or we simply made an impression as we strode through the door, we were instantly swept upon by attentive staff, opening serviettes, proffering menus, pouring water and circulating the rolls (simple olive, sun-dried tomato and wholemeal). It all felt very…Italian. While conversation opened up with us quizzing Al for anecdotes from the stage and he telling of the perks and pitfalls of interviewing casts at the National, having scanned the wine list, I ventured off the menu and selected a young Montepulciano. As our waiter introduced me to this young brunette from Abruzzo I was struck by her petite nose and youthful glossy colour, turning my head like a coquettish maid on a Sienna sidewalk. But looks can be deceiving, especially in Italy. While there was a disarming softness to her palate, customary for the region, you could tell there was potential here, some real wisdom in spite of her youth. You can just tell when you’ll get along.
Admittedly, all four of us choosing the same starter won’t serve to show the variety on the menu but there was one that won hands down: slivers of duck carpaccio, cured strong and paper thin, superbly complimented with a tangy puree of avocado; a real apetite-whetter. Alas, the soup and salad options just didn’t stand a chance. Short work was made of the duck and conversation coursed its way from the theatre to Stirling’s affection for coffee to the Masterchef Professionals’ finals and back to theatre, this time of the musical kind.
At one point I feared it must be one of those quaint continental menus riddled with spelling mistakes and where the English translation can only be described as loose but, when I asked for the beef ‘tagliati’, in my ignorance I thought I would be getting some form of pasta ribbons but, as I browsed the menu more I realised I didn’t recognise a single thing on there. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. And even if your experience of Italian food extends beyond the pasta ‘n’ sauce on the provincial high street what Semplice has to offer is a take on Italian that will henceforth alter whatever you thought possible from the country. When my tagliati arrived I was met with seared slices of beef and slivers of mozzarella on a bed of potato puree and smothered in a thick, rich, tomato pizzaiola sauce. Again, another hybrid word perhaps, but imagine the smell in a traditional Italian kitchen and that’s what wafted from my plate: tomatoes, reduced to the intensity of oil paint, and garlic. And it worked. The potato and mozzarella perfectly tempered what otherwise may have been a little overpowering. Our guest chose similarly rustic fayre; a poussin, roasted in lemon and thyme accompanied with spinach and roast potatoes. I was expecting perhaps an Italian twist on it but no. Still, it was cooked well and our guest made short work of it.
At this point, while we debated the iniquities of train routes to Axminster, our waiter offered the wine list again. With work commitments calling, bottles were out so we considered the glasses on offer with the set lunch. To give a bit of range, and considering the imminent cheese course, we went the other way and were met by a leggy brunette, more mature in years, but no less captivating. A Barbera, harking from Asti, she came to us by the hand of New Zealand wine-maker, Matt Thomson, and his range of Ca’ del Matt, literally, ‘House of the Mad’. A fitting moniker given the difficulties in getting a solid ripe Barbera to perform, so I’m told. This one wasn’t giving up any secrets either, much drier and earthier than her younger compatriot she definitely had character but, in hindsight, may have been better suited accompanying the main course. Our mistake earlier, I fear; Semplice knows what works.
By now our conversation had come full circle as Al told us what to look forward to at the theatre this coming winter – speaking of the imminent winter, he wasn’t giving anything away, really, but Al did touch on what he might contribute to our rag – and, turning his attention back to the food, he eulogised on the lushness of the fruit and melt-in-the-mouth pastry of the plum tartlet that rounded off the lunch menu.
If you’ve come this far you’re aware there are regional delights and a surprising versatility in the food from that part of the Med, well, Semplice manages something extraordinary; it gives a new perspective on Italian food. And that’s before any of us tried their famous risotto.
Ristorante Semplice, 9-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S 1LJ. Tel. 020 7495 1509. Website: www.ristorantesemplice.com.