Anglepoise lamps, bent double, provide a few watts of glow. “Have you worked out what it’s for?” asks Russell Norman, the mind behind Soho restaurants Polpo, Polpetto and now Spuntino. I gaze down where he gestures. The Queen’s head vaguely gleams against the fritto mitto paper placemat. “To access the loo?” I instantly venture. He laughs, although I sense behind smiling eyes beyond vintage frames he’s inwardly disappointed that I chose such an obvious (and incorrect) answer.
There’s something of the speakeasy about Norman’s latest decadent playpen. Mysteriously titled barman, Ajax, dissolved hours of rides on London Transport researching, revising and reinterpreting prohibition era cocktails. Quirkily – and this word sums Spuntino – my intrepidly alcoholic Sazerac, supposedly the first cocktail, flows from a disguising vintage teapot into a silvery tankard. From its inscription, I see it started as a bowling trophy. Fifty bourbons stand on a spindly reclaimed shelf (Norman is an architectural forager) while tiles glint on a rediscovered wall under the sheer, uncovered ceiling. Jazz seeps…
Spuntino’s long, U-shaped counter seats 26 including what Norman bills as a ‘soon to be famous’ kissing stool. Blonde turned brunette, my guest, Niki Bedson, cleverest apprentice from Michel Roux Jnr’s BBC ‘Service’ series joins me for just-popped popcorn and a poised Old Fashioned. In a very deep voice, Ajax explains how this is ‘improved’ by a sweet cherry soaked in meditative Italian wine, Amarone. “But is it too sweet?” he asks, as he picks up a meat hammer to pulverise ice. It is just fine, I reply, with a slight trace of fear.
Despite there being no sign outside, and despite this being a private preview, civilians constantly attempt entry, keen to drink in the atmosphere that compellingly frosted window panes promise.
Cosy food, like the concept, is enriched by being pared down. Served on light tin plates, a spuntino of egg and soldiers proves unconventional. The sphere is skinned, breaded, fried and propped in a clear shot glass which catches the cursory flow of its persimmon yolk.
Served in a tray, creamy mac and cheese with truffled egg toast is a confident celebration of New York and Italy. When ingredients work this well, I’m prompted to wonder what came first, the truffle or the egg? Meanwhile, softshell crab occurs in wispy, pastry-like batter and is pleasantly pricked by Tabasco aioli. A side of eggplant chips, crafted so as to retain integrity of crunch and perked with fennel react favourably with fennel spiked yoghurt. The barflies adjacent clasp the untoasted brioche bap of Spuntino’s signature burger, not marked on the menu, but available by special request.
Finally, moist with booze, Wild Turkey bourbon brownie is a heady, sticky and sensuously effective final act.
Just 10 hours after the builders left, it is almost time to exit Norman’s third charismatic classic, its door marked by a smouldering red globe. But first I must divert to the loo, not out of need but curiosity. In the vestibule by the cabins stand two sweet vending machines. I feed in the 20 pence silver for sweet reward…
Spuntino, 61 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PJ. Website. 11am -12am, 7 days a week.