It's that time again - it's half-term which means that Jude and I get to go for our half-term treat. It was tempting to go back to Corrigans, or to Great Queen St, but in the interest of adventure and excitement, we decided to try something new. And the new kid on the block that is getting all the press right now is Bocca di Lupo.
I confess, as I walked up from Covent Garden, my heart wasn't really in it. I passed a couple of Chinese places redolent with crispy duck so by the time I got to Archer St I was much keener on those sorts of flavours and wasn't really wanting Italian. Plus another person was joining us and I wasn't completely enthusiastic about that either.
And then - mea maxima culpa - I had entirely fucked up the booking. I had somehow managed to book a table for late March. Of course, given the press that they have been getting, there was no chance of a free table, was there? So we ended up perched at the bar, on quite comfortable stools but too far apart in a single line to be able to have a proper 3-way conversation.
A very pretty waiter (who I suspect wants to be John Barrowman when he grows up) brought us water and delicious walnut bread and very, very delicious fat green olives while we thought about the menu.
Deciding that I wanted a glass of something dry and bubbly was easy - a Franchiacorta brut was in my hand within seconds. Deciding about food was much more difficult. The Bocca di Lupo schtick is that most of the dishes are available as small or large plates. So you can have a conventional starter and main course, or you can eat tapas-style. Barrowmanalike assured us that - if we weren't sharing - 3 small plates would be a good lunch. Which is good, because it did give more options.
I decided that balanced meals be damned. I ordered a fried dish of salt cod and courgettes, a dish of fried polenta with gorgonzola fonduta and a fried egg, and their signature crisp fried artichoke a la giudia. Jude also had an artichoke, and a pork & foie gras sausage with farro and porcini, and a salad of saved radish, celeriac and pecorino. Our other companion had a single grilled prawn, some breaded swordfish and some cooled romanesco broccoli with parmesan.
The salt cod and courgette was magnificent - the fish had been reconstituted into moist, white flakes, and the pieces were covered in the lightest of batter. A squeeze of lemon lifted the flavour perfectly; it wasn't a bit greasy or heavy. The sausage wasn't particularly foie gras-y, but it did have a lovely rich flavour. The single prawn was a pretty good size and a beautifully deep red colour, but I struggle to see how any prawn could be worth £2.50 when there wasn't even a fingerbowl forthcoming.
My polenta with gorgonzola fonduta was the dish of the day for me. A crisp outside gave way to a soft middle, while still having some of the texture of the cornmeal. The egg was just how I like it - a lace-edged white with a runny yolk. The gorgonzola fonduta was creamy and rich but with a big blue cheese punch. Jude's salad was fresh and delicate, although the truffle oil in the dressing overpowered some of the other flavours. The breading on the swordfish was a bit thick, so it ended up looking like a fishcake, but the fish inside was moist and disappeared without trace.
The thing that really sold me on the artichoke was the memory of Elizabeth David's Italian Food where she describes them as having "a very spectacular appearance, like a large, inverted sunflower". It certainly did have a spectacular appearance, and the outer leaves were crisp and crackling, while the heart was luscious and creamy. But the scattering of salt over it was too heavy-handed - and I love salty flavours. The artichoke heart fritters that I make sometimes are more to my taste, although I am glad I got the opportunity to try these.
Of course, one advantage of the small plate system is that it leaves room for dessert. And I had a terrible time with the dessert menu. I love rice pudding and I love icecream, so I was drawn to a cinnamon & rice icecream, but then a brioche sandwich with 3 types of gelato sounded wonderful too. In the end, I had a classic Cassata Siciliana. And very good it was too. The thin layer of sweet, soft marzipan under the fondant icing was a good contrast to the bland creaminess of the ricotta, and there was a good bit of orange zing throughout. But then I had a taste of the blood orange granita and realised that I really could have done better in my ordering. Jude's rum baba disappeared at a rate that suggested it was pretty good as well, although the pineapple on it looked under-ripe.
All in all? It was a nice lunch, but somehow disappointing. A tempting menu, nicely cooked and attentively served, but just not 100% there. Jude said it lacked a "Wow!" factor and I think that about sums it up. I won't be rushing back.