Toast. What could be simpler? You stick a piece of bread under the grill, turn it when itÕs brown, then serve. SÕnot rocket science is it? You donÕt need a diploma from the Culinary Institute to master the intricacies of toasted bread. And yet, there we were, myself and the film critic, at Sartoria in Savile Road, enjoying the last slippery drops of our bloody Marys when along comes the waiter with a Salcombe crab salad flanked by two uncompromising slabs of burnt toast. Charred toast drizzled with olive oil, to be precise, said the FC, picking at its crusty carbonised corners, as black and bubbly as tar in a heatwave. Now, call me finicky, but in what universe (apart from the one inhabitant by my mother who actually claims to ŌlikeÕ burnt toast Š mostly, I think, because morning in our house resonated to the rasping sound of scraped bread which no-one else would eat) does kitchen quality control not see that toast is burnt when it starts smoking and sprouts flames? Or notice it, maybe, when theyÕre arranging it on the plate, or carrying it across the expanse of the restaurant floor. Would making more be too much of an effort? Well - perhaps. When, IÕd asked the waiter earlier what was good on the menu he recommended a walnut, Gorgonzola and endive salad. This showcases the skills of the kitchen? A cold salad arrangement that anyone with no imagination and an opposable thumb could make at home? I chose a starter portion of risotto instead - a small puddle of emerald studded rice, the size of a large manÕs palm, sploshed in the middle of a large plate, with a cataract of congealed cheese on the top, which peeled off neatly like cling film from yesterdayÕs leftovers. Flavour was good, texture was perfect, with the unctuous rice still retaining that al-dente bite which according to experts like Antonio Carluccio, is exactly right. Unfortunately, the peas, threaded though the soupy rice were also al dente. You could have used a pea-shooter and fired them at the ruddy necks of adjoining businessmen. Though obviously, I didnÕt.
In fact the business men were the reason we had come. According to the sartorian press release I had received, lunchtime business at Sartoria is ŌboomingÕ and it is Õfast becoming the center for business communications in the West EndÕ where lunch time meetings are wrapped up by teatime and Ōmore money changes hand across plates ÉÉthan any otherÕ. Goodness, eat your heart out Gordon Gecko.
Earlier that morning IÕd asked for a table at 1.00 but been offered 1.30. On arrival, the dining room, though buzzing, was half empty, or half full depending on which side of optimism you dress. Yep, and maybe the toast was just seared. Granted it was the larger tables that were vacant, but unless they expecting a coach party from an unannounced tailorsÕ convention they could easily have fitted us in.
However, the restaurant was, as promised, padded with business men, and other blokes, genetically modified to wear black suits, with the odd long Grey Wolf pony-tail, floppy schoolboy fringe and fat cigar thrown in.
My companion, an aesthete with a silvery Sonic hairdo, wearing a sharply tailored suit, is a man who wants to keep the top button on his trousers fastened whereas IÕm into elastic, big time. He ordered two starters, which left the bulk of the eating to me. Apart from the crab with lemon juice, olive oil and blackened bread, he had carpaccio Ciprianni Š the creamy vinaigrette dressing drizzled on top of the deep Damascene red layer of tissue thin raw beef. My main course was poached John Dory. Poached fish can be divine, even if it does veer toward invalid food. I have a special fondness for a quivering fillet of fish, in soothing rich broth flecked with herbs. But this fish was rigid, the flesh as white as overboiled laundry, the flakes standing up like the arcs of the Sidney Opera House when probed with a fork, and the broad beans were again, hard enough to play tiddlywinks with. I didnÕt touch the fish but the waiter cleared the plates without comment.
Puddings didnÕt inspire me Š and frankly, with Mr Aesthetic sitting opposite me, I couldnÕt spring for one after he offered to watch me eat it. ItÕs not a spectator sport, pudding, matey. I asked if they had any fruit. No, came the reply. What, nothing, at all? In June. In England. Not a pear, a plum, a peach, or a bowl of strawberries? So we settled for the bill, which came on a preposterous velvet pincushion, (presumably to soften the price) held closed with a little pin. They need to take the pin and pierce some of their own pretensions. And maybe buy a toaster.