Sartoria. Old dog new tricks.
Unless it has been shoved into a quiet corner, it seems that the tailor’s dummy has been done for in the refurb; that tailor’s dummy which sat in the heart of the restaurant, letting you know that you were in the middle of the the hand-made garment district, as if the Savile Row address didn’t offer enough of a clue.
Sartoria of old was truly Sartoria of the old: a tired, conventional, serviceable Italian, plying its trade for years without feeling the need to innovate or offer anything adventurous. Indeed, so inoffensive and unremarkable was it when I visited last year for review purposes, that I decided that I had nothing interesting to say. I try not to bore you. No need for both of us to suffer.
Recently members of the fooderati were made moist by the announcement that celebrity chef Francesco Mazzei, (formerly of L’Anima) was to be the star in this medium-priced bar and restaurant, suddenly propelling it to Cecconi-level glam-status.
My first visit to new Sartoria is a lunch, just before Xmas, accompanied by C, by way of recompense for the pain of hours of shopping hell in Selfridges and Rigby and Peller.
The restaurant is all but empty. The chef is holding court with a minor TV food person and mwah mwah-ing various young Instagrammers as they pass by his table. They are clearly part of the Francesco fan-club. The food does not blow me away. The burrata and aubergine is fridge-cold, the piped aubergine mousse tasting slightly metallic. Side orders of roast potato and deep-fried courgette are left uneaten due to limp over-oiliness. They are removed from the bill.
I think to myself that this is another of those over-hyped underperforming star vehicles, Emperor’s new clothes, in that place where they make clothes for emperors. It feels then just like every other Mayfair makeover, plush and soulless. But something nags at me and tells me that there must be more. Another visit is on the cards, just to make sure.
This time I am with partner R and we are (unusually) are being entertained by clients, A and W, who are particularly gracious about my photographing the food and even better, A turns out to be a big sharer. Our table is too big for four – it would have seated six comfortably – and conversation between all four is difficult across the wastelands of the tablecloth. There are tables for four which really are for four; make sure you get one of those.
I umm and aah over the menu, I am truly delighted to see the old – as in original – sommelier, once seen never forgotten and resplendent in a new velvet waistcoat, he is as welcoming as ever. He remembers the Vernaccia di San Gimignano that he recommended to me over two years ago and brings me a bottle. Don’t worry, he says, I know it looks different but it’s just the label. I love him and I want to drink more, just to make him happy.
I notice that there is a set menu but all of us, R,A and W, henceforth known collectively as RAW, agree that there is little on the set menu that we wish to eat. We wonder whether this is intentional and we swiftly survey the à la carte. I wonder why we cannot order the risotto di Gran Padano and saffron risotto with chicken livers for a single person and why that needs to be a dish for two. I never find out, as no-one else wants it. This turns out to be a blessing as it forces me to order the Lobster tagliolini.
Ideally, I would like to tell you something about what RAW orders at this point, but presented with a lobster-filled plate of such magnificence, it is all I can do to eat and make conversation. Sensory overload demands focus on the essentials. A half lobster shell is filled with perfect, firm lobster chunks, incredibly fresh, with yet more lobster tangled up the tagliolini on the side. I taste chilli, sweet tomatoes and onions, parsley and a rich seafood stock. I am already planning my next visit.
Some bizarre self-punishing thing leads me to choose as my main course the baccalà (salt cod) marinated in liquorice, when I don’t really like liquorice and Bertie Bassett gives me nightmares. Sometimes things sound so wrong that you just have to risk it. And it’s not like this is my last meal.
I do not feel better when I see the three large hunks of fish, dark as the lamb on my neighbour’s plate, nay, darker. I cut into a chunk and the flesh is pale. Mixed with the sweet compote of what tastes mostly like beetroot, this is a bizarrely brilliant combination. The liquorice gives a warm aftertaste, but doesn’t overpower and the beetroot gives you that sweet zingy hit. Chargrilled lettuce accompanies, as does the thinnest layer of fried potato, a translucent rectangle, balanced on the fish. I make RAW taste and there is unanimous praise, even from R, who had crinkled his nose at the very thought.
This time the fried courgettes hit the spot, but special mention goes to the double-baked potato and mozzarella, a large dish of mashed potato and cheese carbojoy, which is a must-order.
We forego dessert as A suddenly realises he is going be late for a meeting but W stays and we have a coffee. I wait for the inevitable sweet something to accompany it, but nothing appears. I recollect some deep fried sweet ravioli puffs on my first visit and feel deprived.
I suspect my first visit was not indicative of the average experience at Sartoria and based on the second meal, I would recommend it as a very solid performer with more edge than your usual Italian, notwithstanding the slightly safe Mayfair-neutral décor. Tip: check what you are getting as descriptions are sparse. A lamb dish came with unadvertised offal, which was wasted as it was unwanted. Joy of joys, there is no music. Service is efficient, professional and in the case of the sommelier, outstanding. The time has come, he said at the end, to talk of many things, holding in his hand the list of grappa and port. A sommelier quoting Lewis Carroll, what’s not to love?