Sometimes, one comes across something that puts the contemporary world of food and drink in its proper historical perspective. When the Frescobaldi family started supplying wine to Henry VIII, they had already been in the business of viticulture for more than 200 years, while Castello di Nipozzano, their stronghold in the hills east of Florence, had been standing for five centuries.
So, when the Frescobaldis found a site for their first standalone London restaurant (first picture), with a smart Italian menu and an extensive range of wines, how could the interior design portray a millennium of one family’s history?
Step forward Autoban, an Istanbul studio at the forefront of that city’s burgeoning international reputation for interior design; its work can also be seen at Babaji (second picture), Alan Yau’s new Soho restaurant, where intricate inlaid brass and cobalt-blue Iznik tiles reflect an earlier “golden age” of Turkish design.
Eye-catching tiles loom large at Frescobaldi too: the glass-fronted, double-height dining room features exuberant, ceramic-tiled caricatures hand-painted by Turkish illustrator Sedat Girgin, including depictions of Dante and Bacchus, Roman god of fertility and the grape harvest, as well as soaring oak-panelled walls and a glowing central column, its shelves stacked with wine-related curios.
But what of the food? Chef Roberto Reatini’s menu is Mayfair-smart, but it is richer in flavour than that epithet might suggest. It helps that he has the Frescobaldis’ superb Laudemio olive oil to work with: a bottle is placed on the table, partnered with excellent bread, crisp wafers of carta di musica and probably the best grissini in London.
Tangles of cured beef sit on a small heap of lentils; freshly picked crab is perked up with chilli; langoustine risotto is sharpened with thinly sliced artichoke; perky, barely cooked prawns are married with soft-braised chicory and liquorice. Reatini’s menu is hefty in flavour but light in touch.
Flavours are just as robust in the main courses. To wit: a perfect bowl of oxtail ravioli, their filling smooth but vividly beefy, their sauce lustrously gelatinous. And osso bucco, sprinkled with a powder of dried vegetables and rosemary (by way of gremolada) and perched on a mound of white polenta. The wine is excellent: I really like the Chianti Rufina wines from the family’s Nipozzano estate.
And the coffee — from the brilliant Gianni Frasi, in Verona — is the best you will find anywhere: “Black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love”, as the old Turkish proverb puts it. Talking of hell, “all hope abandon, ye who enter here” warns the inscription over the gate in Dante’s Inferno. He would, I think, have been much more cheerful about Frescobaldi.