Really Close but no Cicchetti
There is no doubt you can feed very well at San Carlo; you can even take bona fide Italians here without them throwing their hands up in gesticulative disgust. It’s real Italian food, and it has the benefit of characterful and authentic staff. But it isn’t as fun as Cicchetti…
Review by Winston Chesterfield
The swirling drain known as Piccadilly Circus, clogged with naïve, backpacked tourists sitting on filthy, ice-cream stained steps, captivated by the incessant gurgling of increasingly aggressive ‘musical’ performances, is always referred to by London’s agents as ‘our Times Square’. Those ignorant of New York on our tourism board boast this gleefully, not realising that the famous Manhattan address has long ceased to be a location that civilisation should aim to reproduce in any shape or form.
In fact, Londoners are fortunate in that Piccadilly Circus cannot really hold a candle to the candescent hell of Times Square. Its small scattering of screens is feeble by comparison. This is a good thing, though. And it’s also a good thing that the Crown Estate are truly conscientious landlords and employ a guardian-like approach to the historic locations of its patch. Slowly and surely, they have been weeding and pruning the dead flowers from the streets to the south of the Circus, upgrading Haymarket from its limbo status – sandwiched between Trafalgar Square and lower Soho – to the smart home of one of the city’s best new luxury hotels, two of it’s greatest theatres and the West End’s most avantgarde emporium of fashion.
Lower Regent Street – a block away, as New Yorkers would say – is also receiving the same soothing treatment. In recent years, a sprouting of cafes and restaurants, high-end boutiques and the redeveloped St James’ Market, have rejuvenated what was a very handsome but somewhat austere street into a neighbourhood more appropriate for the grandeur of St James, even reminiscent of the Mayfair of recent times.
One of these new blooms is an Italian restaurant called San Carlo, run by the restaurant group of the same name, famous for their ‘Cicchetti’ restaurants in Covent Garden and on Piccadilly.
I have always been fond of the Cicchetti establishments, mainly for the excellent and authentically Italian food, but also for the cosy but well-appointed ‘luxe-deli’ interiors with their arebescato marble counter & table tops and incongruous antler chandeliers. Whilst everyone else was desperately trying to make their restaurant look brassy and velvety (like a speakeasy run by a Russian Grand Duke), Cicchetti have just focused on being fabulous and vivacious – like an old Riviera femme du monde who throws on a lemon-coloured kaftan, saucer-sized sunglasses and tells her attentive table stories of her old lovers through endless plumes of cigarette smoke.
San Carlo’s new restaurant is more serious though, as if our femme was hosting a philosopher or Nobel Prize winner she wanted to impress with her sense of restrained and quiet elegance.
Quiet is definitely the word I would use to describe San Carlo. The thinly-spread crowd were mainly well-heeled, hushed tourists from the nearby £300+ a night hotels.
It is a place in the manner of a first-class dining saloon on one of the last remaining transatlantic liners. The staff are formal, white jacketed and brass-buttoned. This runs against the trend of most new openings, desperately competing over tokens of casualness and aesthetic austerity; translucent-paper menus written in pencil, wine glasses without stems and ne’er a starched white tablecloth in sight.
There is no such pretence at San Carlo. Yes, there is a ubiquitous bar-dining area with Orient-Express dining carriage lamps and the San Carlo’s signature veined marble, but the rest of the restaurant eschews the look du jour in favour of mushroom-y mid-century style chairs, standard, white-clothed tables with standard stemware, cutlery and very substantial-looking salt and pepper mills.
It gives you an immediate sense that they don’t really want you here for the scene – they want you here for the food. This is probably a good gamble by the owners; though this part of St James’ is lovely to look at, a location for people-watching it ain’t. At least, not yet…
Thus the dearth of things to entertain really makes you reach for the only things that will comfort you in their absence; food and drink. The latter makes more sense to cover first, and it’s fair to say that the casual-carafe atmos of Cicchetti has been avoided here.
Like any good restaurant following the Ritz-Escoffier rulebook, there is good range of vino, from simple Piemonte whites in the early £20s to oligarch-friendly Sassicaias. A warm and close day in London forced the choice of a chilled Vermentino, which was enjoyed with some pleasant interactions with the genuinely Italian (and genuinely genuine) staff.
Unlike the sneering waiters roaming around at Savini at the Criterion (now, thankfully, permanently closed), who seem to have based their cynical seizure of diners’ wallets on the travails of the Artful Dodger, San Carlo’s liveried waiters actually know what they are doing, and delight in doing it.
It is therefore a safe place to encourage yourself to move beyond what you think Italian food is, to what it actually is. In this spirit, I and my companion were happily guided to the house’s signature dishes.
The first course of vitello tonnato (£11.50) is a case in point. Though the restaurant is new, it feels like they have been making it for decades. I’ve had this dish in Italy a few times, and though it is always enjoyable to eat, it’s rarely very appetising to look at, as it is often served with way too much sauce. San Carlo’s version is definitely more elegant, though still very authentic, and avoids that naff, served-on-slate, over-prettiness you get in Michelin restaurants in places like Yorkshire, and which has absolutely nothing to do with this dish. Instead, they serve it to you in rolls of veal – Simpsons-style – at the table.
The second course, a carpaccio of tuna (£15.00), is less impressive. Spicy, smothered in what appeared to be nutmeg, it blocks out any of the fish’s high-grade flavour, and sticks in the mouth and nostrils like a glass of winter punch.
A few more tourist-y patrons drift in, unnerved by the lack of other diners. The staff are patient.
The mistake of the tuna is quickly cancelled out by the primi piatti, pappardelle with a guinea fowl ragu from Lombardy (£17.00), which is deceptively light and fresh. A triumph of taste over gimmicks, it is very simple, but ragus should never try too hard.
By this point, the restaurant is about a third full, but the diners are too afraid to make any noise; this feels too much like a ‘you-have-to-be-quieter-here-children’ place.
The next course was Dover sole (£38), served simply with lemon, capers and broccoli. Unlike the tuna, they allowed the glory of the fish’s flavour to shine through unshackled; not overly lemoned either, which is a frequent sin with sole.
More veal was to come, in the form of the classica alla Milanese (£32), served with sautéed potatoes. Though flavourful and authentic, it was a bit of a let-down as crescendo course, particularly coming after the sole.
Dessert came in the form of an alcohol-free (but…why?) Tiramisu, with jelly on top and no biscuit. It looks like it will be a complete disaster as a representation of the classic, but it actually works very well, even if the lack of Disaronno is disconcerting.
There is no doubt you can feed very well at San Carlo; you can even take bona fide Italians here without them throwing their hands up in gesticulative disgust. It’s real Italian food, and it has the benefit of characterful and authentic staff. But it isn’t as fun as Cicchetti – this isn’t a place to come on a friends’ night out before hitting the bars – and whilst the menu is tasty, it doesn’t do anything too daring.
The beige-background formula works best when you’ve got the culinary equivalent of John Galliano in the kitchen, throwing out dish after dish of creative genius, splashing out moments of surprise and beauty. It doesn’t work as well with a menu you can find in most smart districts of Northern Italy. What it probably needs is a bit more of a bar scene (and space) to amp up the atmosphere – not to Piccadilly Circus’ decibels, but certainly so our life-loving femme du monde can feel more at home.
Enquiries: San Carlo, 2 (Lower) Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR / 0207 9305933 / https://sancarlo.co.uk/restaurants/san-carlo-london/