Newest Review: ... game after-all. Losing the Ask Italian outlet in Victoria London barely will make a ripple considering Ask Italian has over 130 restaurant... more
Member Name: bollinger28
Date: 16/11/08, updated on 25/08/13 (801 review reads)
Advantages: Huge menu. Trendy, yet comfortable décor. Suitable for every kind of occasion.
Disadvantages: Main course portions rather miserly and over-priced for what you get on your plate.
For those of you unfamiliar with the group, Ask are a chain of Italian restaurants. Their emphasis is on informal dining in contemporary, yet trendy looking surroundings. The group has 115 different city centre outlets dotted throughout the UK, a large percentage of which are located in listed buildings or places of local interest. For example, the restaurant in Chichester (where we dined) is located in a large white Georgian looking building. Ask restaurants tend to be located in heart of city centres, thus making them a popular choice with shoppers, families, business luncheons or the just plain hungry.
All Ask outlets offer a broad range of Italian dishes including pizza, pasta and salads. Their emphasis is on using freshly cooked food and ingredients wherever possible, and all served in stylish yet comfortable surroundings. The outlets do look very chic, but they're suitable for any dining occasion. You won't be frowned upon if you turn up in jeans, nor will you feel awkward if you're wearing a suit. Their aim to be the perfect place for a quick shoppers snack, a post board meeting repast, a family blow out or a romantic dinner for two.
~~~ DÉCOR & AMBIANCE ~~~
Ask prefer to find a listed or quirky looking building and then put their own stamp on it inside. The décor inside their outlets tends to be modern - almost stark. The walls are plain, the floors tiled (or wooden) and the lighting subtle yet modernistic; all in all, it screams contemporary minimalism.
Most of the furniture is black, which serves to emphasis the sparkling chrome finish of the open plan kitchen and bar areas. The Chichester outlet is housed in large Georgian looking building with huge picture windows. I found it strange that none of these huge windows had any blinds or curtains above them. Whilst I understand that Ask are going to want passers-by to be able to look in and be tempted in for visit, it did make the room seem a little undressed.
Nonetheless, the room was well decorated with lots of different sized tables and chairs dotted about the room. I particularly liked the long dark brown sofa style seating along the far wall - ideal for a large party or group to make a night of it.
The tables and chairs themselves are plain black/dark brown, which makes an excellent backdrop for the sparkling glassware and linen that adorns each table. I particularly liked the single brightly coloured Gerberas placed in a vase on each table. A nice floral accent.
Despite the minimalistic décor, the place was lively, friendly and buzzing. The hum of contented diners, clinking of glasses and cutlery was completed by a James Morrison album playing in the background.
~~~ MENU ~~~
Like all good Italian restaurants, the Ask menu has four distinct areas to it. You have your choice of antipasti (starters), salads, mains (including pasta, risottos and pizza) and finally your desserts. There is a mind boggling selection under each heading, with plenty to choose from. And if that wasn't enough, there is always a blackboard listing daily specials if you manage to get bored of the main menu.....
When I was first greeted with their menu, I found it particularly hard to make my mind up, as there was far too much choice. The appertisers sounded particularly tasty with choices ranging from bruschetta (grilled ciabatta bread rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil, salt and pepper and various different toppings), crostini (thinly sliced, grilled and crispy white bread drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper and various toppings), the ubiquitous garlic bread and various luscious sounding salads.
Main courses offer the usual Italian range of pizza and pasta dishes, as well as a couple of risotto and insalata choices. All the pizzas are hand made with fresh ingredients and then stone baked. There are around 10-15 different choices ranging from the better known Four Seasons to a more unusual sounding Fiorentina (spinach, egg, cheese and olives) and the plain old Margherita (mozzarella and tomato). If you're after something a little different Ask offer a couple of Calzone choices - which is basically a folded pizza baked in the oven, topped with garlic butter and melted cheese and containing some kind of filling.
If pasta is more your thing, then Ask offer a choice of 10-15 different dishes. There are the old favourites such as Spaghetti alla Bolognese, Ravioli and Lasagne to more innovative choices such as Penne al Pollo Gorgonzola (chicken and spinach in a Gorgonzola sauce) or Ravioli Burro e Pesce (crayfish, crab and salmon in a white wine and dill sauce). I was recommended to try the Spaghetti e Polpette (a Milanese dish of beef meatballs served in spicy tomato sauce) but decided to settle on something a little less fiery.
Lighter meals are served in the form of insalatas (Chef's salad, Caesar Salad and a couple of others are amongst your choices here). And if that's not enough choice for you, there are also daily specials on the blackboard.
If you've still got room, their desserts selection is to die for. Old Italian favourites such as Tiramisu, Sorbetti and Ice Cream jostle alongside other mouth watering options such Profiteroles, Panettone Bread and Butter Pudding and lemon and Mascarpone Cheesecake.
~~~ STARTERS ~~~
Despite being very tempted by the Gamberi al Forno (king prawns in marinated tomato, basil and chilli sauce), I decided to go for one of my favourite soups, Minestrone. It didn't disappoint as it was extremely thick and very tomatey. It came served with a goodly selection of beans, spaghetti and herbs in the tomato base. It was also came garnished with a nice crispy ciabatta crouton. It was, however, not all that hot, which didn't really bother me as I can't eat or drink anything that's too warm. However, I'd say that most people like their soup served piping hot and this was more on the lukewarm side of things.
My partner partook of the Funghi Ripieni al Forno (mushrooms stuffed with spinach, pancetta, cheese, garlic and breadcrumbs). They came served with some mixed salad leaves and a nice, creamy garlic mayonnaise. He pronounced them delicious, and the tiny bit I managed to extract from him confirmed this.
Starters range in price from around the £4.00 mark (soup) up to £6.00 (seafood).
~~~ MAIN COURSES ~~~
Onto the main courses, and I really did change my mind several times before I settled on my final selection. There was such a lot of choice and it all sounded very temping. I was waylaid by a tasting sounding Spaghetti Gamberi e Rucola (king prawns marinated in caper butter, white wine and tomato sauce), but in the end I made my choice from their daily specials board and ordered a Penne Pasta served with smoked salmon, crème fraiche and rocket. Initially it looked like a very mean portion of salmon. However, this may have been because smoked salmon tends to shrivel and clump together once it's heated; once I'd dug deeper into my pasta, I discovered a goodly portion of fish hiding underneath. The pasta was nicely al dente and there was a generous portion of parmesan grated over the top. The slight spiciness of rocket lifted the dish from being too bland. However, I did find the crème fraiche sauce a little on the sickly side and it did leave an unpleasant coating on my tongue and teeth.
My partner plumped for the Fusilli con Pollo al Forno (chicken, broccoli and courgette in a cheese sauce topped with pesto, cheese and breadcrumbs). It was a very colourful looking dish and came with a generous topping of melted cheese. It was very tasty, but we both thought that the portion was rather on the mean side. For nearly £9.00, we rather expected more on our plates.
All in all we found the main courses to be the most disappointing aspect of our meal. The portions were quite small and rather over-priced. Most Ask pasta dishes cost between £8.00 to £10.00, and that's all you get. £8.00 to £10.00 for a bowl of pasta seems a little too excessive to my mind. Serving them with a side salad, a bread basket or a few vegetables wouldn't go amiss. At these sort of prices, I rather expect more on my plate.
Pizzas also fall in the £8 to £10 mark, as do the salads.
~~~ DESSERTS ~~~
Thanks to the rather mean portions of our main courses, we had room for dessert on this occasion. It's extremely rare that I partake of a pudding when I eat out, as I'm usually more than replete with a starter and main course. On this occasion I still felt a little hungry (and it was my birthday), so I decided to hang the expense and have a look at the desserts menu.
Once again, there was a mouth-watering array of choices on offer. I was tempted by the Semi Freddo Profiteroles with Hot Chocolate Sauce, which were filled with ice-cream rather than cream. However, I spied someone struggling to eat them at a nearby table so I passed. They weren't small dainty looking profiteroles but quite large choux buns, and I didn't think my appetite could do justice to them this time around. Definitely one to try if I ever go back though.
I instead plumped for a Torta di Mele, which sounded like an Italian version of one of my French favourites tart tatin (baked apple tart). It did look very appetising when it arrived but the pastry rather overwhelmed the apple and the almonds in that you could only taste pastry and no fruit or nut flavours. The dryness of the pastry was nicely counteracted by a creamy vanilla ice-cream - a very nice accompaniment.
My partner choose a Honeycomb Cheesecake, which was very creamy and rich and nicely studded with chocolate and honeycomb pieces throughout.
Dessert prices tend to fall in the £4.75 to £5.25 mark with ice-creams and sorbets being a little more reasonably priced.
~~~ DRINKS ~~~
Ask offer a full selection of both soft and alcoholic beverages, a lot of which, not surprisingly, have an Italian origination. From the wine menu you can have Frascati, Valpolicella and Chianti as well as choices from other wine producing countries.
Beers wise you're limited to bottled Peroni lager - on offer at a wincingly expensive £5.95 for a 66cl bottle (or £3.20 for 33cl).
Soft drinks choices range from an Italian San Pellegrino mineral water through to usual Schweppes range of soft drinks of Coca Cola et al.
If you want to round your meal off with tea or coffee (we didn't bother as we decided to have ours at home), then there is a full selection to choose from - lattes, mochas, espressos, cappuccinos and so on.
~~~ SERVICE ~~~
On the whole we found the service to be attentive and very friendly. Indeed, all our waiting staff was very smiley and quick to respond to any requests. We were offered generous portions of freshly grated parmesan and freshly ground black pepper with both our starters and main courses - both of which are a welcome touch.
The only jarring note to the service was the manager himself, who was rather abrupt in manner and not very friendly. He "welcomed" us with a bark, enquiring as to whether we had booked. Despite affirmations to the positive that we had booked, this did not seem to cheer him up in the slightest. Indeed, the only time he managed to treat us with any degree of civility was when he presented the bill to us, when he made a half-hearted attempt to ingratiate himself to us......probably in the hope of a tip. Sadly his sucking up was short-lived, as he resorted to his former surliness when his credit card machine played up. Obviously it was our fault that his bank was not responding to his chip and pin gizmo....at least that's the impression he gave. All in all he was quite scary and not a good advert for Ask.
~~~ RECOMMENDATION ~~~
Being part of a large chain, we were half expecting average cuisine and average service at Ask. On the whole we found the service to be friendly and efficient at the Chichester branch (stroppy manager aside). Food wise I'd say that if you're a fan of Italian cuisine, then the menu at Ask really does offer something for everyone. We were very impressed with our starters and desserts on the evening.
However, in my opinion Ask fell down somewhat with their main courses, which were small of portion and high of price. If they could address their main courses, they'd be onto a winning formula. They seriously need to consider reducing their prices down to the £6 or £7 mark if they're just going to present their clientele with a simple plate of pasta. If they want to continue charging £9 or £10 per dish, they need to ramp up their portions, or better still, serve the dishes with accompaniments. A salad or some ciabatta wouldn't break the bank, and it would go a long way towards increasing the perceived good VFM (good value for money) factor.
Our meal for two came to just under £45.00 (and that was with the two main courses for the price of one voucher we downloaded from Money Saving Expert**). I consider £45 for two three-course dinners (plus two beers and one soft drink) to be on the expensive side. Next time I'd rather go to Café Rouge and have a good plateful of French fayre for the same price, and not have to worry about small pasta portions!
Three stars from me; nice sounding menu, attentive service, but let down by the small portions and high prices of their main courses. Definitely recommended for their starters, desserts and pleasant restaurant ambiance and surroundings......but choose your main course wisely.
~~~ OTHER STUFF ~~~
Ask is owned by the Gondola Group Ltd, who also own the Zizzi chain and the Pizza Express group. Zizzi also offers an Italian menu (as does Pizza Express), but Zizzi cook all their dishes in a wood fired oven.
Ask Restaurants Ltd
2 Balcombe St
Tel: 0845 602 2704
Websites for Ask (and Zizzi) and can be found at:-
http://www.askcentral.co.uk or www.askrestaurants.com or www.gondolaholdings.com
* The websites display a full menu and a restaurant search facility. Making a reservation is recommended to avoid disappointment.
* Service is not included except for tables of eight or more when 10% will be added to your bill.
* All major credit cards are accepted
* Disabled access is easy in the Chichester outlet and there is even a specially designated disabled WC. I can't comment on the rest of the group, so a phone call in advance may be an idea. At Chichester, the non-disabled WC's are located up a steep flight of stairs, down a corridor and turn left. Rather a trek I'm afraid - I thought I was going to end up in Narnia!
* Vegetarians are well catered for with the menu displaying a clear "V" beside suitable dishes.
** If you're fond of eating out do have a look at www.moneysavingexpert.com as they often have discount vouchers on offer. There are currently deals available at Café Rouge, Zizzi, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Ask and loads of others. If you find the site hard to navigate and a little bit busy go direct to http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/cheap-resta urant-deals
Summary: Italian style eaterie with plenty of choice for everyone