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Carluccio's Brings a Taste of Italy to the High Street
Member Name: Hishyeness
Advantages: Varied menu. Very good food. Staff are great with kids.
Disadvantages: A little too noisy and busy at lunch to linger and relax.
In my line of business, it's not unusual to be invited out to lunch by key suppliers every once in a while. It's a great way to catch up and cement relationships in an informal setting, and whilst the old adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch" still has a ring of truth to it, it's easy to forget about the corporate wheel-greasing over a 12oz ribeye with sautéed spinach and rosemary roasted potatoes.
The success of chef Antonio Carluccio's Italian restaurant and deli chain has provided the business community with a readily accessible and credible place to take clients for a slap-up meal without necessarily breaking the bank, a big plus in these budget conscious times. However, these establishments are also perfect for occasional family dining, as we have discovered with the Carluccio's in my home town of Walton-on-Thames.
Given that there are now forty-five locations up and down the country, you don't have to go far to find one. In my experience, the consistency of service, the atmosphere and quality of food doesn't vary much between the locations I have been to, which in this case, is a good thing. This review is based on an amalgam of my experiences at number of locations in and around London: Walton-on-Thames, Richmond, Canary Wharf, The West End, Kingston-upon-Thames, Reading and Putney.
Antonio Carluccio is an accomplished Italian chef who has had his own cookery series on the BBC as well as authoring several cookery books. He opened the first of his "Caffe's" in 1999, with the idea of combining bistro style food with an integrated food shop, a concept that has been retained by the chain to this day. Antonio is no longer a Director of the business he founded, but acts as a consultant to the business, assisting with menu creation and training chefs.
Jamie Oliver trained under his tutelage at the (now closed) Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden, where, as wide-eyed trainee lawyer - still very much wet-behind the ears - I was taken for a client lunch and had the most expensive primo piatti (appetiser) I had ever had in my young life at the time (£16.00 for a wild mushroom medley on toasted ciabatta - and that was in 1998!).
The layout of each restaurant is slightly different, depending on the space it occupies, but the theme is very much the same. The entrance to the Caffé doubles as the entrance to the open plan shop, which has open refrigerated deli counters with various cheeses and cold meats, olives, a sweets section, shelves of vintage olive oil, Balsamic vinegars, speciality pasta, and freshly baked breads. It is a veritable gastronomic treasure trove that deserves a write-up of its own, but as I am concentrating on the Caffé itself, I have to leave if for another day. Suffice it to say that it really gets your juices flowing before you eat, and its strategically situated so you can almost never leave without taking something with you.
There is a fairly good mix of bistro style tables and chairs, and the occasional booth or padded bench, providing a mixture of seating styles. The chairs are multi-coloured, comfortable and wide, but not something you would want to lounge in for too long. The décor is clean, mainly white and blue themes with exposed pipework on the ceilings, giving it a fairly industrial feel. The tables are close, but not so close together as to make you feel claustrophobic, and most of the service stations - including the coffee making machines, waiter stations and kitchen - are open to the restaurant, giving it a busy and bustling feel. In short, it's a reflection of the Italian origins and personality of its founder - bold, brash and full of big gestures - but with the philosophy that good food equates to good times at the heart of everything.
On the three occasions I have taken my children to eat there, the last being yesterday for lunch, the staff have been superbly attentive and friendly. Within moments of arriving, kids are given a welcome pack that includes a children's menu (more on this later) integrated into a fold-out pamphlet with several games, a pack of four coloured pencils to use and keep, and a themed puzzle that can also be coloured in. The pamphlet is also themed (the one we received on our last visit was about Italian breads - some of which even I had never heard of, but we've also had ones on olives and cheeses in the past). Quality high chairs are always available, and despite my wife's insistence on wiping them down with anti-bac wipes, they have always been impeccably clean.
THE FOOD IN GENERAL
The menu is seasonal and changes a number of times during the year, however, apart from daily specials, it is constant across each location. In addition, every now and again the chain takes a regional focus, highlighting dishes from a specific part of Italy. It is diverse without being daunting, with each dish clearly explained. There is a wide variety of salads, panini, antipasti, pasta, gnocchi, risotto, traditional Italian specialities such as Ossobucco and Milanese di Pollo, as well as the usual types of meat and seafood dishes you would expect to see on a bistro-style menu. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no pizza on the menu. A full copy of the menu is available on line at: www.carluccios.com
Carluccio's also offers a good value set menu for lunch at £9.95 for two courses, or £12.95 for three. For starters, you get the choice of chicken liver pate and toasted ciabatta, bruschetta or chargrilled garlic bread. For the main, you choose from spinach and ricotta ravioli cooked in a butter and sage sauce, penne pasta with a spicy Italian sausage sauce, or gnocchi with gorgonzola and spinach sauce. If you have room for a third course, you get to agonise over tiramisu, panna cotta or traditionally made Italian gelati. Good luck with that.
The wine list is refreshingly brief, providing a broad spectrum (in both price and variety) of nine reds, nine whites and two rose', most of which are available by the glass or by the bottle. A small glass averages around £5, a large glass £6.50 and a bottle will set you back anywhere between £13 to £36. The "house" beer is Peroni, which is available in three different brews (Nastro Azzuro, Red and Gran Riserva) at around £3.50 for a standard 330ml bottle.
OUR LATEST EXPERIENCE
Having just heard that my six month "career break" was finally coming to an end after a confirmed job offer just before lunch, I decided to take the family out to our local Walton-on-Thames Carluccio's to celebrate. We arrived (wife, 5 year old daughter and 6 month old son, blissfully asleep) just before 2pm, but the Caffé was still buzzing with the Friday lunch crowd.
We were promptly and courteously greeted and having made the grievous error of offering us a choice of three tables, our waiter patiently waited while we entered into extensive discussions on the strategic placement of our children for maximum control, optimum positioning of the pushchair and minimal inconvenience to other diners. Once seated, my daughter's welcome pack was promptly delivered, instantly silencing her vocal Oscar-winning performance of a starving waif straight off the set of Oliver!
We were immediately asked for a drinks order - very welcome in the circumstances - and settled on two Diet Cokes, and an apple juice for our budding little artist, who by now was so engrossed in colouring in her puzzle, that she barely noticed the breadsticks (grissini) that were delivered not six inches from her nose. This was a relatively late lunch for all of us and the offer of some Stuzzichini (Italian appetisers) proved much too tempting to resist, so we ordered the suggested savoury bread tin and bowl of olives.
These arrived very quickly, and we devoured them in short order as we perused our menus. The former was, as advertised, a small metal tin packed with four or five different kinds of Italian bread, accompanied by a dipping bowl of fruity, peppery olive oil and ever so more-ish balsamic vinegar. Each of the breads - some of them more akin to crispbread or crackers - delivered a distinct taste experience, with my favourite a fennel flavoured soft loaf slice studded with moist sultanas. The generous serving of plump, stoned olives contained at least three different marinated varietals which we happily speared with the provided cocktail sticks. Lunch was off to a cracking start.
My wife and I both decided on a three course set menu at £12.95 each (chicken pate, penne and tiramisu for me, bruschetta, ravioli and panna cotta for her) and then ordered from the kid's menu (£6.95) for our daughter, which included a soft drink and gelati for dessert. She got to choose from a selection of pasta shapes (tubes or strings) and sauces (tomato, pesto, butter or ragu), lasagne, ravioli or Milanese di Pollo (flattened and bread crumbed chicken breast) with a tomato dipping sauce and rosemary potatoes and eventually settled on the chicken, but only after extensive cajoling from her impatient parents.
> Starters <
Our daughter's chicken arrived with our starters and, tasked with cutting it for her, I was well impressed with both the size and quality of her food. Too often, kid's menus are seen as prime opportunities for restaurant's to cut corners but, having sneaked a morsel while hacking away at it (for review purposes obviously) I found it perfectly cooked, with nice and crisp breadcrumbs and a depth of flavour a kid used to frozen nuggets simply would not appreciate.
My pate was served in a deep little cone shaped pot covered with a layer of chilled butter with a side of three generous slices of toasted ciabatta and some tiny cornichons. Breaking through the golden seal of butter unearthed a delightfully creamy rich pate with a lovely depth of flavour. As if more fat was needed, I discovered more small nuggets of butter as I delved deeper and deeper into this generous, seemingly bottomless helping of delectable pate.
It seems churlish to complain that the portion was probably a little too large, not that you would have known given how enthusiastically I was manoeuvring my knife around the bottom in an attempt to extract every last morsel. I can't really comment on the taste of my wife's bruschetta as she would not let me anywhere near it, but despite its unusual presentation (the tomato and basil topping was on the side like a salsa, leaving her to pile it on to the single large slice of ciabatta that had been provided) she thoroughly enjoyed it.
> Mains <
After a short interval, our mains arrived. After the triumph of the primi piatti, we were expecting great things of the main dishes, so it was a mild disappointment to find them quite good, rather than exceptional. My wife's spinach and ricotta ravioli were very well cooked - quite firm, with no hint of stodge or sloppiness - and the butter and sage sauce was delicate and flavourful, complementing, rather than dominating the pasta.
My penne, with small clumps of tomato and Italian sausage was tangy, savoury, rustic, and quite satisfying, but was never going to win any awards for presentation. Portion sizes were generous without being ridiculous, which in my case was quite welcome given the richness of my starter. We were offered fresh Parmesan and ground pepper by the server. There is a saying that the quality of a restaurant is often inversely proportional to the size of their peppermill - if that's true, then Carluccio's have little to worry about.
> Pudding <
Our daughter's gelati (she was offered vanilla and strawberry but predictably opted for chocolate) arrived straight from the on-site shop freezer in a non-descript peel top cardboard container, just as Baby H decided he'd had enough of a sleep and loudly announced his presence to the rest of the dining room. Seeing that my wife was struggling to get a bottle organised, while I was manfully digging away at the rock hard gelati with a hammer and chisel to soften it up for my impatient daughter, our waitress offered to hold back our deserts and espresso's until we got the kids sorted. When the puddings materialised, they were well worth the wait.
My tiramisu was a generous and indulgent rectangle of creamy mascarpone on a moist savoiardi biscuit base, impregnated with espresso and coffee liqueur, and finished with a thorough dusting of cocoa powder (i.e. enough caffeine to almost make my double espresso completely redundant). In contrast to the bold flavours of my tiramisu, my wife's panna cotta was a much more delicate vanilla and rum concoction that took its time to announce itself on the palate, delivering a much more subtle but ultimately satisfying experience. The rim of her plate was studded with candied orange peel, which provided a nice sharp, sweet and pronounced citrus contrast to the understated panna cotta.
Service was attentive without being obtrusive. Despite the general bustle, we never felt rushed and there was always someone on hand to help with any requests. Staff are not territorial about their covers and service at Carluccio's is a real team effort. There is no service charge for parties of less than eight people so tipping is left to customer discretion. Unlike some establishments, 100% of the tips actually go to the staff, who, given their service ethos, tend to share it out between them. Our bill was delivered within a few minutes of asking for it. All major credit cards (including Amex) are accepted and payment is made via hand-held electronic terminal at our table.
Our bill, including the appetisers, fixed price menu, drinks and coffee came to £46.00 not including a tip. In retrospect, we probably would not go for the olives and bread again, as we left the Caffé feeling like we had seriously overindulged, and quite apart from padding our waistlines, those two items alone (bread @ £3.50 and olives at £2.60) added approximately £6 to the bill.
On every visit so far (and I must be close to fifteen at various branches now), I have had consistently good food and service. The set menu is obviously good value, but the rest of the menu competes quite well too. I would especially recommend the bone-in rib steak, pan-fried sea bass and pork stew with polenta if you are ordering from the a la carte menu. Although Antonio Carluccio may have taken a step back from the business, his influence is clearly writ large in the food his namesake Caffé's serve.
It's rare to find a place that is equally at home serving a suited and booted lunchtime business crowd as well as young families with children, but Carluccio's managed to cater to both effortlessly. In my experience, it is better suited to lunch than for dinner, and if you don't mind the busy bistro atmosphere - you are generally in and out in around an hour - then you can't go far wrong.
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: An excellent option for up-market, but not eye-wateringly expensive, Italian bistro fare.