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L'Anima: A Soul Enhancing (but Wallet Destroying) Experience
Member Name: Hishyeness
Advantages: Superb food and great, friendly service.
Disadvantages: No view to speak of, quite pricey (but good value in the City context)
ITALIAN SOUL FOOD
Ever since returning to work in the City of London last year, I have embarked on the slow process of getting used to London prices. My previous job was based in Berkshire, in the far less genteel surroundings of Slough town centre, where you could still get a slap up English breakfast and a mug of tea for the cost of a Panini in one of the City's countless coffee houses. However, nine months on, the initial sticker shock has worn off, at least when someone else is paying.
That's a state of affairs that I hope will long continue, especially when it comes to L'Anima, an award-winning contemporary Italian restaurant, tucked away in a side street behind Liverpool Street Station. I have now had the pleasure of lunching and dining there four times, none of which involved the arduous task of signing for the bill. That said, for the quality of food and service received on each occasion, though painful, the process of paying would be worth every penny.
L'Anima is Italian for "soul", which the proprietors hope to infuse into everything from the food and wine to décor and atmosphere. The inventive menu takes the best of Italian cooking and gives it a contemporary and creative twist, which makes the food both instantly recognisable, yet refreshingly different. The restaurant, which opened in June 2008 by head chef Francesco Mazzei, has won a number of awards, all of which are proudly displayed near the reception desk. It is located on Snowden Street, a paved street that runs between Appold Street and Clifton Street, just north of the Broadgate complex, and has a long glass frontage, giving passers-by a full view of the dining room.
ATMOSPHERE & DÉCOR
L'Anima aims for elegance and sophistication and succeeds at embodying both. A small reception area sits immediately inside the front door, in a glass corridor that separates the restaurant from the bar. White leather chairs accompany crisp white tablecloths and impeccable table settings in the dining room, and the travertine limestone floor adds an earthy touch. The dark stone walls - differently textured in the main dining room and bar - provide a nice (and much needed) contrast. You can see the frenzied activity in the kitchens through the glass windows on the back wall.
The bar is well stocked and staffed, with cocktails impeccably mixed and presented. They make a cracking Bajito (£9), a variation on the classic Cuban cocktail which adds basil to the mint. Its main purpose is to keep diners entertained while waiting for their tables, but there were plenty of business people from neighbouring offices who had stopped in for a pricey drink. You can also see the wine "cellar" at the end of the glass corridor, next to a private dining room that accommodates fourteen for special occasions. Apparently the private room features a special menu, which is also available to diners on a small, raised, and glass balconied "mezzanine" at the far left of the main room.
I can say, without hesitation, that almost every meal I have had at L'Anima has been close to flawless. However, my last visit was perhaps the least satisfying of the lot - for a couple of reasons. The occasion was a small team dinner before Christmas, but the dining room was packed with a party of forty or so corporate types on a decidedly up-market holiday do, making it was much louder than usual. Although busy, the restaurant rarely seems crowded, but on this occasion, given the number of diners, the noise and bustle was unavoidable. Secondly, it was the first time I had eaten at L'Anima with a review in mind, so I approached everything with a slightly more considered and critical mind.
FORGET THE BUDGET
First things first. If you are on a budget - and I don't mean a limited budget - but any kind of budget at all, the numbers in the right hand column of the L'Anima menu are probably going to make your wallet weep. For most ordinary people (i.e. those not expensed or on City bonuses) this is a place best enjoyed on someone else's dime, or as a one-off experience in which, for one night, and one night only, you have a blast and ignore the cost. If you want a taste of the cooking and atmosphere for a more reasonable cost (still expensive, but not eye-wateringly so) it is well worth going for a leisurely lunch.
To give some context, starters average around £15, mains are between £25 and £30, puddings and cheeses will set you back £10 to £15, and the wine list ranges from around £20 to £2000. Side dishes (such as sautéed potatoes or spinach, roast vegetables, fried zucchini and green beans) are an additional £5 each. For these princely sums, you get fantastic food, faultless, attentive friendly (but unobtrusive) service, highly knowledgeable staff and a dedicated sommelier who will ask you for a budget and match wine to your meal without making you feel like an idiot. A three course meal for a couple with wine, water, coffee and cocktails at the bar will easily cost around £75 per head.
THE ESSENCE OF L'ANIMA
As with any restaurant, but especially given its premium pricing, L'Anima has to get the food right. In my mind at least, the cost creates an expectation of first class quality, and therefore a wholly justified right of judgment and criticism if anything is not nigh-on perfect. That's the context in which I enjoyed the last occasion at L'Anima. We started with the complimentary breads - slices of fresh baked focaccia, ciabatta and breadsticks, served with a flavourful, fruity and peppery olive oil with excellent depth and a thoroughly more-ish quality. While a colleague handled the tricky task of perusing the extensive wine list, I settled down to inspect the simple menu. Although the dishes use Italian terminology, a glossary is helpfully provided to explain some of the more esoteric terms used (such as bocconotto, stracci and cavatelli) and staff are only too happy to explain how the dish is put together and where and how it is sourced.
Having decided on the delectable sounding charcoal scallops with n'duja (a spicy, spreadable Calabrian salami apparently) and salsa verde to start (£12.75), and a main of wild cod with smoked aubergine and jar tomatoes to follow (£27.50), I turned my attention to my colleague, who desperately wanted me to validate his wine choices, not because he had any lack of confidence in what he was ordering, but more because he wanted to make sure the cost was still within the realms of corporate propriety (when in doubt, spread the accountability about). With a bit of jovial prompting from the sommelier, we settled on a three bottles (for the six of us I hasten to add) of the Ronco delle Betulle Cabernet Franc 2006 from the Friuli region of Northern Italy, which set our expense account back £40 a pop. It turned out to be a good choice - a bold and fruity red that kept something back so it didn't dominate the food.
Starters arrived promptly. My five grilled scallops were served on a half shell, discretely and ingenuously held in place on the plate by a small dollop of mashed potato. The perfectly cooked shellfish was served in its own jus with the salami spread crusted on top, and three perfectly cut chive fronds and a toasted slice of ciabatta as garnish. Unfortunately, the chilli in the salsa verde was a little overdone, so the delicate flavours of the otherwise delicious scallops were somewhat overpowered. I ended up spreading it on the foccacia instead, and it worked much better. It was a well-sized dish - perfect for a taster before the main course, and only slightly spoiled by the overzealous use of chilli.
After a short break, our mains arrived. The cod was simply, but stunningly presented, on a bed of smoked aubergine and tomatoes. The skin had been left on and beautifully crisped. The flavours combined very well, with the tomato contributing a nice, fruity tang and the subtly smoked aubergine adding an earthy, rustic feel to the whole ensemble. As with the starter, it was a well portioned and very satisfying eat. On previous visits, I have had the aged black Scotch rib eye grill (£35), and the fresh crab fidelini - essentially a very thin spaghetti (£18). Our mains were accompanied by a selection of side dishes which we shared out amongst us, with the excellent wood roasted vegetables being a notable highlight.
I just about managed to find room for desert and coffee, but instead of indulging my sweet tooth, I opted for a wine and cheese combination - a mild goats cheese from the Piedmont called "Robiola Brunet" which was accompanied with toasted ciabatta and chilli jam (£9), and a 50cl glass of Aleatico di Puglia A Mano sweet white dessert wine (£8). The two worked very well together, and provided a very nice end point to the meal. My only criticism was that the chilli jam must have been prepared by the same overzealous sous chef who handled the starter - it was powerful, eye-watering stuff.
SOUL ISSUE (or TWO)
L'Anima consistently produces very high quality food and impeccable service. A few minor quibbles aside on my last visit, I would highly recommend it to anyone who has the means to afford a top class gastronomic and dining experience. That's the rub, and the nub, of it. If you are looking for an extra special place to celebrate an important anniversary or event, you will get quite a lot of bang for your buck at L'Anima. There is little point in going if the bill is going to give you indigestion, but in its context - and given its City competitors - it offers pretty good value. Apart from that, the only matter in the negative column worth mentioning is the lack of a view out of its long glass frontage. That said, you'll be so busy enjoying the excellent food that you probably won't notice.
THE SMALL DETAILS
1 Snowden Street
London EC2A 2DQ
Phone: 0207 422 7000
Monday to Friday - Lunch (11:45am to 3pm) - Dinner (5:30pm to 11pm)
Closed for Lunch on Saturday, but open for Dinner (5:30 to 11:30pm)
Closed on Sunday
© Hishyeness 2011
Summary: An elegant and sophisticated contemporary Italian in the heart of the City