Il Borro, 15 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8DY. Starters £14-35, Pasta £17-53, Secondi £29-75, Desserts £11-16, Wines £50
When they started pumping a soft, lilting chillout cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart into the dining room, I really started to lose the will to live. We’ve been exposed to neutered versions of Madonna classics before. Now the DJ at Il Borro subjected us to an ugly, defaced cover of Manchester’s best gloomsters. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the sombre music or the £46 seafood pasta with just one langoustine, one shrimp, three mussels and three mussels. Actually I was sure. The music was very bad. The mean pasta was really dreary.
Il Borro opened last November in a cavernous, two-storey marble and blond wood building in London’s Berkeley Square and is a spin-off of high-end Italian winery near Arezzo, Il Borro, owned by luxury fashion brand Salvatore Ferragamo. In Mayfair, this last movement functions as a prelude. The restaurant’s website states that it wants to introduce us all to their “Tuscan way of life”. This Tuscan way of life includes enough beige furniture to make a White Company shopper horny, terrible tartan suits for the head waiters, and a menu priced to part bored rich folk with their money.
So why go? Two reasons. First, this man cannot live solely on small plates and “curated” lists of natural wines served in former warehouse buildings. light and shadow, folks. light and shadow. And second, Il Borro has the words “Tuscan Bistro” above the door. This is fascinating because London got one of these just two months before it opened. Russell Norman’s Gross is an elbows-on-the-table sort of eatery in Clerkenwell, where sturdy platters of £8.40 panzanella and £10 penne are knocked out. The basic message is exactly the same; the pricing and the approach, rather less. Obviously Il Borro has Mayfair rent and laundry to cover and a DJ with extremely dodgy tastes to support. But even taking that into account, I wanted to know: can you get better food for more money?
No it does not. It gives you access to a weird, roaring alternate reality where men sit with their collars open and stare at their phones, their faces bathed in a blue glow or bark at each other about the latest top offers from HSBC Global. Vaguely frightened-looking waiters float around with carafes of aggressively priced red wine, their spouts so performatively long and thin you don’t know if they’re going to be topping up customers’ glasses or catheterizing them. Maybe I was fantasizing.
We hear gushing talk about how all the ingredients are organic, in keeping with the winery’s deep commitment to sustainability, and how much of that is transported by the winery itself. One dish mentions “Toscan Baby Chicken”. I ask the waiter if the chicken is literally from Tuscany, an achievement given current air travel. He asks in the kitchen. Yes, he says excitedly, it’s a Tuscan chicken. Because obviously, no mediocre British chicken will do. Although the chickens made the trip, none of the winery’s whites made the trip. You are not on the list. Other things are. The cheapest bottle here is £50. I find a delicious Villa Sparina Gavi for £80 that I could retail for £16.45. So that would only be a premium by a factor of four. Just shut up and drink your wine.
Anyway, we’re here for dinner, so let’s move on. Sometimes, when an experience sags from mediocrity to “I want mom,” I worry that an excellent dish will arrive whose praise will disrupt my flow of chatter. I have to be fair That never happens at Il Borro. It starts with a mean assortment of poorly made breads, including focaccia dabs with the dense, moist texture of a soggy tena pad. It is strange. London is full of great focaccia. Just like Tuscany. How can they think that banging lump of draft excluder is okay?
Appetizers take ages to follow and waiters give unsolicited updates. Unfortunately they will eventually arrive. Calamaretti and Gamberi Fritti are limp, as if the shiny setting gave them performance anxiety. It suggests they’ve been sitting on the pass for a while, long enough for the topping of thinly sliced fried zucchini to take on a distinct fishiness.
Then there’s this £46 Lean Seafood Pasta. If you find yourself counting the shells and only getting three, something is up. The sauce is bland and sugary; The modest amount of al dente pasta is the dish’s only regular ingredient. The well-travelled chicken is described on the menu as spicy. What arrives is boring and sluggish. It made the trip for free. The most extraordinary is the peposo, a famous Tuscan stew made from braised beef and peppercorns. At Gross, it’s a rich, comforting wintry stew, full of tangled meat and banging spice. It costs £15.80. At Il Borro, the stewed meat is in chunky, mouth-drying chunks. It costs £41. Gosh, eating like a rustic Italian is expensive these days.
The Peposo comes with bronze-colored, hard-edged bricks of fried polenta, like Jenga Blocks, just not nearly as fun to play with. A humble Italian ingredient has been engineered to become less a food item than a fashion item. Wear it as a brooch. As a consolation prize, we order a £9 side of their triple cooked fries with rosemary salt. They, too, arrive lukewarm and soft and, worth it, without a hint of rosemary. I don’t usually complain about bad dishes for fear of tipping them off that anything less than joyous. I’m afraid they won’t cooperate if we ask to send a photographer. These are so ridiculously bad I can’t help it. I invite the waiter to try them. Why should I suffer alone? They will be deducted from the bill. From an uninspiring dessert menu of cheesecake and panna cotta, we share a 12-pound tiramisu.
The bill is an unsurprising £334. What’s really depressing is the lack of ambition in a city full of great Italian restaurants. What’s even more depressing is that it makes a rushing trade. It’s full of people eating gloomy food without caring about the prices. But the most depressing thing, at least for me, is that nothing I say about it will make the slightest difference. There was only one thing to do. I went home and listened to some Joy Division to cheer me up.
One of the founders of London’s Toklas, who received a very positive review on this site a few weeks ago, is behind a new business opening in Margate next month. The Fort Road Hotel, housed in one of the city’s older buildings, describes itself as an “arts and dining destination” thanks to the stake. frieze Magazine founder Matthew Slotover from Toklas and artist Tom Gidley. There will be artwork by artists such as Margate native Tracey Emin and a menu of cherry pickled pork terrine, clay baked sea trout and wild blackberry pancakes. at fortroadhotel.com.
Robbie Lorraine, who most recently cooked a slightly wacky but utterly compelling menu at his Only Food and Courses restaurant in Brixton, will become chef de cuisine at Boys Hall, a new hotel also opening in Kent this September. His menu includes lobster donuts alongside braised pork belly with bacon jam, black pudding and pork chops. Visit boys-hall.com.
Generally, crowdfunders are used to help open restaurants. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that chef Damian Wawrzyniak launched one to help close his. With costs rising on all fronts, Wawrzyniak has decided the final service at his modern Polish restaurant House of Feasts in Peterborough will be on August 21. In a novel business that may not have a positive reception everywhere, he is now trying to raise £50,000 to help pay staff and suppliers. Then he wants to look for a new location. You can read all about it here.
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