Spuntino is one of the newest arrivals in Soho - having opened its doors just this week - and the London foodie scene has been all abuzz about it. So, Frangelico and I thought we'd take a break from my detox and check it out.
Here in the UK, there is routinely plenty of nostalgia for days and glories past, but a new angle is a twingeing in the heart for all things Prohibition (except for, given 24-hour drinking laws, the not-actually-legal part). Speakeasy-type cocktail bars have mushroomed around the city, and it now appears that restaurants want in on the action too.
Located on Rupert Street (not far from sister restaurant, Polpo), Spuntino is very much into the subterfuge aesthetic. The restaurant's name is barely noticeable in broad daylight, with the appearance of having been thinly scratched with chalk onto tarnished metal sheets. It must be practically invisible at night.
The vibe continues inside, with jangly blues rock and a Prohibition-era-inspired cocktails list, offset by the waiter/bartenders of a heavily-tattooed rockabilly persuasion. Guests sit up high at a large counter, which curves around the main floor under a high ceiling. A wall behind the counter is covered in exposed white tiling, with blue-grey mosaic up near the ceiling. (They speculate that the building used to house a butcher's.)
The cocktails list is conveniently short and primarily one-worded, which means that the staff's knowledge thereof needs a tiny bit of improvement. Our waiter was very forthcoming and talked us through the list, but upon being asked what a couple of the cocktails contained, he had to go away and check with someone else. (I didn't mind this too much, to be honest, because he was very polite, and I wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere.) There's a mix of sweet and bitter on the list - the Negroni is a good choice if you want bitter, because the campari/vermouth/gin combo is a good prelude to the food.
To go with the drinks, we had a side of the eggplant chips with a fennel yoghurt. Very nice. The batter of the chips was appropriately thin and with a grainy texture, while the eggplant within was molten as a contrast. The yoghurt's fennel aroma came forward and filled the senses.
As with Polpo, the mains are a bit hit and miss. The truffled egg toast was a delight, with the flavours balancing artfully - a messy, yolky centre oozing over thick, wholesome toast, with truffle lifting it up, and a grated, cheesy melt keeping it grounded. This is going to be a dish everyone talks about.
The Mac & Cheese also deserves mention, for this reason: it's the closest thing I've found to real American Mac & Cheese in London. Usually, when trying to reproduce this import, the Brits will choose being true to the cheese over the authenticity of the dish, and you get a chewy brick, heavy on chewy cheese. That is what ought to be called, rightfully, a pasta bake made with macaroni-shaped pasta. A real Mac & Cheese, on the other hand, is a gentle and creamy phenomenon. This is what you get at Spuntino. I would have liked more flavour and less blandness, though, and I hope future iterations will sort that.
So, now for the misses. The baby gem salad with egg and creamed cod sauce - although fresh and given a bit of get-go by the egg and croutons - was extremely salty. It was so salty that we couldn't finish it, despite craving the contrast of the greens and vinaigrette-tang to the rest of the meal. As I've said before, London restaurants over-salt their food, and this has got to stop. (Salt Awareness Week is coming just in time.) A couple of other dishes were very plain: the calamari, chick peas and ink, which didn't feel well-conceived or executed; and the popcorn with cayenne, which didn't register at all.
The desserts list is - like the cocktails - short, but sweet. Our waiter recommended the peanut butter and jelly, and we went with it, no questions asked. It came as a pleasant surprise, therefore, that the 'toast' sandwiching the jelly was in fact peanut butter ice cream. Given that I'd had an out-of-this-world peanut butter sorbet in San Francisco recently, there was no way this ice cream was going to be able to compete. Nevertheless, peanut butter isn't something that often fails to please the taste buds, and I liked the inventiveness and attractiveness of the dish. The only thing that stopped me in my tracks was that, upon being asked, a waiter told us that the ice cream was made with Skippy peanut butter. Now, Skippy may be Skippy, but I've never seen a version of it in the UK that doesn't have hydrogenated fats (aka trans-fats) in it. Fork down, dessert unfinished.
Overall, my assessment is this: worth a try, if you're in the area and don't mind waiting with punters on a narrow Soho pavement opposite a live peep show. I won't be making Spuntino one of my favourites, and I wouldn't go out of my way to get there for just the food (and definitely no queueing), but it's a thoughtfully fitted-out place in which to feel the Soho vibe, enjoy a drink in a fun-comfy-smart setting, and try out a few tasty dishes.
Because of the natural limits on how much two people can eat, we didn't get to try the Sliders (mini burgers, named either because they're so tender they slide down your throat or because they're so small they slide off the skillet). The omission had been nagging me a little, so we went back the next day to try them. (This was also a question of doing justice to the menu offering, you understand.)
The beef and bone marrow was passable - it was tender (from the marrow) and had an alluring addition of thyme, which complemented the gruyère. The lamb with pickled cucumber, though, was awesome - very flavourful and worthy of a second order. The brioche on which the sliders are served aren't anything to write home about - a little stiff and manufactured.
The zucchini pizzetta was good - with chopped mint and chilli. (Again: go easy on the salt, guys!) Next down the line was the sliced sausage with lentils and radicchio, which was ok - nothing to offend, but nothing jumping out at you either.
For dessert, if you like cheesecake, you'll have to try the brown sugar cheesecake. This was delicious. It has all the satisfying solidity of a baked cheesecake and is superbly elevated by the brown sugar. The grappa prunes and syrup, while not exactly a complement, presented a balance, rendering the next bite of cheesecake a delightful surprise all over again.