There’s a chill wind whistling around the capital. The award-winning gastropub has had to close its doors. The branché Provençal place in Exmouth Market has disappeared, in its place one of the new breed of coffee chains. A Michelin star couldn’t save the Soho stalwart. That indie meat joint I always meant to get to: gone. Even restaurant titans are suffering: Jamie Oliver blaming Brexit for the closure of six of his outlets. (Food lovers, however, are not so sure that it’s just Brexit that’s to blame.)
London, always rapacious, looks set to be even less hospitable to restaurants in 2017. Yes, Brexit will have an impact, not only on staffing but on ingredient costs. Big-paying companies, the lifeblood of the biz, are making plans to shuffle off. A recent study suggested that as many as four in 10 restaurants will have to shutter if rents and rates continue to increase at their current unholy speed – a predicted further 20% come April. With margins calculated at a miserly 10%, only the heroic or the foolhardy are launching into this most unstable of industries.
So I fear for the new brigade once the neophiliacs have moved on, for the taco slingers, the sourdough pizzaioli, the earnest chaps crafting haute cuisine out of cabbage. Pondering restaurant longevity, what causes it, what makes a place outlive its neighbours, I head for a Soho old-timer, the pushing-50 Vasco & Piero’s. Why is it still rammed, service after service? Eating the full four-course, lie-down-for-an-hour-afterwards blowout, I try to parse its success. Here’s what I come to.
Identity: not just generic Italian, but Umbrian, a position they adopted long before lesser osterie clocked that concentrating on a specific region was a good wheeze. It wasn’t whisked up in a boardroom, it just is.
Menu: pah to the now mandatory “regularly changing”, this one changes twice daily. It riffs delicately on treasured cliches, so insalata tricolore becomes Puglian burrata, marshmallow-light, weeping sweet cream, with a fan of avocado and a few balsamic-kissed cherry tomatoes. Umbrian touches come via hearty use of chickpeas and pulses: fine, rosy-centred seared tuna on a bed of lentils, bathed randomly and successfully with soy and ginger. And, honestly, how could you resist a flawless Toblerone semifreddo?
Produce: “Just two or three ingredients for each dish,” they say. (I say, “Hmm.”) Meat and fish is never frozen. Pasta is made in-house daily: tagliatelle, yolk-yellow and dressed with a judicious amount of rich, vinous, slow-cooked beef and pork ragú; daringly al dente orecchiette, the chewy little ears laden with a forest’s-worth of wild mushrooms and just a lick of cream to pull the whole dish together.
Generosity, too: we query if our starter portions of pasta have been mistakenly served in main-course sizes. They haven’t. Umbrian truffles feature in season: I love the posh-prole play of floury borlotti beans under a fat, rough Tuscan sausage stuffed with pecorino, wrapped in pancetta and roasted before being anointed with black truffle butter.
Service: a neatly judged array of smooth operators dedicated to your pleasure and mild flirtation, the odd daft boy for levity and an elderly chap who I think is the titular Vasco Matteucci, metaphorically cuffing them all across the ears.
Style: formerly as fusty and blousy as elderly bloomers, it now presents a restrained bella figura of understated, art-lined chic. They pride themselves on discretion, which means, for me, that I can’t figure out how to get into the place. Also, despite being pretty much populated by grandees from film, fashion and politics who hardly notice the hefty bills, it’s quite admirably uninterested in the Soho passeggiata of see and be seen.
Is Vasco & Piero perfect? No: tables are squashed so close together, we can read the United Artists compliments slip on our neighbours’. More expansive tables are colonised by regulars. Why not – surely them’s the breaks? “We are not here to wow,” says the website, and they don’t; they just make happy. “The secret to its success,” says V&P fan Michael Palin, “is its absolute consistency.” So, no fireworks, no dishes created for social media, no mouthy chefs poncing about in leather and tattoos. Oh, and they probably own the building, too. Forza e coraggio, everyone else. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.#
The Guardian – Marina O’Loughlin