Paolo Tullio: Serving up explosive flavours
One of my favourite poets, Robert Burns, said it like this: "The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang agly," which translates to modern English as 'often go awry'. Winston Churchill had a slightly different take on it when he said "Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable".
I suppose what it comes down to is that, no matter how we try to impose order on chaos, the unexpected invariably pokes its nose in and alters the predicted course of events.
This philosophical musing came to mind as I sat dining alone this week. It wasn't planned that way -- there was supposed to be a guest sitting opposite me at the table, but my guest got very ill and was unable to join me, sending me a text to let me know. But it had been one those days when my mobile was mostly switched off, first for a photoshoot and then for my weekly food slot with Sean Moncrieff, so I didn't actually get the text until the late afternoon.
Now, what is the latest you can call someone up and ask them out for a meal? Asking even a close friend a couple of hours before a restaurant reservation looks awfully last-minute. But then I realised that I've been very lucky. I've written about 700 restaurant reviews and I've arranged to eat with at least one guest for each one of them, so if only one out of so many hadn't gone as planned, isn't that remarkable in itself?
Which is why I turned up in the new Bang by myself for dinner. My now sick guest had made the reservation, so I gave my guest's name and said "I'm half of the reservation". The answer came back: "How many are you booked for?" I let that go and was shown to a table on the first floor overlooking the stairs leading down.
The first thing I noticed was that there's a lot more room now between the tables. I always enjoyed the food in Bang under the old management, but I always felt crowded. It's under new management since the Stokes twins left, so I'd come to see how the change of ownership had affected one of the city centre's better-known estaminets.
A first glance at the menu showed me that they've pitched the prices in the upper mid-range. It's been a while since I've seen starters going over €10 and mains well into the upper €20 range. There are compensations: as I said, there's more room and the welcome and service is also well above average. All that was needed now was good food to back up the prices.
The wine list isn't very long -- about 50 wines are listed and, again, at first glance the prices seemed pitched slightly above normal. This time the pay-off was a good sommelier, who seemed to know the list well. Since I was only going to drink one glass of wine, I was limited to wines by the glass, but there were about a dozen of them. I settled on an Italian Ripasso from the Valpolicella by Zeni at €8. It was a fine, deep-coloured and dense red, with loads of dark fruit and a long finish -- perfect for my main-course choice.
For once, there was only one menu to look at -- no early bird, no set dinner, no table d'hôte, just the à la carte. It had some interesting-looking dishes on it: a stone crab lasagna; veal sweetbreads, and a real buffalo mozzarella salad among the starters, and hot-smoked venison loin was one of the main courses. I love veal sweetbreads and venison too, if it's well prepared, so I ordered those two dishes.
With no one to make conversation with, I had plenty of time to look around me. What surprised me was seeing a Dragon serving tables, running up and down stairs and generally being very busy. Not the fire-breathing variety, rather the Den variety in the shape of Bobby Kerr, proving that even investing Dragons can muck in with the rest of them. I learned later that he is one of the owners.
My starter arrived, and I have to say it looked very pretty on the plate. The presentation was almost art, but I felt that three bite-sized pieces of sweetbreads was just a little exiguous. No matter, the sweetbreads bites were cooked perfectly and were nicely flavoured. It took me just a few moments to finish them off and I was ready for the next course.
It's not often that I get very enthused about a particular dish, but the loin of venison placed before me was worthy of a great deal of enthusiasm. It was cooked medium-rare, it was superbly tender, but the flavours!
Ah, the flavours. Just a hint of juniper berry gave the loin all of those wintry tastes that, like a Proustian moment, brought memories flooding back. A cauliflower purée, and a tiny leek and onion completed the picture. Elegantly presented food, and brimming with flavour.
Along with this dish, the Ripasso from the Veneto made a fine accompaniment, the full flavours of the wine matching the autumnal flavours of the venison.
Normally, two cour-ses is when I call a halt, but I was aware that a review of just two dishes was a little light, so I decided on a dessert. I chose the mango mousse, which finished my meal off very nicely, the balance between sweetness and acidity was delicately judged. An espresso rounded off what had been a good meal, with excellent service in a pleasing dining room.
My bill came to €53.25 without a service charge.