El Borough, 15 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8DY. Appetizers from £14 to £35, pasta from £17 to £53, second from £29 – £75, desserts from £11 to £16, wine from £50
When they started pumping a quiet, comfortable blanket of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us from the Joy Division into the dining room, I really started losing the will to live. We’ve already been exposed to the miraculous versions of Madonna’s classics. Now the DJ at Il Borro has been subjecting us to the ugly and distorted cover of Manchester’s best player. I wasn’t sure what was worse: dreary music or seafood spaghetti with one langoustine, one shrimp, three oysters and three mussels for £46. Actually, I was sure. The music was very bad. The average pasta was really dismal.
Opened last November in a massive two-story marble and blond wood estate next to London’s Berkeley Square, Il Borro is an offshoot of Il Borro’s upscale Italian winery near Arezzo, owned by luxury fashion brand Salvatore Ferragamo. In Mayfair, the last sentence acts as a foreplay. The restaurant’s website says it wants to introduce us all to the “Tuscan way of life”. The Tuscan way of life includes just enough beige furnishings to make the White Company’s buyers famous, horrible tartan suits for the waiter, and a priced menu to rid the bored rich of their cash.
Why do you go? Two reasons. Firstly, this man cannot live with small plates and “curated” lists of natural wines served in former warehouse buildings alone. Light and shadow people. light and shadow. Secondly, Il Borro has the words “Tuscan Bistro” above the door. This is intriguing because London only had one of these two months before it opened. Russell Norman Brutto fits elbows at the table in Clerkenwell, offering sturdy panzanella plates for £8.40 and penne for tenner. The basic suggestion is exactly the same; Pricing and approach, not rather. Il Borro clearly has Mayfair rentals and laundry costs to meet and DJs with very elusive flair to back him up. But even if you let it, I wanted to know: Would more money buy you better food?
no not like that. It gives you access to another weird and noisy reality, where tables of open-collar men sit staring at their phones, their faces glowing blue, or barking at each other about the latest deals from HSBC Global. Mysterious, terrified waiters swirl with flasks of expensive red, their puffs so long and thin that you don’t know if they’re going to fill gambler cups or catheters. Maybe you imagine there.
We get a lively speech about how all ingredients are organic, in line with the winery’s deep commitment to sustainability, and how much is flown from the wine farm itself. One dish mentions “mini Tuscan chicken”. I asked the waiter if this meant the chicken came literally from Tuscany, an achievement given the current state of air travel. Inspect the kitchen. Yes, he says excitedly, it’s a Tuscan chicken. Because obviously no average British chicken will do the trick. Although chickens have made the trip, none of the winery whites have. They are not on the list. Other things. The cheapest bottle here is £50. I find the delicious Villa Sparina Gavi for £80, which I can buy retail for £16.45. So this would only be a fourfold increase. Just shut up and drink your wine.
Anyway, we’re here for dinner, so let’s get on with it. Sometimes, when the experience goes from mediocre to “I want a mummy,” I worry that a great dish will come along, whose praise will go against the flow of my screams. I have to be fair. In Il Borro this has never happened. It starts with a selection of poorly made bread, including smears of focaccia with the dense, moist texture of Tina’s Whipped Pillow. It’s weird. London is full of wonderful focus. So is Tuscany in this regard. How could they think that such a massive block of Exclusion Draft was okay?
Adventists take a tooth to follow, with waiters giving unsolicited updates. Unfortunately, they finally arrived. Calamaretti and gamberi fritti are lame, as if the shiny environment gave them performance anxiety. This indicates that they have sat on the aisle long enough to top off the thinly sliced fried zucchini to have a distinctly fishy appearance.
Then there’s the scant seafood pasta for £46. When you find yourself counting the shells and you only get to three, something is up. The sauce is boring and sugary. The modest amount of al dente spaghetti is the only solid part of the dish. This well-traveled chicken is described on the menu as spicy. Up is dull and rough. The trip was made in vain. Most unusual is pepposo, a popular Tuscan stew of braised beef and peppercorns. The Brutto is a hearty, comforting winter stew, filled with tangled meats and spices. It costs £15.80. In Il Borro, there is meat cooked in large pieces that are dried for the mouth. It costs £41. Blimey, eating like a rustic Italian is pricey these days.
The peposo comes with bronze, solid angled polenta bricks, like Jenga blocks, just nowhere near as much fun to play with. A humble Italian ingredient is designed to be within an inch of its life to become less of a food than a fashion item. Wear it as a brooch. As consolation prize we order £9 a side of their triple cooked chips with rosemary salt. They, too, pray lukewarm and soft, and what’s worth, without a hint of rosemary. I don’t usually complain about bad dishes for fear of squandering it all as less than cheerful. I’m afraid they won’t cooperate when we ask to send a photographer. This is so ridiculous that I can’t help myself. I invite the waiter to try them. Why do I suffer alone? They are taken out of the bill. From the uninspired dessert menu, which includes cheesecake and panna cotta, we’re sharing a £12 tiramisu.
The bill is no surprise £334. What’s really frustrating is the lack of ambition in a city full of great Italian restaurants. The most frustrating thing is that they do a crowded trade. It is full of people who eat bad food without caring about the prices. But the most frustrating thing, for me at least, is that nothing I can say about any of this will make the slightest difference. There was only one thing to do. I came home and listened to some Joy Division to cheer myself up.
One of the founders of Toklas in London, which was reviewed very positively on this page a few weeks ago, is behind the opening of a new project next month in Margate. Located inside one of the city’s old buildings, the Fort Road Hotel describes itself as an “art and food destination” thanks to the participation of frieze Magazine founder Matthew Slotover of Toklas and artist Tom Gidley. There will be artworks from the likes of Margate-born Tracey Emin, a pork roll with pickled cherries, mud-baked trout, and wild blackberry pancakes. in fortroadhotel.com.
Robbie Lauren, who was last seen cooking up a slightly insane but totally compelling menu at his Only Food and Courses in Brixton, will be head chef at Boys Hall, a new hotel that also opened in Kent in September. His menu will include brownies along with braised pork belly with bacon jam, black pudding, and pork ‘mottle’. visit Boys-hall.com.
In general, crowdfunding tools are used to help open restaurants. Perhaps this is a sign of the times Chef Damien Wurzeniak released one to help him lock down his house. Faced with rising costs on all fronts, Wawrzyniak has decided that the last service at his modern Polish restaurant House of Feasts in Peterborough will be August 21. In a new venture that may not be received favorably in all quarters, he is now looking to raise £50,000 to help him pay staff and suppliers. Then he intends to find a new location. You can read all about it over here.