It must be a difficult thing to become extremely successful while remaining in touch with your own human limitations. History is littered like the streets of Shoreditch with the stories of great men who bit off more than they could chew. Napoleon, Hitler (when I say ‘great’ I don’t mean like, “hey, what a great guy”, I mean, you know…impressive, in their own psychopathic bastard kind of way), Hannibal, Ricky Ponting. These men – wildly, ruthlessly ambitious, just didn’t know when to say ‘enough is enough’.
Neither, it would seem, do many chefs. Gordon Ramsay, if reports are to be believed, is a whisker away from filing for bankruptcy, having tried to break a record by opening a restaurant in every city in the world. Unfortunately he did this just as the global economy came to a shuddering standstill. In ‘Kitchen Confidential’, Anthony Bourdain warns potential restaurateurs of this very problem – just because one of your restaurants is booming, that in no way means that another one will be as successful. Yet Antonio Carluccio, the godfather of southern Italian cooking, and one of the most charming men on the planet, is in danger of falling into this trap and badly overcooking the Carluccio’s brand, if my dinner last week was anything to go by.
I was seeing my mother onto a 7 o’ clock train at Kings Cross, and so we decided to treat ourselves to an early supper, and I tell you what, I’d forgotten how fucking horrendous that statue at yon end is. What were they thinking? It’s an absolute monstrosity – the man’s wearing a nerdy little rucksack for chrissakes! No chic little overnight bag at his feet – a rucksack. Beggars belief. Maupassant hated the Eiffel Tower so much that his favourite restaurant was in the tower itself, as it was the only place where he didn’t have to look at it (though with his head so far up his arse it’s a wonder he was able to see anything at all). Perhaps subconsciously following similar snobbish principles we made a beeline for the restaurant below the statue – Carluccio’s – and ate a pitifully average meal.
Nothing was bad, per se, just woefully indifferent. Bruschetta that was neither charred nor garlicky enough; a green salad with Parmesan for my mother that was fine but a rip-off even at £4. My sister’s boyfriend’s calamari were clearly frozen and rubbery, and lacking the salty crispness that one so yearns for in calamari. My antipasti were good (the foccaccia exceptional), with particularly tasty meats, but the bits that had been, I hope, made on the premises – roasted peppers and pesto – really let the side down, lacking seasoning and zip.
My heart had leapt when I saw spaghetti alle vongole on the menu. It was less buoyant when the dish arrived. It’s hard to say why this dish wasn’t a success. The clams seemed fresh enough, the chilli poky enough, the spaghetti cooked well… I just don’t know. It didn’t feel loved. Mum’s vitello tonnato found itself in a similar category. Adequate but underwhelming. Mary’s penne with sausage tasted like it had been made ahead in a central kitchen, along with the sauce to go to Bristol, Reading, Manchester, Leicester etc, as I suspect it was. Again, it was fine – if a friend served it at home you’d probably quite enjoy it. But not for £7.60. Even looking at the menu I can’t remember what Adam ate. It can’t have been very good.
A shared chocolate pudding wrestled a positive out of the meal, though that is hardly testament to the skill of the kitchen. If that thing was made on site I’m a Dutchman. Adam and I went for the vin santo with cantucci. Though the little biscuits were good, the wine tasted like it came from a bottle that had been open too long, slightly bitter and stale-tasting.
It was far from being a bad meal, but it highlighted the flaw in the chain. Antonio Carluccio has been absolutely instrumental in helping to diffuse the idea of ‘less is more’ when it comes to cooking – just a few choice ingredients cooked well. Unfortunately it is this very concept that is his downfall. Because when these few ingredients are not cooked with complete care and attention, and not sourced from the very best places, they, like Napoleon in Russia, inevitably fall short of the mark.