Located in Blenheim Street, near the junction of New Bond Street and Oxford Street, Ristorante Semplice opened in March 2007, gaining in less than two years, a first Michelin Star. This achievement was partly down to its uncompromisingly Italiannature: the three owners are Italian, two being the manager and head chef respectively; the décor is Italian inspired; the furniture is Italian; the wine list is exclusively Italian; and over 60% of the produce is imported regularly from Lombardy.
Not that these alone make for automatic success: the co-owners, who have excellent CVs, constitute a winning team. Giovanni Baldino was manager of Locanda Locatelli before undertaking the same role at Semplice. Marco Torri, Head Chef (left) of Teca in Mayfair for six yearrs, worked for Milan’s three Michelin starred Gualtiero Marchesi at the Halkin Hotel, and later under Giorgio Locatelli at Locanda Locatelli.
Italian style, luxury and comfort are abundant in the clean lines and polished surfaces of the dining area, which is divided by a lacquered ivory wall. This opulence is further emphasised by a wooden Venetian designed wall fresco, decadently adorned in gold leaf. Elegant leather chairs and low backed banquettes in soft cream and brown offer highly agreeable seating. The room’s spotlighting is better at illuminating the wall features than the tables which are lit by rather unattractive and slightly obstrusive dangling lampshades.
For a relatively small restaurant of fifty five covers, the extensive menu reflects confidence and versatility in the kitchen. Of the traditional four courses, there are seven antipasti; seven pasta and risotto dishes, eleven fish and meat options and seven desserts.
The emphasis is on the cuisine of northern Italy, from where many of the top quality ingredients are sourced. This is reinforced by the wine list, which is strong on vintages from this region.
Despite the restaurant’s name – Italian for “simple” – Marco Torri’s cooking is complex and sophisticated. The seasonally changing menu emphasizes flavour, with saucing and seasoning being well judged. Unusual combinations are avoided, as is over elaboration on the plate. Garnishes are kept to a minimum to allow the main ingredient to shine, and there is a consciously homely feel to the presentation of the dishes. How refreshing not to see foams, smears, spots and purees on the plate. Only in this sense can the food be described as “simple.”
Fine Dining Guide visited Semplice on a busy mid week evening in late 2010. True to its Italian roots, Semplice prefers to serve as an aperitif sparkling wine from Franciacorta – made using the Champagne method – rather than its French equivalent. The accompanying sweet Parmesan puffs were feather light and melted in the mouth. Wafer thin squid ink and sun dried tomato bread, alongside vegetarian crisps, showed the same painstaking attention to detail. Wine: Cruperdu Bomomi Castellimo NV Franciacorta
An antipasto of pan fried foie gras was served with a warming Casteluccio lentil stew. Modena balsamic vinegar, added at the table, gave a sweet and sour zing to this flavoursome, earthy dish
Another successful first course was baby monkfish “Milanese.” The bread crumbed coating helped retain the fish’s moisture, whilst the classic green seasoned panzanella and soft boiled quails egg added substance without heaviness.
The intermediate course was a signature Milanese saffron risotto. The bright yellow rice had a perfect al dente texture and rich creaminess, enhanced but not overwhelmed by the highly scented spice: the balance was perfect. This classic accompaniment of osso bucco came without the bones but with three glistening pieces of unctuous veal marrow. Served on a black plate, this dish was also visually stunning. Wine: Curiefranca Bianco Bonori Castellino 2009 Franciacoria
A signature main course of roasted Piedmontese rabbit was a veritable tour de force. It comprised a rack of tiny saddle chops, confit shoulder baked in filo, leg meat served breaded in Milanese style, and pan fried liver and kidney. The cooking showed real skill timing, avoiding dryness and retaining succulence. Garnishes of glazed baby carrots and an artichoke puree added a robust element to the delicate meat. Finally, the whole dish was lifted by aroma of fresh thyme.
Equally impressive was the slow roasted suckling pig. The mahogany coloured skin and sweet, melting flesh showed the three and a half hours cooking did full justice to this delectable animal. A garnish of sautéed herb gnocci was satisfyingly light, whilst the sauce of olives and sun dried tomatoes added a piquancy which balanced the richness of the pork.
Wine: Recioto decca,Valpolicella, Le Sacette. Veneto To finish, the embarrassment of choice was solved by sharing cheese and dessert plates. Characteristically, the cheeseboard was totally Italian, with a good selection of hard and soft, strong and mild, all in peak condition. The five chosen were served with fine homemade breads, chutneys and honey. Finally, three sorbets – lime, mango and chocolate – had exemplary smoothness and intense flavour.
Overall, it is clear why Semplice deserves the acclaim it has received. The dedication and passion, which supplement the high level of skill, are abundantly evident in the breadth and depth of the cooking and the knowledgeable, efficient, well paced service. Whilst dining at a restaurant of this quality does not come cheap when choosing from the carte, the value for money is unquestioned, more so if the award winning bargain set lunch is chosen. Either way, a truly memorable gastronomic experience will be enjoyed by all.