I have long admired the Italian capacity for sexiness. Method of government apart, their stylish reserve and intoxicating eroticism holds a strong allure. Their very raison d’etre, is, it appears, to make love. I took a trip to the restaurant L’anima, on Valentines’ Day, which is, if you’re lucky, the sexiest of occasions and had my taste buds tantalised to a climactic pitch.
On turning down the dark alley that is Snowdon Street, large windows unexpectedly reveal the restaurant in all its magnificence. ‘You know you want me’ it seems to whisper. Indeed I did, and now want it again. It is a place that could seem pretentious to some, but to me was elegant and refined. The food did the talking and the setting and service mirrored its success.
Minimalism and I have never been the most comfortable of bedfellows. I am most at home in a shabby and understated ‘momma’s’ kitchen-like setting, where the food is rustic and the atmosphere cosy and wholesome. That being said, I was completely seduced by L’anima’s interior design. The long black bar with purple under lighting contrasts superbly with the creamy ermine-white chairs and near phosphorescent table cloths, offering a world of contrasts in which one feels simultaneously at home and a guest. It’s hard to express, but I have never experienced a restaurant atmosphere like it: it is comfortably unsettling. The result is that one’s senses are sharp and primed to appreciate the mouth-watering and beautifully presented cuisine, which, like ‘Momma’s Kitchen’ retains the ‘rustic’ style currently so in vogue.
My date and I were seduced by the dulcet tones of some old crooner sounding from the bar and so decided to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail in this sleek section of the restaurant that adjoins the dinning room and is segregated by another glass window (in L’anima there is nowhere to hide). I felt as though I was an extra in Goodfellas, waiting for the return of Frankie two-time, who had just gone out to get the papers, get the papers. We both decided that a dirty martini was the suitable poison of choice, the sexiest of drinks, my date whispered to me, and looked up to the barman who had placed a bowl of the greenest olives I have ever seen in front of us. An accomplished host, in my opinion is one who can read the needs of their guest without their having said a word. The drink was expertly prepared with the deft and reassured movements of an experienced bartender, and the only thing that I can find fault with is that the martini itself was not as advertised – it just wasn’t quite dirty enough.
The charming waiter who steered us to our table (the martini was beginning to take effect) and accompanied us to the door when we left, could not be faulted on his knowledge of the menu and the way in which he poured the olive oil (in a league entirely of its own) could have been a piece of performance art – he angled it fearlessly from a height and cut off its thin trickle with a wrist action that I can only describe as Italian.
I am usually put off by a lengthy menu; it leaves me unable to decide what I want and anxious that I have not picked the ‘best’ thing. I was, however, left wanting everything – L’anima’s menu is an Aladdin’s cave of wonders: slow roast belly of a black pig, pickled black truffles, rabbit Siciliana, fresh crab, Norcia hand carved ham, I could go on. My date decided on the octopus, cannellini beans and ricotta ‘Mustia’ and I chose the Fritto Misto – a selection of deep fried fish of the day. I am not embarrassed to say that I am slightly squeamish about octopus; it is an alarming creature that is forever associated in my mind with the film Alien. However, the dish that was placed on our table not only bore none of these gruesome connotations but also tasted unbelievable. The suckers were still in place and the creature retained its deep purple hue. It was tender, delicious, beautifully arranged and accompanied by a sublime vinaigrette. The jenga like tower of deep-fried fish that was placed in front of me was cooked to perfection with the structure of the fish still visible beneath. Although it was slightly too big to be called a starter and collapsed on the spotless tablecloth when I tried to dismantle it, it was a pleasure to eat and smelled of the sea.
Our mains did not disappoint either. I felt it rude not to sample a pasta dish and so had the fidelini (al dente, of course) with fresh crab, yet again tasting and smelling as though it had just jumped out of the sea. My lady companion had picked one of the specials, lamb shank, and it melted off the bone in heavenly golden chunks.
I am incredibly nosey when I am eating out. I want to know what everyone is having, particularly the diners within the immediate vicinity and so found myself lusting after the veal chops, which I had considered ordering, that the couple next to us were eating. Recalling the evening, I am now convinced that they were vampires; they were both dressed in white, ate nothing but meat and were pale and said nothing to each other. The sinister sidelong glances that they cast at us confirm this fact. But although vampires generally get bad press, these two particular night stalkers can be said to have exquisite taste in food.
Despite being full and satisfied, we could not pass on dessert – Cappuccino Tiramisu, Rhubarb Bocconotto and Malaga Souffle with Ron Zacapa Centenario amongst other dishes proved just too tantalising. When we found ourselves unable to decide the attentive waiter said ‘I choose for you, ’offering us no chance to argue as he marched off to the kitchen. He returned with a Zabaglione that combined the flavours of Liquorice and Pistachio and a flourless chocolate cake that was rich and decadent. I was left wanting more – my date opted for licking the martini glass in which the Zabaglione was served.
My experience at L’anima confirms my wild generalisations about Italians. The food was prepared with passionate love and the staff were effortlessly efficient; seeing them glide confidently between tables was like witnessing a fervent dance. Like a satisfied lover I simply smile when I recall the experience. If you haven’t been you must go, you might even spot the odd vampire or two out for an evening treat…
1 Snowden Street
London, EC2A 2DQ
BY OSCAR HUMPHREYS
Sunday Food Review