Il Borro, London: ‘The music was bad, the pasta dismal’ – restaurant review

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The Guardian

Il Borro, 15 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8DY. Starters £14-£35, pastas £17-£53, secondi £29-£75, desserts £11-£16, wines from £50

It was when they started pumping a soft, lilting chill-out cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart into the dining room that I really began to lose the will to live. We’d already been subjected to spayed versions of Madonna classics. Now the DJ at Il Borro was subjecting us to an ugly, disfigured cover of the Manchester gloomster’s finest. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the dismal music or the seafood pasta with just one langoustine, one shrimp, three clams and three mussels for £46. Actually, I was sure. The music was very bad. The mean pasta was truly dismal.

Il Borro opened last November in a cavernous two-floor marble and blonde-wood site by London’s Berkeley Square, and is a spin-off from the high-end Italian Il Borro winery near Arezzo, owned by the luxury fashion brand Salvatore Ferragamo. In Mayfair, that last sentence works as foreplay. The restaurant’s website says it wants to introduce us all to their “Tuscan Way of Life”. This Tuscan way of life involves enough beige furnishings to make a White Company buyer horny, terrible tartan suits for the head waiters, and a menu priced to part bored rich people from their money.

‘Hefty mouth-drying chunks’: braised beef stew. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

So why go? Two reasons. Firstly, this man cannot live by small plates and “curated” lists of natural wines served in former warehouse buildings alone. Light and shade, people. Light and shade. And secondly, Il Borro has the words “Tuscan Bistro” above the door. That’s intriguing because London got one of those only two months before it opened. Russell Norman’s Brutto is an elbows-on-the-table sort of place in Clerkenwell, knocking out rugged plates of panzanella for £8.40 and penne for a tenner. The basic proposition is exactly the same; the pricing and approach, rather less so. Obviously, Il Borro has Mayfair rents and laundry costs to meet and a DJ with extremely dodgy taste to support. But even allowing for that I wanted to know: does more money buy you better food?

No. It does not. It buys you access to a weird, roaring other reality, where tables of open-collared men sit staring at their phones, their faces bathed in a blue glow, or barking at each other about the latest top deals from HSBC Global. Vaguely terrified-looking waiters hover about with carafes of aggressively priced reds, their spouts so performatively long and thin you don’t know whether they’re going to top up the punters’ glasses or catheterise them. I might have been fantasising there.

‘Limp’: calameretti fritti. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

We get an exuberant speech about how all the ingredients are organic, in keeping with the winery’s profound commitment to sustainability, and how much of it is transported in from the wine estate itself. One dish mentions “Tuscan baby chicken”. I ask the waiter whether this means the chicken has literally come from Tuscany, an achievement given the current state of air travel. He checks with the kitchen. Yes, he says excitedly, it is a Tuscan chicken. Because obviously no mediocre British chicken will do. Although the chickens have made the trip, none of the winery’s whites have. They aren’t on the list. Other things are. The cheapest bottle here is £50. I find a delicious Villa Sparina Gavi at £80, which I could buy retail for £16.45. So that would only be a mark-up by a factor of four. Just shut up and drink your wine.

Anyway, we’re here for dinner so let’s get on with it. Sometimes, when an experience slumps from mediocrity to “I want mummy”, I worry that a superb dish will come along, the praising of which will interfere with my ranting’s flow. I have to be fair. At Il Borro that never happens. It starts with a mean selection of badly made breads, including swabs of focaccia with the dense, moist texture of a sodden Tena pad. It’s weird. London is full of great focaccia. So is Tuscany for that matter. How can they think this thudding lump of draft excluder is OK?

‘Meagre’: seafood linguine. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Starters take an age to follow, with the waiters giving unrequested updates. Unfortunately, they do eventually arrive. Calamaretti and gamberi fritti are limp, as if the glossy surroundings have given them performance anxiety. It suggests they’ve sat on the pass for a while, long enough for the topping of thinly sliced fried courgette to have taken on a pronounced fishiness.

Then there’s that meagre seafood pasta for £46. When you find yourself counting the shells and only get to three something is up. The sauce is dull and sugary; the modest amount of al dente pasta is the only solid part of the dish. That exceedingly well-travelled chicken is described on the menu as spicy. What arrives is dull and torpid. It made the trip in vain. Most extraordinary is the peposo, a famed Tuscan stew of braised beef and peppercorns. At Brutto it is a luscious, comforting wintery stew, full of tangled meat and popping spice. It costs £15.80. At Il Borro the braised meat is in hefty mouth-drying chunks. It costs £41. Blimey, eating like a rustic Italian is expensive these days.

‘Thudding’: tiramisu. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The peposo comes with bronzed, hard-cornered bricks of fried polenta, like Jenga blocks, only nowhere near as much fun to play with. A humble Italian ingredient has been engineered to within an inch of its life to become less food than fashion item. Wear it as a brooch. As a consolation prize we order a £9 side of their triple-cooked chips with rosemary salt. They, too, arrive tepid and soft and, for what it’s worth, without a hint of rosemary. I don’t usually complain about poor dishes for fear of tipping them off that all is less than joyous. I worry they won’t co-operate when we ask to send in a photographer. These are so ludicrously bad I can’t help myself. I invite the waiter to try them. Why should I suffer alone? They are taken off the bill. From an uninspiring dessert list, featuring cheesecake and panna cotta, we share a £12 thudding tiramisu.

The bill is an unsurprising £334. What’s really depressing is the lack of ambition in a city full of great Italian restaurants. What’s even more depressing is that it’s doing a roaring trade. It’s full of people eating dismal food without caring about the prices. But the most depressing thing, to me at least, is that nothing I say about any of this will make the slightest bit of difference. There was only one thing to do. I went home and listened to some Joy Division to cheer myself up.

News bites

One of the founders of London’s Toklas, reviewed very positively on this page a few weeks ago, is behind a new venture opening next month in Margate. The Fort Road Hotel, located inside one of the town’s older buildings, describes itself as an ‘art and food destination’ courtesy of the involvement of Frieze magazine founder Matthew Slotover of Toklas and artist Tom Gidley. There will be artworks from the likes of Margate-born Tracey Emin, and a menu of pork terrine with pickled cherries, clay baked sea trout, and wild blackberry pancakes. At fortroadhotel.com.

Robbie Lorraine, last seen cooking a slightly bonkers but completely compelling menu at his restaurant Only Food and Courses in Brixton, is to be the head chef at Boys Hall, a new hotel also opening in Kent this September. His menu will include lobster doughnuts alongside braised belly of pork with bacon jam, black pudding and pork ‘quavers’. Visit boys-hall.com.

Generally, crowdfunders are used to help open restaurants. It is perhaps a sign of the times that chef Damian Wawrzyniak has launched one to help him close his. Faced by rising costs on all fronts, Wawrzyniak has decided that the last service at his modern Polish restaurant House of Feasts in Peterborough will be on 21 August. In a novel venture which may not be positively received in all quarters, he is now looking to raise £50,000 to help him pay off staff and suppliers. He then intends to find a new location. You can read all about it here.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

July 17, 2022 at 10:57AM Jay Rayner

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