Li Veli, Covent Garden
The end of a long, cold, damp and rather miserable winter day saw our family taking grateful respite from the weather in Li Veli, a centrally-situated restaurant on Covent Garden’s Long Acre. Although the restaurant wasn’t immediately apparent as we tried to find a parking space nearby, its discreet frontage is smart, with dark red awnings and a distinctively styled logo. The lights inside immediately gave it a welcoming air, as did the swirls of willow branches decorated with dried orange slices and the bottles of wine, corks, driftwood, and travel magazines which bedecked the windows. It was with eagerness and a sense of relief that we hurried through the door.
We were immediately impressed by our greeting, which was – as one so rarely finds in London – warm and genuine. Tables were pushed together to give us plenty of room, a highchair was brought for Tristan and water was offered, before the menus appeared. We were also brought a glass of Prosecco almost straight away – a refreshing, lively drink that got the meal off to a good start.
Li Veli specialises in food from the Apulian region of Italy, and, especially, wine, with a wine list of very carefully chosen Apulian wines to complement the food served – many of them from their own Masseria Li Veli Winery in Puglia. The menus are short, with just around eight starters and main courses, all carefully chosen to reflect Apulian cuisine, with – I was pleased to note – warm, rustic and comforting dishes heavy on elements such as cheese, tomatoes and meats. Definitely a place to come to on cold winter evenings, then!
The decor is modern and smart – the walls are all white, with built-out shelving housing numerous bottles of wines and edible goodies. There are no pictures, but, instead, quirky decorative touches on the white square pillars that separate the room into an eating area and bar area – bunches of keys down one pillar, and pairs of wine glasses down the other. Lighting is by means of little oil lamps on the tables and large rectangular pendant shades over the bar and at the far end of the restaurant from us, from which driftwood hangs. The tables are undressed, except one large table – the others are plain wood or painted dark green. Chairs are a mixture of wooden shaker-style chairs in a pale grey, and comfortable padded leather-type chairs in a darker grey. The bar has clean lines, with a wooden top and body and rather nice wooden bar chairs with the same darker grey padded seats. There is a more urban look here in the bar area, effected by the white “bricks”; the dark urban lettering spelling out “Li Veli” with bright lighting behind; and a functional shelf holding numerous bottles.
I think that we were brought the Apulian specials that the staff believed we should have ordered, rather than what we actually ordered, for starters – not that this mattered a jot to me as it meant an overindulgence of cheese, but my husband was sorrier to have lost his choice! There appeared before us burrata with special Apulian mushrooms – the burrata itself was meltingly soft and tender, beautifully tearable and very delicately flavoured (we were less enamoured of the mushrooms); creamy chicory puree with a touch of chilli, served with ciabatta slices and baby leeks; and an excellent cheese selection. This came with fresh, plump grapes (which we didn’t get to try as young Tristan devoured them all), lettuce (which worked well) and raisin bread (again, another Tristan favourite). The cheeses themselves included taleggio – as rich, thick, creamy and unctuous as it should be; a reasonably hard and beautifully-flavoured goats’ cheese; and a very creamy-textured but piquant-flavoured blue, not dissimilar from Saint Agur. On the whole, a luxurious and rather filling selection of starters.
The sommelier chose wines to suit our courses, and a Masseria Li Veli 2013, made from the Verdeca grape, was brought to accompany the first course. This wine had the most incredible nose and flavour – the nose seemed to be a curious combination of menthol, eucalyptus and petrol. The taste was equally unusual – the nearest equivalent perhaps might be retsina – full of pine nuts and mint. It was dry, but not at all harsh and not very citrusy at all (a big plus in my eyes) – the elements were all floral and mineral instead. I found this a superbly delicious wine, and one of the most drinkable and convivial white wines I’ve tasted.
For my main course I opted for the generously-portioned lamb shank with potatoes – the latter being halved baby new potatoes with a delicious rosemary element. The lamb shank had been very slowly braised resulting in a very succulent and tender meat, with a strong flavour of rosemary and being very salty at the same time – the said salt element, however, was entirely appropriate and not at all excessive in the context. Mr Marshall-Luck chose the lighter option of tagliolini with tomato and cheese – he found the pasta was slightly al dente and the tomato extremely sweet, while the cheese lent a welcome savoury element and saltiness that was a fine foil to the sweetness of the tomato. On the whole, all these elements married well to produce a fine, simple and rustic, dish.
The main were accompanied by an Apulian Passamente – another extraordinary wine. The colour was a dark plum red and the nose was fabulous – redolent of mature wood and smoke, old leather, armchairs and autumnal bonfires. The taste was superb on the sides and back of the tongue – the wine had a tremendous spiciness with black pepper, bites of chilli, and the warm notes of cloves and ginger; as well as a wonderful darkness and maturity. Yet despite the darkness of taste, it was not at all bitter and, indeed, had quite some sweetness on the front of the tongue. The prevalent fruits were dark bramble fruits – blackberries, blackcurrants and some plums; but these were over-ridden by woodland and spices. A gloriously warming, complex and utterly exquisite wine.
For dessert, a pistachio ice-cream was brought. There is no shade of a doubt in my mind that this was the most spectacular ice cream I have ever tasted (and very possibly ever will). It was absolutely, perfectly smooth – not a single ice-crystal in evidence, and tasted of pure cream. The pistachio element was completely unmistakable – very strong and intense, and deliciously so. It was served with extra virgin olive oil poured over it, which worked extremely well indeed, lending a grassy and extra nutty element to an ice-cream already more savoury than sweet.
It was accompanied by another Li Veli wine – the Aleatio Passite 2008 – which was a dark brown colour with a red tint, and a nose of pure, plump sultanas. The taste was high and slightly drier than the nose intimated but was nevertheless extremely intense, with a sharp burst of raisins and sultanas – although a sweet wine, this was far from being saccharine, and any sweetness was easily tempered and matched with acidity.
The service was not flawless – we encountered a fussy episode where a waiter took it upon himself to rearrange our table – including the plates we were eating off and glasses we were drinking out of – while we were actually still eating (this also included moving the candles back into Tristan’s reach which we had carefully removed from his grasp) – and some requested extra bread did not materialise. But, these two minor gripes aside, the service was very good – the waiters were wonderful with Tristan, ruffling his hair and talking to him; while they frequently checked that we were happy with everything, and food appeared and plates were removed reasonably swiftly.
There were only two drawbacks to our meal at Li Veli – the cold draught that whistled over my left shoulder; and the music – which varied from the inoffensive and enjoyable (jazz and traditional Italian music) through to the less acceptable very loud popular music. These, however, were small prices to pay for what was otherwise a rather extraordinary meal with some spectacularly good – and extremely unusual – wines, and some superb food. It should be noted that Li Veli also has a shop selling its wine (I availed myself of the opportunity to purchase several bottles). I urge you to go – for the wonderful wines and that pistachio ice cream if nothing else!