Epicurean Expeditions with Em Marshall-Luck
Orso, Covent Garden, London
Orso boasts an extremely convenient location just down the road from the Royal Opera House – perfect for that pre- or post- (or even mid-, depending on the composer) opera meal; its whereabouts are not immediately obvious, however, due to a frontage that is fairly discreet. The rather modern appearance of the signage belies the warm, traditional Italian restaurant that will be found a short flight of steps below the entrance. In deference to the surrounding theatres, Orso has stagey elements – lighted steps reminiscent of a cinema and a little cubby hole akin to an old-fashioned box office, while numerous black and white photos of divas, actors and singers from stage and screen line the walls. The colour scheme is a warm orangey yellow on the upper walls and a duck egg blue on the wainscoting, which follows the walls round and also surrounds the bar – some similar coloured tiles adorn the pillars which separate the initial room we were seated in from further rooms beyond. There are rather ornate metal bar stools, and a wooden floor (marble in the entrance – this and the kicking-board around the bar counter recall Shropshire Blue cheese in their marbled rich orange-yellow and blue-black colours); lighting is provided by dim wall-lamps and slightly odd matching lampshades hanging from the rather pedestrian ceiling. This is lined with acoustic tiles (one suspects that this was a condition of the granting of planning permission in order to reduce to a minimum the sound leakage to the premises immediately above.) The tables are dressed in white linen – both tablecloths and napkins, with small candles and appropriate glasses and cutlery.
The welcome is warm; I felt very well looked after even with the restaurant as packed as it was (people who hadn’t pre-booked were being turned away at the door). The only two negative points we encountered at the outset were the chill blasts that reached us, seated as we were near the bottom of the steps from the door opening and closing above, and the gentlemen’s toilets, whose dustbins were overflowing, and the dim lighting which did not facilitate the changing of a baby!
Appetisers were brought swiftly – alarmingly large plates of very moreish battered courgettes and flatbreads, along with olives. These immediately impressed – the courgettes were nicely salted – just the right amount to lend further taste but not dominate, while the actual courgettes themselves were definitely determinable and very pleasant, while the flatbreads (the garlic one in particular) were absolutely delicious; the olives were sweetly flavoured, lightly oiled but not greasy.
The menu offers a reasonably small selection of dishes per course, but a large number of courses, if one counts appetisers and pasta / risotto dishes as extra courses! There were a number of tempting plates on offer, and at fairly reasonably prices, especially for Covent Garden.
We asked for a wine recommendation and were brought two wines to taste, both of which were rather wonderful and fully fitted the description I had given. Of these, we decided to go for the Appassimento 2013 from Casa Vinironia in the Venetian countryside, which is made using a traditional method whereby grapes are left on the vines during the autumn to gain extra fullness. It was a deep purple colour, with a full and intense nose of black berry fruits – cassis but bramble fruits also, along with hints of tar. It offered a surprisingly sweet foretaste, which then cross-faded into very full black fruits – again cassis and blackberry, but also sweeter fruits such as plums. With its deep and intense taste, slightly ashy dryness and retiring hint of liquorice in nose and flavour, it was a very satisfying wine overall and I was pleased with the recommendation.
The starters arrived as soon as it was clear that we were slowing with the flatbreads and courgettes (though I could easily have gone on nibbling at them all evening). My insalata di bufala was excellent – the mozzarella very fresh and gloriously creamy; accompanied by rocket and cherry tomatoes. My husband’s pizetti’s base was nice and crisp although possibly a little on the tough side, while the prosciutto had a good depth of flavour and the rocket was fresh and just crisp enough. He thought it a generous portion, making an ample but very pleasant starter.
The sea bass which I had ordered as my main course was, on the other hand, not a particularly large portion – which at first pleased me but I actually found on fairly easily clearing my plate that I could have done with a slightly larger sized fish! At first I found the taste slightly flat but as the meal progressed I found myself increasingly satisfied by it, with its slightly crunchy and salted exterior. Tristan absolutely adored it and wolfed it down in a way that I would never have expected from a nine-month old baby – high praise indeed (and of course this might also have had something to do with my wish for a larger portion)! It was accompanied by a mixture of new potatoes, slightly al dente green beans, very intensely flavoured and sweet roasted tomatoes and black olives.
Mr Marshall-Luck’s pork was slightly blander than he would have liked; but very tender with good crisp crackling that demanded savagery to eat it properly (cutting with a knife and fork well nigh impossible!); the accompanying roast potatoes were good – crunchy on the outside, melting tenderness on the inside, with a full flavour. The cabbage with carrot was surprisingly sweet and worked well with the pork, and especially with the gravy, which was very dark and rich and intensely flavoured. On the whole, we both very much enjoyed our main courses (as did the baby).
The dessert choices were quite tantalising – as was the selection of dessert wines and grappas. I am inherently incapable of resisting ice wines, so went for a glass of this on spotting it on the menu. It was sharper than I expected, with an intense nose of honeyed grapefruit, and a taste that combined a dark honey with predominantly citrus flavours. The highly chilled serving was good, as it suited the wine.
Our desserts themselves (once we had managed to make a decision) were absolutely spectacular. The flourless chocolate torte was rich, very dark and intense, gloriously moist, superbly light and very worryingly moreish. It was presented alongside kumquats and mascarpone, which worked extremely well with the cake. My tiramisu, meanwhile, was extravagantly creamy; served in a glass, with the spongy layer at the bottom and topped with rich, thick and sweet mascarpone, it worked very well indeed.
This is most certainly a restaurant that I look forward to returning to on our next visit to the Royal Opera House or local concert, and is one that I can heartily recommend to others.