The Woodhead Restaurant Group know a thing or two about feeding people. These are the guys that run the peerless Quality Chop House for crying out loud. But whilst their restaurants have generally impressed, we were less keen on Clipstone on our visit about 18 months ago, mostly due to the exorbitant mark-ups and general cacophony rather than the actual food. So it was with some trepidation that I approached their new Italian venture Emilia, snuggled in a blink-and-you-miss-it cul-de-sac owned by Bonhams. Could this be as wonderful as The Quality Chop House or be another blip in their portfolio?
Like job interviews, you can usually get a fairly good sense of how your restaurant experience will play out within the first 5 minutes. Actually, you can go further back: to the conception, the wink in the milkman’s eye, when you book. There’s often a direct correlation between an anally-retentive booking process and uptight service – many times I’ve been disappointed by service throughout a meal when the warning signs were already there before I’d even booked. Restaurants that require you to book on the phone at a certain time of the day and sign a form of prenuptial can, quite frankly, go and do one.
I mention this only because at Emilia they’ve got this pre-meal experience just right. For context, I was running really late for my reservation. I called ahead saying I would be 15 minutes late, fearing that I’d arrive just after the industry-standard grace period for no-shows (always worth calling ahead anyway). The maitre d’ on the phone said “ooh, I’ll have to just check the kitchen will still be open.” I turned up, out of breath, and in fact 25 minutes late. I accepted it was probably too late to eat so I said I’d just a neck a Negroni and be on my merry way. “Oh don’t worry about that,” said the young restaurant manager. “We can keep the kitchen open just a little bit longer.”
Discretion. I like that. A massive box ticked.
And for the reasons I’m about to give, I’m glad they didn’t turn me away. Starting with their Negroni, made with Amaro instead of Campari, it had an interesting, herbaceous edge. After a very quick scan of the menu, conscious the kitchen were now in overtime, some focaccia, a little onion tart and chunks of parmesan (à la Ciao Bella) arrived, perfectly complementing my aperitivo. The focaccia was almost like an olive oil cake, pretty much drenched in the stuff. The focaccia at Noble Rot is still the best in town but this came pretty damn close.
the food from this magnificent part of Italy is served with the dexterity, love and grace it deserves
I ordered my dishes as quickly as possible and then took in my surroundings. In stark contrast to the current fashion for in-your-face kitsch maximalism (as per Circolo Popolare or Gloria), the guys behind Emilia have gone for a sedate, early noughties minimalism, with white tablecloths set against white and salmon-pink walls and a grey, shaded courtyard for al fresco dining in the summer. It’s a look and feel which verges on the corporate and doesn’t exactly evoke the restaurant’s namesake region.
So it’s important that the food itself whisks you away to this most important area of Italy – commonly referred to as the “gastronomic capital” of Italy (an expression which, if we’re being pedantic, is a bit of a misnomer since “Italian food” is so regional).
Then the starter arrived. A very simple dish of white peach, burrata, olive oil, a crack of pepper, rocket and basil. At first it seemed like something a home cook would rustle up for a middle class dinner party rather than a restaurant dish you would pay £12 for. Indeed, it’s a fair bit of money for an assemblage of ingredients but the skill here is in the presentation, selection and understanding of how those components work. It was fresh, light and delicious. From a similar ‘assemblage’ school came their cured meat selection – even if there’s no cooking involved, if you’re partial to a bit of ham you can’t turn down the opportunity to have some mortadella from Bologna. Thank God you can eat this in London.
Next up, and appropriate for the restaurant’s address, the venison ragu pappardelle. This was everything I was expecting and more: silky-smooth eggy pasta, and that slow-cooked gelatinous ragu, with whole toasted peppercorns to provide the occasional burst of heat. Pasta should always be a vehicle for a good sauce and this sauce was, in a word, epic. Not the prettiest plate mind, but does it have to be? Decorated with strands of parmesan as thin as angel hair, I still dream about it now, even if the £23 price tag stung a little.
Chicken tortelloni in brodo – another Bolognese classic – was also perfectly executed, whilst the tagliatelle with rabbit, rosemary and garlic was equally wonderful. There wasn’t a single dud dish.
Objectively speaking the desserts seemed a bit of a let-down. The list available, at least on this visit, was as short as Danny DeVito. But after a massive carb hit who really wants anything stodgy or heavy? Italian meringue with vanilla cream, peaches (again) and rose water rounded things off nicely.
They may not being doing anything bold or new at Emilia – indeed, it strikes me as quite careful, considered and conservative – but the food from this magnificent part of Italy is served with the dexterity, love and grace it deserves. None of it is cheap though. I suppose this is to be expected for the postcode but sadly they’ve been tempted by sister restaurant’s Clipstone’s desire for heavy mark ups. It may need a bit of saving up for a return visit but I hope to be back again very soon.
7 Haunch of Venison Yard
by J A Smith