Orso – Covent Garden
I’m not much of a theatre goer – I wish I were, I’d be eating out in the West End more – but there’s warmth and security at home, and a half-decent bunch of dramas on the Beeb. I did have dinner at Orso the other week though, a classic and oddly attractive Italian restaurant in Covent Garden. The elegance of the surroundings are continued inside where a staircase leads down to the dining room in which old black and white photographs of stage and screen stars adorn the walls. There is an air of sophistication to the interior and a bustle in mid-week with almost every table occupied and waiters busying themselves with plates and wines.
As for the menu, it’s country Italian cuisine. Tremendous dishes such as roast halibut with braised fennel or venison steaks with cranberries and roast potatoes. The indigenous wine list is outstanding: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, and Dolcetto – all very well chosen and highly complimentary of the food on offer, as expected from the fashionable Maccaroni’s[*].
Currently there are special deals available in an attempt to maintain the good custom and hammer the recession. The Pre-Theatre Option of two-courses for £16 and three-courses for £18 is well priced, plus there’s the Weekend Brunch Special of two-courses for £18.50 and three-courses for £20.50 (includes a Bloody Mary, Bellini or glass of Prosecco).
I took my good friend Truffles and we ordered from the Theatre Menu. For starters, we shared parmesan-breaded sardine fillets with lemon zest and herbs, which was light and zingy. My main of fish stew with tiger prawns, monkfish, calamari, wild mussels, white beans and herbs though packed full of fish oils and Omega 3, was boggy and deep. Truffles too noticed the watery consistency of the soup. Her crispy pork with sage potatoes and applesauce was a simple design and seemed far more of an English tradition than Italian, tasting rich and oh so importantly, fatty underneath the crackling. Her plate was cold on arrival and this surely cooled the food from kitchen to table and as such, throughout the meal.
The staff were overall friendly and the young, Italian waiter who served us seemed to fit perfectly into the authentic setting. And speaking of settings, I really didn’t mind the basement hideaway, as I thought I would. It lacked the buzz from outside and the lack of windows denied any view of colourful Covent Garden, the Lyceum or indeed, the neighbouring Christopher’s, but you can feel relaxed inside and the minimal street entrance makes it feel esoteric.
Dessert consisted of orange and mascarpone cheesecake with marinated plums. I adore cheesecake, but not as it turns out, marinated plums. The mascarpone was strong and gloopy, famed for its use on dishes in the Lombardy region (thanks Google). The sorbet arrived in a melted hodgepodge. The mint and berry overlapping into the bitter lemon and served in diminutive portions, perhaps expected from the economical menu?
It wasn’t the best Italian food I’ve tasted, nor necessarily the most welcoming of settings, yet there was care and a genuine spill of attention and hospitality from the staff. And for the most part the food is true to the famed rusticity of Italian country cooking.
[*] A “macaroni” (or formerly “maccaroni” (OED) in mid-18th-century England), was a fashionable fellow who dressed and spoke in an outlandishly affected and epicene manner. The term pejoratively referred to a man who “exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion”in terms of clothes, fastidious eating and gambling.