‘Va Bene’…….roughly translated means, ‘ok’. Somehow this seems a very inappropriate name for this Italian restaurant, as it’s far more than ‘ok’. I rocked up on a rainy day; chucking it down it was. The kind of weather that makes you stay at home. Oh boy, am I glad I didn’t. Once I got settled in, downstairs in their cosy and almost cave-like basement, I forgot very quickly about the weather. And when I glanced at the menu that Exec Chef and Patron, Philippe Seiler had created for us, and I'd tasted the Pinot Grigio, I was enormously grateful to have been invited.
Va Bene in Brewer Street, Soho (near Piccadilly) is just down the road from another of my favourite restaurants, Randall & Aubin. It’s a completely different vibe there of course, more uber cool and casual, with a chic Parisienne vibe, which seems, in some ways, more suited to this area. But in its typicality, Va Bene offers what people fundamentally love about Italian dining – charm, character and warm hospitality – so this place works well here and the number of customers on that wet, miserable day kinda proved that. I prepared myself for the feast ahead. Good god, it’s been a long time since I managed 7 courses at lunch, but I managed it. This is why.
A classic selection of antipasti was served in ‘tapas’ dishes on a raised wooden bridge, lengthways down the table. What a clever idea. The space on the table wasn’t compromised and the aromas of the food met the nose without even a tilt of the head! The chicken livers with little pieces of poached pear and a rich balsamic glaze were sublime. The calamari was light and crisp; delicate slices of Parma ham were perfectly sweet and well-aged; vibrantly green, gob-stopper olives tasted freshly picked and the smoky, char-grilled bruschetta was topped with garlic and tomatoes and drizzled in a rich, virgin olive oil. We could have stopped there; it was enough food for lunch. But we didn’t. Next came smoked salmon with crab, celeriac & beetroot salad - fine flavours that worked effortlessly together. The salmon had a wonderfully firm, clean texture which made me think it must be wild, not farmed.
Next up, two delightful little cappuccino soups – forest mushroom with truffle oil, followed by lobster & tomato bisque. Wow, big pungent aromas from the truffle oil, and intense flavours from the bisque. The sautéed scallop parcel with fennel, lollo rosso and white wine was very enjoyable but not overly remarkable. Homemade pasta with a rich, porcini, prawn and speck sauce gave this tasting menu back its oomph. Flavours to knock your socks off; or, give you chronic indigestion if you over-did-it. The momentarily unwanted grilled lamb cutlets were succulent, tender and cooked to perfection. In the aubergine and lentil accompaniment was where Patron Philippe’s experiences and influences were evident. The use of cumin was very apparent but it didn’t overpower or camouflage any of the ingredients; it merely gave them that punchy lift they deserved.
Finally, a selection of desserts. The obvious ones were there like tiramisu - not the best I’ve had, more coffee soaked sponge needed - and pannacotta – not the best consistency, a little heavy on the gelatine it seemed. But it was the chocolate fondant that got everybody talking. A pudding as light as my daughter’s lashes, encasing that rich, chocolaty, goey warmth that flows with a gentle prod! The last time I had one this good was at Il Convivio in Belgravia. Their German chef, Lucas Pfaff, cooks some of the most inspiring Italian food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. And here at Va Bene, this Swiss-French chef is setting some pretty high standards too.
Valentine’s Weekend Tasting Menu – 6 courses only £48.00 per person. If my meal was anything to go by, this represents amazing value and it would make a lovely choice for a romantic night out.