Review: Zucco

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I’ve never been to Italy – I’ve never laid in a gondola, looking at the stars while a man serenades me with a song about Cornettos; never posed for a photograph that looks like I’m holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, with dozens around me attempting the same thing and looking like uncoordinated backing dancers in Soulja Boy’s Crank Dat video; I’ve never even done a third hypothetical Italian thing, because I haven’t been to Italy, like I said.

My knowledge of Italian food comes from three sources; a Penne recipe that my Mum got from a Sainsbury’s advert in 1992 – containing a tin of tomatoes and a Pepperami – Goodfellas frozen pizza, and Goodfellas by Martin Scorcese (if this film doesn’t subconsciously spring to mind every time you slice a clove of garlic, then you weren’t paying enough attention).  That’s why even with my firmest intentions, and the most enthused recommendations from friends who are really very good at eating well, it’s taken me absolutely ages to get round to visiting Zucco.

I know that there are good restaurants that serve authentic Italian food, but for every Tagliatelle like I ate here – light tasting, but flavoured boldly with mushrooms and white truffle oil – I’ve suffered through several impotent cannelloni and Carbonaras swathed in béchamel sauce, it’s enough to make a skeptic out of anybody, I’m sure you can empathise.  The appearance and ambience of Zucco does its best to assure you that it isn’t one of those places- no smoked-glass mirrors, wicker-clad Chianti bottles repurposed as candle-holders, or oil-drizzlers placed on checkered tablecloths; just elegant white enamel tiles and a lot of dark wood – it looked like the kind of place a stronzo like myself would wind up getting offed if I was in Boardwalk Empire.

The clean, minimal theme continued into the menus; single sheet placemats containing a list of todays dishes without much in the way of a description, so if you’re a pleb rather than a worldly, sophisticated food-blogger then you might have to ask what a Saltimbocca is, or how to tell your Arancina from your elbow-macaroni.  I was accompanied by my Fiance and Mum and it was my birthday, so I let them assume pleb-duties for the evening; asking what words meant while the charming and knowledgable owner explained, and I sat ears-pricked, swirling a Negroni and nodding knowingly.  There are few idioms I loathe more than “The awkward moment when…” but when the owner explains that the Polpette is his Nonna’s recipe meatball, and you’re really just not in the mood for a meatball, I felt totes #awks!!

Zucco Smoked Haddock and Clams

Not that I have a problem with Nonna’s cooking – especially if she inspired the Smoked Haddock and Scallops, with a cream sauce that I’d gladly have sucked out of an old bandage – it’s just that I didn’t see it as a dish which suited a meal of sharing-plates.  Neither though, was the Osso buco – a clenched giants-fist of Pork shin topped with a Mint Gremolata to complimented its texture, like that of slow-roasted Lamb.  So I shared it as little as possible.  Unlike many Sharing-plates restaurants, the dishes are brought out in an order which best suits the people eating them – novel – so the Pizzette with gorgonzola and spinach arrived first, along with a pretty hefty pile of Truffle Salami (a revelation!) Coppa (is this more truffle sala…Oh, no) and Cacciocavalo cheese (…perhaps there’s some more of that Truffle Salami under this cheese).  The Soft Shell crabs were served whole, and the amount of meat wasn’t really worth the effort of extracting it and looking like a grown man trying to assemble a kinder egg toy while wearing goalie gloves, but I’d like to keep a hipflask full of their accompanying tomatoey, umami broth in my pocket at all times from now on.

Zucco Pork Osso Buco

Even sharing between three – and despite the fact my capacity for storing food increases with each review I write – we only got to try ten plates from a menu from which I could have ordered twenty. While we chatted before ordering, the owner mentioned that “People often order too much because they expect tapas portions rather than starters and the chefs get upset.  I’d rather people wait and order it next time”.  Presumptuous, sure, but I think I’ll do just that.

Bill
Parmesan Flatbread £3.50
Spinach, Gorgonzola & Walnut Pizzette £5.95
Coppa, Truffle Salami & Caccio Cavalo Cheese £7.75
Smoked Haddock & Scallops £7.25
Soft Shell Crab & Clams £8.95
Parmesan Breaded Chicken Cotoletta £6.25
Pork Osso Buco £6.85
Tagliatelle al burro with Wild Mushrooms & White Truffle £5.85
Flash Fried Seasonal Vegetables £2.95
Stuffed Red Pepper with Anchovy, Capers & Breadcrumbs £5.95
Raspberry Bellini £4
Prosecco Cocktail £5
Aperol Spritz £5.50
Negroni £5.50
Total (inc Service) £90

Review: The Hungry Bear, Meanwood

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Meanwood has enjoyed something of a renaissance recently, the allure of being able to call Waitrose their local supermarket has seen young professionals flocking to the catchment area, and established bars have responded by opening Meanwood spin-offs such as Alfred and East of Arcadia.  Joining them is new indepedent restaurant The Hungry Bear – which coincidentally would also be my username on Grindr.

On arrival my initial reaction was that it didn’t feel like a restaurant – the layout; resourceful with its limited space, and the well-considered mismatch of decor gave the feeling of a supper club, and for some reason the prominence of slate made me think of a family run bistro in the Lake District.  I should point out that this is pretty unfounded though, I’ve only been to the Lake District once, and I was 6, so I was hardly taking notes on the use of the masonry in bistros at that age.

Having been disarmed by the appearance and atmosphere, the greeting was suitably relaxed and friendly; we’d only made our booking 30 minutes before turning up, so the waitress was anticipating our arrival and showed us to our table, and told us about the beers that they brew on site.If it hadn’t fallen victim to its own popularity and ended up stricken from the menu, I’d have loved to try their IPA, but due to the circumstances we shared a couple of bottles of their Fruit Ale (£7.50) between the table.

Rather than a Lambic – which can taste like a moderately alcoholic equivalent of getting Tango’d – there was just a hint of Blueberry and Morello Cherry, making it a much more suitable accompaniment to a meal.

Settling with a my drink, my attention was drawn to the music they were playing.  Off the top of my head we got to enjoy some unobtrusive-but recognisable-if-you-know-it songs by SBTRKT, Radiohead and Santigold.  Not a dealbreaker, but a pleasant bonus.  Along with the microbrewery and bear imagery, they’re well on their way to a full house in hipster bingo.

For all of the contemporary touches offered by The Bear’s other aspects, the menu relies on old classics, verging on the gastro-pub territory.  If you had to summarise the menu quickly – as I had to when I suggested going there to my girlfriend – you’d probably say it was British grub, done proper.  You’d also sound like a bit of a berk for straying so far into somebody else’s vernacular, as I did.

For my starter I had the Peruvian Fishcakes (£6.5) which was served with Cajun Lotus Root and an Avocado Salsa.  These were small and light and fried in what I imagine was polenta.  They were not overcooked, and each ingredient was distinguishable, I couldn’t tell what type of fish it was as I’m a fish novice, but it was flavourful enough to be distinguishable, but not in the sense that it was suspiciously fishy and a few days past best.  The cajun lotus root gave a nice contrast of texture, in the form of deep red shards scattered across the dish, like big bits of those posh Kettle chips made of beetroot.

My fellow diners didn’t really get the hang of the “order as much different stuff as possible and let me try it” policy I encourage when eating out with guests, and both ended up going for the Fig and Sun-dried Tomato Filo Tart (£6).  It arrived resembling more of a quiche than a tart – the fig and sun-dried tomatoes lay on a thick layer of airy-but-rich savoury custard flavoured with blue brie, and the eponymous filo pastry underneath – it wasn’t what any of us were expecting, but something as ambiguously named as a tart is open to interpretation, so we learned our lesson to ask questions about the menu in future.

The tart was perfectly pleasant, however one portion is two substantial slices, and would have been more than enough for two people.  Having been given a deliciously creamy pea & mint amuse bouche before the starter, it was clear that The Hungry Bear’s aim is to make sure they leave no man or woman so much as peckish after their meal.

I realised there was no danger of that as soon as my Confit and Fired Pork Belly (£11.9) arrived in front of me, served with kale, citrus and carrot puree and a red win jus – stacked onto the plate so that it towered over the table like one of the twig-sculptures from True Detective (topical!).

As you can imagine from a fatty cut of meat which has been boiled in more fat, it was very, very tender; falling apart under the most delicate of my knife’s incisions.  The meat to fat ratio was impressive, and it tasted as rich as you’d expect.  Then I tackled the crackling.

Until this point I’d only eaten the meat, leaving the spring vegetable fricasse to perform its job of springing the meat back up towards me, and so I chose kale as accompaniment to the first mouthful of crackling, to provide a fresh counterpoint to the crispy, chewy fat.  I was so naive.

After a couple of chews and the flavours started to harmonise, my girlfriend looked over and asked how it was.  All I could muster was a nod, and she told me that it looked like I was moving in slow motion.  I can only imagine I was trying to savour that perfect moment for as long as possible.  Apparently Darren Aronofsky is going to make a film about me chasing that unattainable high again, he’ll be able to use recycle the pupil-dilation close-up from Requiem for a Dream probably.

The crackling is very good.  Imagine a warm but brittle Wham bar made of pork fat, all sweet and caramel, able to withstand a little torsion before giving way and breaking, and then sticking to your teeth like slowly-dissolving barnacles.  The kale was steamed and buttered and enormously indulgent, a world away from what sensible people put in their juice detoxes.  Subsequent mouthfuls were good, but not up to the standard of that first one.

My girlfriend went for the 7oz Burger (£8.9) which was a really nice antidote to the slew of dirty burgers I’ve been eating for the past few months.  Served on a warm ciabatta and draped in maple glazed bacon, it tasted somewhat more savoury than anything I’ve eaten recently – there was an unfamiliar mix of herbs in the patty, along with diced white onion for texture.  Not what I’d personally go for when designing my ideal burger, but perfectly in fitting with its surroundings.

The stack of chips it came with resembled short and stocky Jenga set.  They were very evenly cooked considering their girth but I’d have liked them crispier – they did a great job of absorbing my leftover jus though.

After the mains we were too full to consider desert of the cheese board, so I never did get to try a caramel-roasted bourbon fig.  Luckily though I’ll be visiting The Hungry Bear again – not only on the merits of the food, but also the atmosphere and service; we were the last people in the restaurant and not once did we feel rushed.  The waitresses didn’t even do the trick of walking past every 30 seconds to make sure we knew they were there if we needed the bill.

Speaking of which, the bill came to £75 for three people, including starters, mains, a side, drinks and service.  Amazing value for money for this much food of this high quality.