Stephen Higginson found game on at a Sicilian newcomer in cool Camden
Caponata, 3-7 Delancy Street,
NW1 7NL. 020 7387 5959
Camden Town is a pretty cool area, what with the famous market and the music venues plus its position as a residential area of choice for creatives and the media set. Yet, until recently, it has not given birth to any destination restaurants. Gilgamesh and York & Albany have raised the bar in the last few years, but surprisingly Camden still trails behind, say, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch as a place to go to eat.
In consequence, the arrival of a classy looking newcomer is welcome news. Caponata has a promising profile – Italian with strong Sicilian leanings - it consists of a ground floor Osteria and bar with a crisp, smart first floor ‘ristorante’. But what is a real plus is that, with considerable architectural panache, the owners – two sisters and their husbands – have combined their love of both food and music by creating a purpose built music and arts space. Named The Forge, reflecting the fact that a blacksmiths workshop once stood on the spot. Rest assured, this is not a twee ‘themed’ space, it is just a name; the whole complex – restaurants and art space - is a brand new building, replacing a long established Camden eaterie – Café Delancy – which was three interlinked terraced houses.
We chose to eat in the intimate upstairs restaurant where the menu looked imaginative, and the ambiance is ‘casual chic’. The pale walls are strangely reminiscent of 1960s stripped pine, whilst the room is modernised by lots of crisp linen, good tableware, elegant dark seating and subtle subdued lighting. One side also overlooks the glazed courtyard area which will come into its own in summer.
There are half a dozen antipasti and pasta choices, and seven ‘secondi’ dishes – all unpretentiously but temptingly described. Artichoke tart with taleggio fondue (£8.50) and Tuna with a cumin and pistachio crust on a bed of rocket and crispy fennel with lime dressing (£9.50) were our antipasti choices. The first had a delicate flavour which was somewhat overcome by the pastry – good as that pastry was - and the more-ish fondue element was sadly in short supply, as was seasoning.As a result, ‘bland’ was the word which best describes the result.
The wonderfully tender Tuna was nicely complemented by the fennel with lime dressing and judged a success, but more could have been made of the wafer thin cumin and pistachio ‘crust’ without overpowering the fish; here its timid application made little impact.
We chose two Sicilian wines by the glass. A Mandrarossa 2008 Merlot with the tart ( £4.50 by the glass, £16 per bottle) was pleasantly rustic , and a robust white 2008 Fiano with the Tuna (£4.50 per glass, £18 for a bottle).
The pasta course was another game of two halves! Our choices were Ravioli filled with broccoli, dry currants and goats cheese on a pine nut cream. (£9), and Fettuccine with hare and crispy fennel ragout (£10). The ravioli was a beautifully flavourful assemblage, full of subtle contrasts which would also make an excellent main course ( £4 extra). The fettuccine was a disappointment. It suffered from a lack generosity - needing more hare than the sparse little pellets served, and
more fennel than the three or four small pieces atop the pasta. In short, the whole dish needed intensity. As the Americans might say –‘easy on the pasta, heavy on the hare’ please!
Time for the Secondi. I chose the grilled fillet of venison with braised turnip, Marsala poached pear and balsamic vinegar zabaglione. (£16). My colleague went very Sicilian with saddle of rabbit filled with black truffle, leg confit and sautéed chard (£16). We shared a side dish (all side dishes are £3) of green vegetables with garlic.
The so called ‘Big Plates’ on the menu are divided into lamb dishes and chicken dishes. From the 11 lamb dishes on offer we chose Adana Kofte Kebab (£7.25), and were not disappointed, although the other items were equally seductive; all costing less than £10
Both were very well conceived combinations. The rabbit was properly cooked, moist and made totally delicious by the truffle stuffing and the garlic tinged succulent chard. To go with this, our ever attentive but unobtrusive waiter suggested a glass of the fragrant, sophisticated 2008 La Sagreta Bianco - a blend of Grecanico, Chardonnay and Viognier.
The venison - medium to well done as requested - was very tender and surprisingly gently flavoured, and was superbly partnered by the clever balsamic zabaglione, the ‘just right’ sweet poached pear and the soft subtle turnips – a much under exploited root veg. It was my bad luck that this superbly authentic, carefully balanced dish was spoilt by being served tepid. I could have sent it back of course, but I am averse to warming up complex dishes; something always gets lost. A pity, but the sophisticated essence of this fine dish shone through.
The green vegetables – courgettes and beans - with garlic were perfectly cooked, but the garlic was too subtle for us – that is, it was almost non existent! I only half blame the chef. Even in these days of international travel, many UK restaurants find that they need to tone down the garlic and seasoning for British palates. Shame on us. As one of the charming and concerned managers - Gianluca Dimartino – confided, “ recently we have had complaints that we used too much garlic in the dish, so we reduced it!”.
The wine? I stayed with the rustic Sicilian Merlot; fine with the venison.
The dessert menu also limits itself to six options. How Sicilian these are I am unsure, but the home made gelati and sorbetti (£5) and the artisan cheeses with chutney and biscuits (£9) are a sure authentic bet! We chose Caramelised pear on almond shortbread, lavender sauce and camomile ice cream (£6) and Rice cream semifreddo with passion fruit ice cream (£6). The fate of both turned on the ice cream. In the first, the camomile subtlety was overpowered by the other elements, and in the second, the gorgeous passion fruit ice cream dominated the bland slice of rice cream, making the latter redundant!
My feeling is that Caponata is still settling in. Some dishes need balancing, and some need more courage. The basis is there for a really good experience, and the menu is one of those where you want to try everything! My colleague and I both had some previous experience of head chef Danilo Barbagallos skills. First, at the restaurants opening party ( canapés only) and, by chance, the place was chosen by my colleagues company for their Christmas lunch, after which the food
drew many favourable comments. So I shall return when their music programme gets started. I want to try that seared seabass, fennel gratin, anise sauce and parsnip crisps!
We went a la carte, but Caponata – named after a traditional Sicilian aubergine based dish – offers great value set menus, one course £9, two courses £15 and £21 for three. Brilliant – especially when you see the range of inventive choices available.
Caponata, 3-7 Delancy Street,
NW1 7NL. 020 7387 5959
Osteria: Monday – Saturday 9am -10.30 pm. Sunday 10am-10pm.
Restaurant: Monday – Saturday, lunch 12 -.3pm, dinner 6 – 10.30 pm. Sunday 1- 10pm.