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Al Dente

 A trip to London Heathrow turned out really worthwhile

Acting on a tip off, we drove out to Heathrow to investigate reports from usually reliable sources that there was an Italian Restaurant worth a visit in one of the airport's satellite hotels, namely the Sheraton Skyline. This brought back long buried memories of a mis-spent youth. It used to be the thing to drive out to the airport for breakfast after a party or a ball. God knows who did the actual driving, someone who'd drawn the short straw, as the back seat was where the action was. This was in the days before breathalysers I hasten to add. 

This time we arrived more sedately, having found the hotel easily, (it's on the A4 Bath Road, nearly opposite the airport entrance). Upon entering, we were fairly gob smacked by the vast central atrium, decked with huge real trees, with a swimming pool in the middle. Cancel the trip to Marbella, you might as well stay put here. 

The Al Dente restaurant itself is pleasant enough, certainly very comfortable, the decor perhaps not entirely shaken free of the safe hand of corporate hospitality. But I liked the rustic terracotta place settings, and the pestle and mortar coarse salt and pepper set on each table. There were  welcoming samples of homemade light-as-a-feather ciabatta bread with aged Balsamic vinegar, strictly from Modena, accompanied by dipping olive oil, generous chunks of parmigiano reggiano from a whole cheese, and cured Parma ham.

The kitchen is under the very experienced direction of Marco Di Tullio, a Piedmontese, who has created some very modern Italian dishes, several of which exemplify quite admirably the current trend of presenting the main ingredient in a number of variations.  I began with an antipasto dish of three variations on the theme of tomatoes (pictured right). There were little bruschetta boats topped with tomato concasse, a bowl of intensely flavoured tomato soup, and a spoonful of delicious tomato sorbet - I could have done with more of that please, perhaps at the expense of a few spoonfuls of the excellent soup! My wife had the salad of roast quail, which had more than a touch of the Marco Polo, having been cured in honey and ginger and coated in sesame seeds. It was a deft and delicious fusion of Italian and oriental styles.

We had to try some pasta and risotto as they are so central to Italian cooking. An open raviolo with scallops and sundried tomatoes was received rapturously - from my small sample I could appreciate both the flavours of the fish, and also of the pasta itself, but being a fussy critic I'd have liked the pasta thinner - it was just a bit too like lasagne noodles. The risotto was another triple variation - a traditional Milanese risotto yellow with saffron, a Tuscan version, green with rocket and topped with finely sliced duck breast, and a rich and shiny black risotto con seppie topped with calamari. This was a truly stunning dish, beautifully executed and presented.

For our secondi, we had seared seabass filets in a very generous portion, with leeks done two ways, the finely sliced and sautéed version, like "tobacco onion" was particularly appreciated. I had a quartet of arrangements based on duck. The breast was pan seared and pink, the leg like a miniature ossobuco minus the bone, and the liver on a neat oval of polenta. Bringing symmetry to this Zen-like presentation was another polenta raft covered in an exquisitely Italian version of ratatouille.  

The dessert list looked too tempting to refuse. I was told I had to complete my theme of variations by trying the trio of tiramisu. Actually, I'd have preferred one really good one, though it would have a pity to have missed the excellent coffee ice cream. But the dish of mixed summer berries, lightly gratinated in a marsala zabaglione was simply the best way to end what had been a delightful meal.

The wine list is a little strange - it needs to be more sharply disconnected from the rather institutional hotel list, but we enjoyed a fresh glass of Gavi di Gavi  and a very nice bottle of Barolo. But what contributed greatly to the enjoyment of the evening was the truly excellent service. The Italian waiters simply oozed charm, with a natural grace and not a hint of obsequiousness. 

If you find yourself stuck in the region of the airport, you could cheer yourselves up greatly with a visit to Al Dente. Antipasti and pasta £7 - £9; mains £18 - £24; Desserts £6 - £7 Lunch menu with several of the alc dishes two courses £19, three for £24

Clifford Mould June 2006

AL Dente Ristorante

Opening times daily:  Lunch: 12.00pm –  3.30pm / Dinner:   6.00pm – 10.45pm

Address: Sheraton Skyline Hotel Heathrow Airport, Bath Road Hayes UB3 5BP
Phone (44)(208) 7592535 Fax (44)(208) 7509150

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