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Carluccio's - the Empire grows...

Veni Vidi Vici - Esher is conquered!

I can't believe that it was back in 1991 that we reviewed the then new Carluccio's Caffe in Kingston. We went back several times with friends when we wanted a little touch of Italy without a wallet battering, but since 1993 we've had other places to go. Meanwhile this little empire has continued to grow, and now sedate Esher has fallen to this chubby, genial Caesar. In fact, thinking about it, what the Roman Empire had was a brand, which it promulgated all over its fiefdom with great attention to detail. That's what Antonio Carluccio and his team of generals seem able to do. 


From Esher to Canary Wharf, from Tunbridge Wells to Reading, you know with confidence that there will be a bright buzzy atmosphere, keen staff, imaginatively sourced fresh antipasti, home made pasta, modest but tasty main dishes and some excellent puddings. I asked our bubbly waitress at Esher what training they had received before the opening last month. She said that they had had two weeks of intensive training during which they had not only learned how to wait at table, but had sampled all the dishes and many of the wines. I was impressed - she could explain dishes to customers with confidence and it showed.  Incidentally you can read about training opportunities and the cook's school on their website.

On this occasion we decided not to kick off with the bread selection, served warm in a baking tin, because it's so more-ish that you simply have to have a second, and then you've no room for puds. Instead we had the big antipasto plate for two (£9.95), whose Milanese and Neapolitan salamis vied with which other, contrasting with two different hams and garnished with al manner of beans, olives, sundried tomatoes and more. My only gripe was that for a dish made for two, why have three pieces of everything? Go on Antonio, be even more generous and give two slices each!

We next shared a starter portion of spinach and ricotta ravioli because I was determined to try the freshly made pasta. It was pretty good, the pasta excellent in texture, and the filling and buttery sauce delicately flavoured and quite classical in its restraint. I'd love to try a shellfish version, or with autumn fast approaching, a fungal variant, for which Carluccio is justifiably famous.

A main course of fresh swordfish coated in a parmesan and and parsley crumb came with a delicious aubergine stew and was heartily recommended. My grilled lamb was good but unexceptional and needed its extra side of potatoes. Puddings, I imagine, are shipped in from Carluccio's kitchens, but are none the worse for that, better probably. My lemon tart was stunning - creamy and intensely citrus with lovely crunchy pastry.  The good news is that you can buy just about everything that's on the menu in the attractive front of house shop that's a feature of the brand. 

Our three course meal for two including wine and and an excellent cup of espresso came to a little less than £50 for the two of us. In my opinion Antonio really is succeeding in bringing a very affordable taste of Italy to the South East of England. You can see if there's a corner of Italy near you by looking at Carluccio's website where current menus are viewable.

Clifford Mould, September 2005

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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