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Time for another surge by Italian food? Union Street Café

Long, long ago the Spaghetti House chain of Italian Restaurants dished up spaghetti Bolognaise and “exotic” starters like avocado pears. We admired the straw-covered Chianti bottles and took them home to turn into chic table lights. Then, a quarter of a Century ago, a new restaurant called the River Café convinced London diners that Italian cooking could be both stylish and expensive. Then restaurants like Zafferano and Locanda Locatelli showcased Italian fine dining. Now there seems to be yet another surge in the fortunes of Italian food and the new Union Street Café is doing great business by the expedient of being just authentic enough and offering a slightly more formal dining experience than you’ll find when munching on cicchetti in ultra modern London Bàcaros.
The Union Street Café is the latest opening by Gordon Ramsay’s group, something of a behemoth with restaurants in the U.K., Europe, the USA, Japan, and Qatar. The Union Street venture means that he has a dozen restaurants in the U.K. alone. This organisation has gone from setting up a few eateries to becoming a very big business indeed. Power has devolved and the overall direction benefits from the steady hand of one time chef and now GRs M.D. - Stuart Gillies. The restaurant takes over the corner of Union Street and Great Suffolk. This is a strange neighbourhood: very handy for the City, and for the Borough, a modest shamble from Southwark Underground Station. With a few remaining warehouses and factories, you can imagine the developers glancing thoughtfully at the Shard and re-doubling their efforts. This patch is on the fast track to moving up.
The Café has the same “bare bones” industrial look as the Grain Store in King’s Cross (which shouldn’t be a great surprise once you learn that the same designer masterminded both).
There’s a lot of drinking room, a large dedicated bar downstairs and another in the restauranty bit upstairs. The dining area has a good feel to it and service is slick. The menu changes daily and manages to combine familiar favourites with quite a few less obvious regional dishes.
There are some star dishes in each section of the menu and head chef Davide Degiovanni relies on the finest ingredients rather than the most elaborate plating. “Culatello and gnocchi fritto - olive fritte” is notable – these fried gnocchi would make the journey to Southwark worthwhile on their own. There are stunning anchovies; spectacular mozzarella; beef with porcini and parmesan.
From the Primi – “rigatoni, venison, black cabbage and pecorino” and the “risotto, salsiccia and taleggio” tie for the top honours. There are five secondi – two fish, one octopus and two meats. The octopus comes with braised borlotti beans and Calabrian N’duja; there is a classic “saltimbocca di vitello, Marsala and fried zucchini”. The impression these dishes leave behind them is one of freshness, the kitchen allows the ingredients to speak for themselves and the flavours are well balanced and come through strongly.
The wine list provides scope for wild extravagance – a “Double magnum of Masseto, Tenuta del Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore, Tuscany 2002" is just £1500! – but there are a good many less demanding choices. As for the food the pricing seems very fair – Antipasti around £8; Primi £10/£14; Secondi around £16; Dolci around £6. Service is admirably sound. It is a pleasure to find that Italian cuisine still has a few twists and turns left to play.

Union Street Café, 47 Great Suffolk Street, London SE1 0BS (020 7592 7977)

Charles Campion - Monday 4th November 2013

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