"This is like a real Italian meal. A bit of everything, wine flowing with people seating round a table, just chatting and enjoying their food," Stefano Fraquelli, the founder of Metropolitan Restaurants, exclaimed. He then turned round and gave me a pat on the shoulder, "another glass of the best red wine ever?". That basically summed up the meal we shared with Kerstin (The English Can Cook), Helen (Food Stories), Chris (Cheese and Biscuits), Rejina (Gastrogeek) and Alix on a barge that was going up and down from Little Venice to Camden Town.
I did my bit of research before turning up that chilly evening. "What's assaggini?" I asked an Italian colleague whom I relied on whenever I need a reliable recipe for likes of tiramisu or carbonara. "Well, call it the Italian tapas if you will," she explained, "it's not exactly traditional but has become somewhat popular in northern Italy." Armed with that bit of knowledge and my trusty camera, I poked my head into the cosy barge just before the first rain drops hit.
Apart from being offered a sandwich on a dodgy river boat while cruising along Chao Phraya when I was in Bangkok years ago (which each bite was taken in trepidation in full anticipation that it would be drug laced), I've never really dined on a boat before. It was much cosier than expected and perhaps for the same reason, the atmosphere round the table was jollier as well.
Assaggetti, the newest restaurant under Metropolitan Restaurants will be open for business in end June at Haymarket. I wouldn't blame you if that sets off any alarm bells for as the conventional wisdom goes, restaurants along that particular stretch are tourist traps at best. But from what we were fed on the barge that evening, Assaggettimight just buck the trend.
Pugliese olives (£1.20), known for their size and intense colour were laid invitingly on the table when we arrived. "Something to drink?" Andrea Fraquelli, who's Stefano's son and manages the restaurants, stepped out from the barge's kitchen. Upon hearing that I would prefer something light, he poured me a glass of aperol. According to him, the light liqueur (11%) counts among one of Italians' favourite. But one thing I know for sure, it does go down well with the olives.
We were warned that due to obvious limitation at the kitchen onboard, we would only be served cold dishes. Gaspacho (£2.50), a cold tomato-based, raw vegetable soup was up next. It is a curious concoction - cold tomato soup with a generous sprinkle of olive oil and a dash of tabasco. It has got this palate cleansing effect and left me a bit hungrier as I lapped it all up.
As a kid, I love my tuna sandwiches. It does seem a tad odd now but I recall stocking up cans and cans of tuna for breakfast during my army days. Even till this day, I've got a soft spot for salt water fish. That's probably the reason why I love the stuffed artichokes and peppers (£2.50). The artichokes and peppers are boiled in vinegar till al dente before being stuffed with tuna (oh, yes!) and then marinated with virgin olive oil to give it a polished taste. This is one of those things that you should finish in a single mouthful each. It is that satisfying.
Tuscan ham, salami and parmigiano reggiano was up next. Served on one of those fashionable wooden platter with a dribble of truffle honey, it was a delectable bite. Interestingly, Tuscan ham is a combination of pork and wild boar, combining the meatiness of the former and the texture of the latter, it also come heavily spiced.
The vitello tonnato (£9) or sliced veal come with a thin layer of creamy sauce infused with tuna, olive oil and a whole host of other seasonings including egg yolks, anchovies, cayenne pepper, lemon and capers. Unlike the dry slices that you would normal expect, you could easily twirl a huge chunk round a fork before downing it. Another nicely done dish.
The squid and mango salad (£3.50) was an apt refresher after a bout of anchovies (£2.50) marinated with garlic, chilli and Tuscan olive oil.
Burrata was evidently the favourite among those present. Andrea pointed out that it is imported directly from Italy and had to be placed under careful storage to maintain its texture. Simply perched on a slice of cherry tomato, you could taste the subtle freshness of the mozzarella and cream.
Beef carpaccio is another curious one. Perhaps the closest cousin would be the steak tartare.The beef carpaccio is less fine and held together by olive oil infused with truffle with a spot of parmesan cheese. Not exactly for those who are adverse to raw meat but I must say that the truffles makes it much better. This one is an acquired taste.
I have come across quite a bit of tiramisu of late. Some so hard that they can be mistaken for the common sponge cake, some could hardly qualify as a "pick me up" as they collapsed into a heap and others hard so much cocoa powder sprinkled over them that could trigger a whopping cough. Assaggetti's tiramisu (£2.50) is definitely one of the better ones. The best thing is that it is served in a small cookie jar. Now that would make a good conversation piece.
To wind down the meal, we were served wild berry panna cotta (£2.50). It is said that panna cotta or Italian cooked cream originates from northern Italy. But regardless of where it comes from, the cream, which is eaten with wild berries, caramel, chocolate sauce or fruit coulis, are apparently enjoyed by Italians all over. Even without the berries, I enjoyed the light subtly sweet milky taste.
Lovely company, fabulous food, on a barge along Regents Canal no less. The constant pitter pattering of the raindrops hardly dented the atmosphere. I am looking forward to the Assaggetti's opening.
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