The Moody Foodie Visits... Tavola at Spring, Somerset House
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
Vibe: A once-in-a-month peek at how the WC2 half live
Theme: Just like your mamma used to make...if she lived on a mountainside in Tuscany and ran a series of high-class sustainable restaurants
Cost: £128.13 for two, including 2 x three course set menu, focaccia, a bottle of rosé, two liqueurs and a donation to StreetSmart
Find it: Somerset House, yes - that one.
I have a dark, dirty confession to make. And what better way to kick off a public blog, so here we go....
I don't like focaccia.
Controversial, I know, but only because focaccia as a "treat" has been drilled into us, from the times when it was the natural side dish to a sloppy high street lasagne, to the long days of quarantine when the best thrill a girl could get was sitting next to her own oily, chewy bread and lining up spinach and asparagus into a dubious forest and calling it "focaccia art". But we're neither 12 years old anymore, nor struggling through the dark weeks of 2020 with naff all to do (unless you are me, at this very moment, isolating...). And I am happy to admit on a public platform that focaccia has never cut it for me.
It is greasy, but dry. It is tough, but turns to mush in your mouth, peppered with dry flavourless rosemary leaves that get stuck in your teeth. It has dimples that in most circumstances only allow oil to pool. It smells far better than it tastes.
Skye Gyngell, the chef behind Tavola at the usually very expensive Spring, Somerset House (and Petersham Nurseries and queen of various waste-free, cool sustainability projects), has proven me wrong.
Her focaccia, coming in at ONE POUND per plate, is a thing of beauty. Her focaccia is a loveseat over a garden, an eiderdown, a set of just-washed bed linen. Her focaccia melts between the teeth but offers the teasing challenge of a bite. Her focaccia does not taste of oil, but rather gentle yeasty rises and the faintest whispers of olive skins. Her focaccia, in short, changed my mind.
And while I'm setting myself up as a Scrooge, I'd also like to put my foot down and say there are too many Italian restaurants already in London and there are certainly too many Italian restaurants doing it badly. It is a cuisine that rests on simplicity, and sunshine, but so often it is transcribed through canned tomatoes and dried parsley.
But the food of Tavola? Well, this is as close to simplicity and sunshine as you will get in London. This is home food, heart food. This is the food you think you might have had in Italy. This is as close to how you want the ingredients to taste as you might ever get.
Take, for example, the Caprese salad. A familiar dish. But Gyngell's Caprese salad is subtle, delicate. No room here for watery tomatoes, acrid mozzarella and the slamdunk of a vivid green pesto. Instead we have plump tomatoes you believe might have lived not long ago, and a gentle, basil flecked, totally non-pungent olive oil teasing the flavour out of a milky cheese. Sunshine.
Then match that with the panisse and San Daniele parma ham - fried (but not oily) chickpea sticks that crumble enticingly into wafers of salty fatty porkiness. Simplicity.
Follow that up with a silky, yolk-stained pappardelle in the porkiest and winiest of ragus, spiked with fennel and punchy and refined in equal parts - the pasta we think we can make at home and never do.
Challenge it with a meaty, tannin-ed cuttlefish, with a bright yellow aioli fresh from the whisk, chickpeas with bite and a sloppy tomato goodness to be scooped with whatever remnants of the focaccia you managed not to eat earlier. All with a tart salsa verde tying it together like car horns in Naples.
And don't even think of ignoring a side dish of earthy green Swiss chard, flecked with lemon zest and chilli and bathed in that sensual, subtle olive oil they do so well.
We follow it up with a melon sorbet and a strawberry tiramisu ice cream that is not like all the other the strawberry ice creams I've known. This is a genuine strawberry ice cream that has met actual strawberries, and as the weakest dish on the menu - the chocolate makes it a little grainy and the sponge finger is a bit much - still impresses with its respect for the produce.
All polished off with a slug of blood orange liqueur and a slurp of sweet cicely liqueur, that my dinner companion grinningly described as "posh sambuca". God yes, in the best way.
Spring is housed in a swanky, airy dining room in Somerset House where for once in a London July you might stop sweating and you will be served by gentle waiters in Breton tops who give you the space to talk. Spring is usually quite costly but runs the Tavola menu on the first Saturday of each month, for £30 per person. If you can't tell from the above, I recommend it.
Rating: 8.5/10. I have gushed enough above. Oh, and they give you a bowl of crayons to draw on the tablecloth.