Restaurant review: Luigis, Finchley Road
PUBLISHED: 06:59 23 October 2014
I've just been thrown out of a NW3 restaurant. Never happened before. The whole story might be seen to be really rather amusing, in one way, though also it served as a masterclass in how not to run a restaurant, while wilfully alienating a reviewer. I am not now talking about Luigi's, as the strapline atop this piece might have led you to believe: Luigi's, that came later.
No, I am talking about another tiny Italian restaurant further up the Finchley Road: La Voss, on the site of the old Thai Pepper and opposite the Odeon. It says on their website: ‘‘a warm welcome awaits you at the new family run restaurant in the heart of Swiss Cottage’ – which didn’t prepare my wife and myself for the unsmiling and rather imperious waitress at the door. The place is extremely small and has been tricked out quickly and cheaply: laminate flooring, a couple of they’ll-do mirrors and undoubtedly the most severely upright and uncomfortable chairs I have ever encountered in a restaurant – and I have encountered many, very many, uncomfortable chairs in restaurants. The music was loud, and bad; the menu a succession of sticky plastic-covered pages. My wife said “shall we leave now …?” Well yes, any sane person would have … but it was evening, I needed a review, it was drizzling, and Jesus – it’s not as if we were in Soho, or anything: this is the Finchley Road, for God’s sake: where are you going to go?
So we stayed … though not, as things turned out, for very long at all. I was busy doing what I always do – glancing about me, jotting down odds and ends from the menu: you’ve read my reviews – you know how they go. A tall and foreign (not Italian) fellow in a velvet jacket approached the table: “I see what you are doing,” he said. “Maybe you are writing about the restaurant …? I am the owner. I would be pleased to answer any questions, and to show you around – there is more downstairs”. I thanked him, noncommittally. I ordered a bottle of red, continued making notes … and that is the point when our hitherto genial mine host would appear to have lost his mind. “Excuse me,” he said – for he was back, and glitteringly, dangerously polite – “but you can’t write down my prices. Not without permission”. No honestly: he really did say that. The only other time I have been confronted with such wrong-headed and paranoid ignorance was in Retsina in Belsize Village, when the female proprietor was equally vexed by my notebook, insisting that I was ‘‘stealing her recipes’’. Oh Good God. It’s just as well that in La Voss we never progressed to the photograph stage: the owner might have accused me of attempting to purloin his soul.
So I said “Well maybe then you would prefer we left …?” And he said “If you are going to write down my prices, then yes, I would like you to leave”. Lordy Lordy – can you BELIEVE this …? So, while putting on my coat, I gave him my card. “Uh-huh,” he said. “Ham & High. But still – you must have permission …!” How do such people come to be running a restaurant? I asked him if he actually, seriously, expected to remain in business …? And his response was quite as extraordinary as everything else: “It doesn’t matter,” he said. Which, on balance, is really just as well. So we left. It also says on the website that ‘‘at La Voss you can enjoy a variety of dining experiences’’: I didn’t get to experience even one. It further says that you should look no further. But I really do think you should, you know – and the further the better. So … La Voss will not be reviewed by the Ham & High – and nor, I suspect, by anyone else.
So … what to do now? Tara Tari, the all-you-can-eat dive next door? Done that. The awful Mia opposite? Done that. Ye Olde Swiss Cottage? Done that. The North Star? Oh please. The 02 Centre …? Oh Christ alive, don’t make me, I beg of you. And then I remembered little Luigi’s – never done that. A true survivor since the, I don’t know – 1970s? Earlier? Certainly to back in the day when in this street just to this side of John Barnes there was the deli Ken & Marie, the wonderful coffee shop Beverley, a great greengrocer and Ackerman’s chocolates: all dead and gone – but Luigi’s still is waving the (Italian) flag. A throwback too is the interior: a pine slatted ceiling with chalet lanterns – just like the original Spaghetti Houses. A bottle of Chianti with a four-foot neck, the treacly Italian music which, when heard in Sorrento, prompted a million Brendas and Janices from Salford and Penge to lose their hearts to heartless handsome waiters called Fabio … and maybe even Luigi.
I ordered a bottle of red (quite like old times) while jotting some notes: didn’t get my collar felt, so felt fairly safe for the time being. A table of post-work women, an old lady doing a crossword and sipping Cointreau, and a young Chinese couple. He alternated between hanging his chin low and just above his food and studying intently his mobile; she ignored her food altogether and stared ahead of her, maybe contemplating the hereafter, and hoping that it came quite soon. They left nearly all of their bistecca and spaghetti alla vongole. The waiter said “finish …?” and whisked it all away without a further word. Dear oh dear – truly I was neck-deep in amateur night, that evening.
From the huge menu of all the Italian favourites my wife chose tortelloni della casa – with mushrooms in a tomato sauce. I ordered saltimbocca alla romana, simply because I hadn’t had it in years – and before that there was buffalo mozzarella salad with vine tomato and basil for my wife, and I had avocado and prawns: I blame my choice on the 1970’s milieu. The prawns were the usual chewy little Atlantic critters glooped in pink (could have been grommets), the avocado ripe and good. The generous mozzarella and meaty tomato were much enjoyed – as was the tortelloni. This was very good indeed – a nuggety bite to the pasta, and a deep and creamy tomato sauce. The best things on my plate were the very fresh broccoli, green beans, carrots and courgettes. The sauté potatoes were pretty good … and sort of pretty good were the veal slices topped with prosciutto and fresh sage … but something had gone badly wrong with the white wine sauce: it was simply vinegar, reducing the dish to wince-making brine.
So: a simple, cosy and really quite valuable little local Italian – stick to pasta, and you’ll be fine. Then I was told that I couldn’t keep my handwritten receipt – because they needed it, apparently – so had to more or less demand a copy. Two waiters watched me closely as I manoeuvred with difficulty the table so that my wife could get out. No help with coats – no opening of the door. On the plus side, though – we didn’t actually get evicted. I do now need, though, to visit a restaurant run by professionals. And, in the meantime, a little lie-down: it’s been quite an evening…
Joseph Connolly’s The A-Z of Eating Out is published by Thames & Hudson. All previous restaurant reviews may be viewed on the website www.josephconnolly.co.uk.