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London theatreland newcomer Four to Eight takes its name from an old adage of Italian cooking: that just four to eight ingredients are sufficient to create good, tasty, honest food. But can British chef Chris Denny deliver at this new Covent Garden eatery? Jonathan R Jones puts the theory – and the restaurant’s promise of ‘beautiful simple dining’ – to the test…
Food and drink
Begin with a cocktail or two. The Wondrous Drug is a delightfully spiced and aromatic concoction based on Chase Rhubarb Vodka and Martini Rosato, whilst the Finlandia-vodka-based Amelia proved not overly sweet, despite its St Germain and blackberry puree. Both come longer than expected (the menu suggesting short drinks served straight up). We tucked into the generous bread basket, including a wonderfully salty onion focaccia.
A whole, deep-fried soft-shell crab stole the show as far as the starters where concerned – sensationally crispy and beautifully presented with a delicious, if a little mild, lemon and garlic aioli on the side. The arancini were not so exciting – a slightly soggy shell and the accompanying piquillo pepper ketchup lacked the punch to cut through the richness of the rice. Generous parmesan shavings were a nice touch but the promised hazelnuts seemed curiously absent; if they were hiding somewhere in the arancini they were undetectable.
The Cod Fregola was beautifully presented but only just on the point of being cooked. No one likes overcooked fish, but this was bordering on sashimi. Despite the rainbow of colourful ingredients, the dish didn’t live up to its visual promise. Baby fennel added a pleasant bitter edge but again the sauce was too bland. A side of artichokes was delicious but fiercely salted.
The steak was all together more successful – a little on the rare side for the requested ‘medium’ but with a fantastic char-grilled crust. A well-dressed watercress and parmesan salad was the perfect partner and the accompanying fries had a delicious savoury kick thanks to a hit of paprika.
We ended with the delicious Chocolate and Olive Oil Delice which turned out to be a kind of deconstructed banoffee pie: chocolate mousse, caramel, banana ice cream and fresh banana, topped off with a purple pansy. By contrast, the Opera Cake was disappointing and a little heavy.
Both starters were complemented by a zesty New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, before moving on to two delightful Italian reds with our main courses. With over 100 wines to choose from, including 25 available by the glass, the help of sommelier Patrick Niddrie-Webb was invaluable.
Look and vibe
Located on the corner of Catherine Street at the site of the former Gino and Franco sandwich bar, the restaurant is the brain child of the eponymous Zambito brothers. With backing from entrepreneur Yury Tereshchenko, the interior has been completely transformed – and knocked through to an adjoining property – by architect and designer Ed Shinton from Atelier West.
The focal point of the interior is the tall, central glass and iron temperature-controlled wine room and pale wood bar. Huge plate glass windows are a people watcher’s paradise and the exposed brick is edgy without being laboured. A kinetic abstract light projection and judicious use of neon keep the look funky yet cosy. End-grain block-wood tables add utility chic, complemented by Fritz Hansen chairs and bar stools.
The whole effect has something of a New York cocktail bar about it. And despite its tourist-trap location, everything about the look and feel of the place screams ‘This is not Garfunkles!’
It was quiet when we visited on a Monday night. A few after work drinkers clung to the bar but we were one of only three tables for dinner. It’s not a great omen for a recently-opened restaurant with 100 covers in such a prominent location (right off Aldwych and directly opposite the Novello Theatre currently showing Mamma Mia). However, the service is friendly and efficient if a little hurried – who else are they rushing to serve? – and helps the place to feel cosy despite the lack of fellow diners. You get the feeling that the front-of-house staff really are passionate about what they do and they seem genuinely interested and knowledgeable.
Two antipasti, two small plates, two mains plus sides and two desserts, plus cocktails and wines by the glass to accompany: around £60 per person, excluding service.
The bottom line
Come for the cocktails but stay for the food. Despite a few wobbles there’s decent fare to be found at this stylish Italian. And it’s a better bet than Café Rouge for a decent steak-frites without breaking the bank in the heart of London’s theatreland.
For more informaton, visit fourtoeight.com.