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Restaurant Review: Caldesi in Campagna, Bray, Berkshire

February 10, 2012

I’ve been keen to go to one of Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s restaurants since interviewing Katie about her top ten cookbooks and hearing about her passion for Italian food and the way they cook, always sourcing the best local seasonal and sustainable ingredients. I love Italian food and theirs is Italian cooking at its best. When I mentioned this to friends Nina and James who live near the Bray restaurant, they said they’d been there a few times and liked it a lot and offered to take me for lunch. So, I’ve been looking forward to my treat … and I can tell you, when it started snowing last night, the first thing I thought of was, Please let me get to Caldesi in Campagna tomorrow!

As it turned out, there wasn’t too much snow and with the sun shining it was a beautiful – if cold – day to head out into the country and enjoy the peace and prettiness of this rural location. Caldesi in Campagna was opened in 2007. Katie and Giancarlo also run the highly successful Caffe Caldesi in central London and a popular cookery school, La Cucina Caldesi. They run some cookery courses from Campagna too and you can check out their programme for the year at all locations at www.caldesi.com.

There was a very warm welcome as we entered; a warmth and friendliness – but also excellent efficiency – that followed us all the way through our meal. The interior is quite formal but not overpoweringly so; it’s a place to relax in comfort while you enjoy a lovely Italian meal. As we settled down to choose our food, a basket of delicious breads (focaccia, ciabatta and some very good cheese grissini) with a small bowl of olive oil and balsamic were put before us and wine soon came too.

Nina and I opted for the set lunch menu (£12.50 for 2 courses; £16.50 for 3) while James chose a la carte. There’s not a huge choice – 2 starters, 2 mains and 2 desserts – but since I’m happy eating almost anything, then it’s no problem for me and I always think these set menus are a great way to try out a good restaurant without having to pay too much – or to enjoy a lunchtime treat at a reasonable price.

Nina and I had Ribollita to start. I’ve had this Tuscan bean soup with bread and vegetables a number of times and it’s a favourite of mine; this was a particularly good one with deep, earthy, rich flavours. James let me try his scallops with pumpkin puree and they were wonderful – almost melt-in-the-mouth scallops they were so perfectly cooked and a brilliant combination of flavours.

For main courses Nina and I chose the same: Breaded Sardines, spinach, pinenuts and raisins, while James had a sea bass ravioli.  I really like sardines and these had been butterflied before being coated in breadcrumbs, making for easy – as well as delicious – eating. The gorgeous little spinach parcels containing pinenuts and raisins were wonderful – and immediately made me think, I must try that!  James also let me try his ravioli (oh it’s so nice to go for good meals with friends who let you try their choices too!). It was fabulous pasta with a really lovely filling, taking the sometimes humble pasta to glorious heights.

And yes, we all told each other, we rarely had desserts at lunchtime … but … well, how could we resist? I managed one all to myself (though did the shared tasting thing) while Nina and James shared. Sometimes I’m very happy to be a glutton! Well, hardly a glutton with food of this quality. My Vanilla Pannacotta, Poached Rhubarb, Pistachio Nuts was one of the best pannacottas I’ve had: not too sweet, a lovely vanilla flavour and an incredibly light creamy texture. The Tanzanique Chocolate Mousse with Comfit Blood Oranges was pretty good too!

It really was an excellent meal. No wonder Nina and James have been a few times; I’d be back regularly if it was closer to home. It was a wonderfully leisurely lunch too.  The service, as I said, was efficient and friendly; the time between courses nicely spaced so you didn’t feel hurried but neither did we ever feel we were being kept waiting. It may be off the beaten track, but it’s definitely worth a detour or even a special trip.

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