Two good friends, who know I love Italian food, alerted me to Grace Dent’s orgasmic (her word!) review of Bancone in the Guardian last week. I immediately searched online for the review, of course, and was instantly determined to go – soon! And fortuitously, it happened that I would be very close in just a couple of days’ time. For I had a ticket for the highly acclaimed production of King Lear, starring the great Sir Ian McKellen, at the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane … just round the corner from Bancone which is in William IV Street – barely 2 minutes’ walk away.
I tried to book online the day before but their website showed they were fully booked. Surely, I thought, they could fit one lone diner in when they opened at 5.30 for a quick pre-theatre meal. The play (which turned out to be 3 hours 40 minutes long – and absolutely magnificent) started at 7.00 so I genuinely had limited time.
I arrived a few minutes before Bancone opened and started what soon turned into a queue. I’d seen the manager coming out and talking to a couple of guys when I arrived, telling them it was fully booked. But when he came back a few minutes later, I asked if he might have a seat for one for a fairly quick meal; I was on my way to the theatre. He said he’d check. And when the door finally opened, luckily there was a place for me – grazie mille! I thanked him. I was a very happy person – not only did I have a ticket for one of the hottest plays in town but also a seat at one of London’s hottest new restaurants.
Bancone is Italian for bar or counter. And sure enough a long bar runs towards the back. There is other seating to the side but essentially it’s a bar. I love sitting at the bar of a bustling restaurant when on my own, as I’ve done at Bocca di Lupo, Barrafina and The Palomar. It’s fun. Like those restaurants, you can see food being prepared in front of you at Bancone if you sit at the bar towards the back. I was near the front and had instead a good view of drinks being made. A new young waiter – who nervously poured my prosecco and apologised for being so nervous – was being taught to make Aperol spritz and other drinks.
Food at Bacone comes incredibly reasonably priced for central London, but its pedigree is excellent. Chef Louis Korovilas has cooked at Pied à Terre and Locanda Locatelli, and you don’t get much better than that. It’s a very simple concept: the menu contains Antipasti, Pasta and Dessert. For antipasti there’s a choice of 8 dishes ranging in price from £3 for a bowl of olives to £8.50 for ‘smoked duck breast, charred & pickled artichokes & Parmesan snow’. Main courses are all pasta (apart from one potato gnocchi dish) – but gluten free is available. The 11 dishes are priced between £7.50 – for the gnocchi which is served simply with either ‘sage butter’ or ‘tomatoes, basil & olive oil’ – to £13.50 for ‘Primitivo, juniper & bay braised rabbit with pappardelle’. There are classics here like ‘Cacio e Pepe’ (£8.50), but with special spaghetti ‘alla chitarra’ but most are inventively exciting: ‘silk handkerchiefs (pasta sheets), walnut butter & confit egg yolk’ (£9); ‘slow cooked 10-hour oxtail ragu with pappardelle’ (£11.50); ‘brown shrimp tagliolini with seaweed butter’ (£12.50). I could easily make my way through the menu – given time and a few days!
I hadn’t planned to have a starter as it was so early to eat and I while I wasn’t in a huge rush, I certainly didn’t have time for a long slow supper. But I made a sudden last minute decision to the ‘did I want a starter’ question – ‘no thanks – well, yes, I’ll have the focaccia’.
Thus I sat at the bar sipping a glass of prosecco (£7) and enjoying some wonderful ‘honeyed garlic focaccia & datterini tomato focaccia’ (£4.50). It was gorgeous and incredibly tasty. This focaccia was somewhere in between the thin, almost crispy focaccia Ligure that I enjoyed in Genoa and the deep spongy focaccia we’re more familiar with – quite thin but fairly soft.
For my main I chose ‘paccheri (large tubes of pasta) with cod cheeks, capers, tomatoes, black olives & almonds’ (£13).
Wow! It was fantastic. The taste was divine and I loved the mix of textures: the soft cod cheek sauce, the perfectly cooked al dente pasta, the unusual but delightful crunch of the almonds.
I wasn’t feeling at all rushed but nevertheless was getting through the meal quite fast and so I had time for a dessert. Having eaten so well to this point, how could I not? There are just three to choose from: ‘burnt plum with yoghurt & fresh honeycomb (£7.50), Chocolate, mascarpone & passionfruit (£8) and – my choice – ‘Amalfi lemon syllabub with lemon granita’ (£5.50).
To be honest there was a slight panicky moment as it was put before me. At first sight it looked alarmingly like one of those frozen lemon sorbets you get in places like Iceland or cheap (not gastro) provincial pubs.
However, panic soon turned to awe. I could see it was actually an Amalfi lemon – large and bumpy. The granita was to die for … well, at least go back to Bancone soon for! It was bursting with lemon flavour but not at all acidic, nor too sweet; and its lightness was like newly fallen snow. Beneath this snowy carpet lay a rich, creamy lemon syllabub. It was the kind of dessert that lifts you; lights you up like sunshine.
I had time for an espresso; I do like to finish a good meal with a good coffee. The Italian server behind the bar couldn’t understand I didn’t want to put sugar in it! I even tried out my Italian to explain I preferred it without.
My bill came to £37.13 for food and drink, including 12.5% tip. Bancone was everything it was hyped up to be: glorious food, an attractive, sophisticated and welcoming decor, and incredibly friendly but not OTT staff who chatted enthusiastically about the food. I imagine the menu changes often (there were things on last night’s that were different to other reviews). It’s clearly worth booking and while I’d happily eat there at any time, it’s perfectly located for theatres so a great place pre-theatre. I can’t wait to go back!