London: April 2021
Fusion of Japanese and Italian cuisines can sound surprising at first, but it’s common sense in hindsight. Countries with strong culinary traditions, their philosophy prioritises the quality of the product and employs simple but well founded techniques in an attempt not to obscure this quality.
Angelina, brainchild of previous The River Café and Bocca di Luppo trainees, is a restaurant in Dalston walking on the line where Italian and Japanese cultures can merge. Their ten course kaiseki menu is a good starting point to explore where this path is taking them. The result… well, let the food speak for itself first.
The menu is structured in different flights of three to four dishes. The first is a range of bread and appetisers consisting of an airy focaccia and slices of toasted milk bread with shio koji butter and nduja, served alongside some miniature bone marrow doughnuts. The doughnuts reminded us of takoyaki, but with a dough denser than usual for a doughnut and filled with cheese. Similar to the Japanese snacks, these doughnuts were garnished generously with spiced sauces and bonito flakes. A very enjoyable snack!
As a last appetiser, we were served a langoustine and sausage chawanmushi. This was the first time we had a savoury custard and felt like a great discovery to us. The custard was barely set and intensely flavoursome, perhaps containing a heavily reduced dashi to enhance the umami.
The second flight consisted of a set of playful dishes centred around variations of sushi concepts and surf and turf or, more conveniently in this case, mare e montagna. It started with Pistachio, Burrata & Ikura, a very successful combination playing with saline savoriness, creaminess and crunch that delivers the kind of surprise we were looking for. From the dishes in the menu, this was the one that focused more on the contrast of textures in addition to the contrasting flavours. The Scallop & Blood Orange Kosho was a scrumptious scallop sashimi, tender and with its delicate flavour accentuated by the blood orange kosho. The Sea Bream, Marrow Fat Pea & Truffle proposed another surprising marriage: sea bream sashimi in an intensely perfumed truffle oil. The earthiness of the truffle brings forwards the sweet notes of the raw sea bream in a manner we had not experienced before. The most successful creation we had this evening was, however, a version of a sushi roll with Maguro, Lardo & Moromi. The richness of the tuna combines excellently with the cured notes of Italian lard creating a layered and nuanced bite. The rice, as in sushi, provides the much needed acidity. While rewriting these notes we are realising that we should have ordered a second round…
These crudi were followed by a flight of fried dishes. Nettle Leaf & Daikon, consisted of a well executed crisp tempura which unfortunately obscured the subtle taste of nettle. We think that the traditional use of shiso performs better in tempura. The Chicken Karaage & Lemon verbena was up to scratch.
Having finished all these flights of first courses, the mains arrived on by one. First, the Tortelloni, Ricotta, Truffle & Kombu, one of the most successful dishes of the evening. Well executed pasta ripiena with ricotta and truffles served on a ‘nest’ of kombu. The use of the seaweed adds a further layer of texture and umami. The dish was garnished with some olive oil and roasted hazelnuts which added some nuttiness. It was a thoughtful and creative combination.
Next came the Brill Kaboyaki & Yakumi, a fillet of brill dipped in a sweet soy based sauce and cooked on the grill – Kaboyaki style. The fish was perfectly cooked. Juicy, tender and the skin was cooked enough to be rendered gelatinous. An elegantly plated range of yakumi or condiments accompanied the dish to complement it with spring onions, salsa rossa, radish and wasabi.
The transition to the desserts was an amuse-bouche of Fontina served on a piadina with a dollop of yuzu aged tofu. The addition of tofu was so minute that only the Fontina could be felt. A rather inconsequential dish. An interesting idea that got lost in its execution.
The dolci sadly looked better than they tasted. They were served in a final flight of three dishes. The miniaturised Yuzu Madeleine was a sweet, both metaphorically and literally, idea. An East Asian twist on traditional lemon madeleines.
The dessert that really shined was the Sichuan Pepper Ice Cream and Miso Caramel with Crumble. A delicious combination of citrus and slightly pungent Sichuan peppercorn ice cream with a sweet and savoury caramel. Balanced, interesting and complete.
The chouquette (or cream puffs if you like) with Crème Patissière and Gianduja – sprinkled with matcha – was not a bad idea, but again the execution was rather poor. The pâte à choux was unfortunately too hard, with the filling oozing out all over your fingers while trying to take a bite. It proved to be yet another example of the use of matcha more as a decoration rather than for its flavour. The concept has potential but it could have been more imaginative.
We must concede that creating a dessert to finish such a menu is rather hard. Neither Italian nor Japanese cuisines have such elaborate sweets. The best desserts are mostly conceived around simple but high quality ingredients with minimal processing. There is not a lot of space to show off if you limit your menu within these frames.
Being our first visit to a restaurant after the long winter lockdown of 2021, we were positively impressed with the outdoor eating arrangements. We imagine that has been a great challenge to adapt to the new restrictions. Angelina prepared a comfortable layout of the tables separating them from a busy street by well positioned plants. All the seating was protected in case of any unexpected rain or wind and heaters were available as our April evening became colder.
The detailed and clean presentation of the dishes manages to remain casual and unpretentious at the same time. The design of the restaurant, with white, clean walls and large pendant lamps, transmits a similar modern minimalistic image. The open kitchen allows one to observe the chefs diligently plating dishes. The Japanese style of crockery is aptly chosen to showcase the food.
The wine list is sizable, with a clear Italian focus and a good selection of wine by the glass. Our discovery of the day was Curto Marco’s 2016 La Foia Barolo, great value and already offering good complexity at a young age.
The overall experience was very positive, but it did have some flaws. The fusion concept that Angelina is exploring has the potential to deliver great culinary surprises. In their journey, we feel that the dishes they have so far conceived are in different levels of maturity. From our descriptions above, one can tell that there are several memorable concepts in the menu, but others struck us as more inconsequential and perhaps requiring more attention.
The use of mare e montagna is certainly a success and one of the reasons to go to Angelina. We believe that similar creative lines could be followed on other concepts with high probability of success. The least memorable ideas involved heavily traditional Italian concepts, barely modified by the addition of a drizzle, dot or dollop of a Japanese inspired sauce. Sometimes this attempt to inject Asian umami notes to the dish failed to be more than just a gimmick. The flavours of the Italian dish tended to dominate the overall flavour profile and hide the initially good ideas.
A great example to follow in this relatively unexplored field of inter-cultural cross pollination is that of Yoji Tokuyoshi. Souschef at Osteria Francescana for nine years, now he’s making Italian food with Japanese ingredients in Tokyo and Japanese food with Italian produce in Milan. His longer experience with both cultures has led to an elegant balance of technique, philosophy and local produce that we think Angelina must endeavor to reach.