154 Haverstock Hill, NW3 2AY Tel: 0207 586 1107
FOOD One Star
VALUE One Star
ATMOSPHERE Two Stars
Cost for two with wine: £130
THERE’S a theory that the range of choices available in our modern, Western lives, while producing a wonderful aggregate effect of driving standards up and prices down, can be a bit much for the easily-confused individual human mind.
Some studies suggest we just can’t handle it. Like monkeys faced with 20 different types of exotic fruit, we are, according to these so-called behavioural economists, more comfortable falling back on smaller yet more familiar options, such as two bananas.
This appears to be true in the world of haute cuisine, too; one New York restaurant critic recently admitted that, for all the brand spanking new, trendy joints available to sample, he is far happier returning time and time again to one or two favourite establishments. The unpretentious local eatery, for example, with a cheery proprietor who slaps you on the back and where everybody knows your name (or at least knows that you don’t like lemon in your gin).
Located half-way up Haverstock Hill, Ballaro would, I assumed, be such an attempt to charm the plush neighbourhoods that it sits among. This cannot be a destination restaurant, I thought; unlike the places in Zone 1 we usually check out, it wouldn’t be frequented by demanding City types (that’s you, Dear Reader) or trendy urbanites hunting for the next big thing.
No, this must be different, a refreshing break. A hearty Italian with simple ingredients of exceptional quality, boasting of the gastronomic traditions and passions of one the world’s greatest culinary nations. Right?
Wrong. Wrong, Harris, completely wrong. More wrong than a Miley Cyrus video. Ballaro is, instead, unexpectedly formal (my guest wasn’t offered any alcohol until I rolled up half an hour late), a place where the descriptions of the food make you think of Masterchef and the food itself makes you think of the early rounds of Masterchef.
Exhibit one: “Eggs marinated in red wine with pecorino cheese, almonds and bitter chocolate”. This dish, available for £9.50, is a hard-boiled egg that’s red on the outside, served with a strip of what tastes like Philadelphia. There were some almond flakes, admittedly, but the chocolate – the reason, out of intrigue, that I ordered it – was undetectable. You’d be better off with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg.
“Marinated yellow fin tuna with borlotti beans with vanilla infused trapani sea salt”. Mamma mia. Where to start? Well, let’s start with the beans – they were crunchy. Is this, as the kids say, “a thing” now? Is this what people are doing – crunchy beans?
As for the tuna, I’m not sure what it was marinated in – some kind of mysterious liquid that strips away any taste. I might try to buy some for the next time my mother-in-law gives us left-over fish pie to take home. The tuna was covered in an oil that tasted of indeterminate herbs, while the vanilla – like the chocolate – eluded me altogether.
As a teenager, I would sometimes pick a load of vegetables out of the fridge, boil them, smash it all up and drink it. It tasted rubbish, of course, but I was a dopey adolescent and far more concerned about Kelly from across the street. Anyway, Ballaro’s “broad bean and pumpkin soup with truffle oil” reminded me of that era of my life. Whatever happened to salt and pepper?
The mains, thankfully, represented something of a step up. The dover sole was a tad pappy, and the side of spinach a bit watery (again, lacking in salt), but I poured on a load of the accompanying melted butter with capers and it was fine. I like butter, after all. And capers. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that this dish will set you back £25.
A cheaper and better option is the paprika and orange marinated sea bream fillet. I’m not entirely convinced by the orange, but at least it was discernibly there, and produced an interesting combination with the well-crisped skin.
As for the desserts, though: must try harder. The “chocolate cake served with Zibibbo wine sauce and figs” was about as indulgent as a cold bath, while the “pear cooked in white wine served with ricotta cheese mousse and sesame seeds nougat” was still hard and the combination was positively unpleasant, rather than just uninspiring.
By this point the conversation had dried up. Instead of talking, we just sat there, sighing. It was like being at a the funeral of someone you don’t really know. I’d gone to Ballaro expecting a local feel-good restaurant, and ended up feeling… bad. We have a lot of choice in London, which thankfully means being able to choose where not to go, too.