Restaurant: Al Fresco.
Location: Whetstone, London.
Price: £30 for two courses, wine and coffee.
Last Friday, having taken a chance on our local inn-turned-gastro-pub, The Rising Sun, (specialising in Italian inspired fish dishes) having a table for us we found the place packed to rafters and therefore on the hunt for an equally appealing alternative. (Note to self, never assume, always book).
Our drive round looking for somewhere suitable, becoming increasingly hungrier with each passing minute, took us past our usual fall back restaurants all of which were dismissed for a variety of reasons. The wonderful Turkish place with the huge charcoal grill (“nah, not in the mood for meat”), the reliable upmarket Chinese (“don’t fancy Chinese tonight”) and the recently discovered Vietnamese (“wasn’t up to scratch on the last visit”) and so on. After driving round some more we alighted at Al Fresco for an initial recce to check out the menu and assess it for popularity. Al Fresco has been there for ten years to my knowledge so we figured they must be doing something right.
A quick once over of the menu demonstrated a comforting authenticity of dishes at reasonable prices and a good selection of fish and seafood dishes. In terms of popularity almost every table was taken and by Italian people, too. Always a good sign. We decided to venture in and as we opened the door that wonderful aroma of garlic hit us, as it should in any Italian restaurant worth its salt. In fact, if I walk into an Italian restaurant and can’t smell garlic, I leave.
I’m almost glad The Rising Sun was full (although I intend to go back, with a booking next time) so good was this place. I must have said at least three times throughout the meal “Why have we never been here before?” To start we shared an unpretentious yet perfectly cooked plate of calamari fritti served simply with a really good homemade tartare sauce and a wedge of lemon. It was light and crisp, the batter forming the thinnest coating for fresh, properly prepped squid. Non of your uniform shape and size stuff from a freezer bag. These squid had been bought from a fishmonger and were reassuringly varied in size. For his main course my partner opted for the Brodetto Adraiatico, a medley of fish and shellfish in tomato garlic and wine sauce. The sauce itself was rich yet not overwhelming; the garlic, onions and wine having been properly cooked out and the tomatoes and herbs kept fresh and lively. Every piece of fish or shellfish was delicate, cooked to perfection and retained its individual character just as it should be in a good fish stew. This came accompanied by a side dish of lightly sautéed and well seasoned new potatoes and steamed greens.
My Mussels Al Fresco, the house special, was spectacular to look at with its huge mound of mussels and it’s equally impressively sized squid and king prawns bursting forth artistically from the plate. This again was set in an authentic and fresh sauce, all sweet ripe tomatoes, garlic and herbs. And again, all the seafood was cooked accurately and for not a second more or less than it needed to release its sweetness. It came with fries, the only sticking point, as they were not home made and this is something of a bug bear for me. However, the side dish of spinach was buttery without being greasy so I forgive them. We finished off with two of the best Irish coffees I’ve ever tasted other than those made by my Irish sister-in-law, which is high praise indeed.
Furthermore, despite it being a Friday night and a very busy service indeed our waitress was efficient and pleasant. The wine list covered everything it needed to and was fairly priced. Al Fresco is now our official local Italian and I simply can’t recommend it highly enough as exactly that – a good, reliable local Italian.