Captivating and thoughtful Italian-Japanese fusion quietly settles down in Dalston – 8/10
Italian and Japanese… Japanese and Italian… In the few days leading up to my dinner at Angelina, I spend a lot of time wondering what to expect; what this Eurasian fusion will look like; how it will combine the hearty, rustic charm of a trattoria with the precise, clean technicality of a Tokyo sushi bar. Tagliatelle al wagyu bolognese? Yes, please. Sushi pizza? No, thank you – almost as objectionable an idea as the ungainly sushi burrito that stalks American food courts.
Japanese influence is certainly no stranger to European cuisine, especially French. In fact, the culinary cross-pollination is so abundant that the direction of influence is sometimes difficult to ascertain. Japanese chefs started travelling to France over a century ago to hone their skills, bringing back the dishes and techniques of the French masters that most appealed to Japanese ideals. In return, French nouvelle cuisine adopted or was influenced by many aesthetic aspects of Japan’s kaiseki tradition: the flawless execution, the minimalist presentation, the fastidious attention to each ingredient’s own personality and character. However these gastronomic synapses between the two hemispheres developed, we should all be thankful.
Angelina is proof that Japanese and Italian cuisines can make similarly seductive bedfellows. I convince a couple of foodie colleagues to make the minor expedition to Dalston. We wander past Dixy Fried Chicken and Nails 4 U to Angelina’s sleek, black-framed window-front. It’s modern, cool and minimalist. There are Japanese lanterns, Italian marble tables and sporadic sprigs of foliage. The menu is set and follows a pretty traditional Italian format: the delightfully vague fritto misto, a variety of fish crudo, pasta, meat and dessert – each with a Japanese twist, of course. Five courses for £38 is outrageously good value in London (even for Dalston) and you can add a couple of daily plates for £9 each and even a drinks pairing for another £35 if you’re in the mood.
The first couple of courses arrive together, each dish twinned with its own specific condiment or dipping sauce. Fat, fresh tempura borage leaves, each the size of a small child, come in a great pile with a light soy and mirin. Dense duck croquettes and salty unagi arancini are accompanied by slick salsa verde and a thick tonkatsu that walks the line between barbecue and Worcestershire sauce. Sea bass crudo is firm and sinewy and tender raw scallop, served with rice powder, thyme oil and its own dried, grated roe is particularly luscious. As for their homemade focaccia, I would very much like to take a nap on it.
So far so good, but then Angelina goes and steals my heart. Vitello tonnato is an Italian “classic” consisting of cold, sliced veal with a creamy tuna sauce and tart capers. Personally I find it about as appealing as a plate of cold sick (with tart capers) and would never normally order it. It’s like a recipe you would find in an old Victorian cookbook that would need Heston’s golden touch before it even came close to edible. (Sorry, Italy – I love you really.) However, Angelina takes this classic and turns it completely inside out to create something unique: tonno vitellato. Gently seared slices of tuna, still warm from the grill, with a swish of puréed veal mayonnaise sauce and, best of all, those pesky capers, deep-fried to crispy, almost nutty perfection. It’s a sublimely clever idea: creative, original and perfectly executed. If you’re going to do fusion, why not do it like this?
Munching away on gonads (the only edible part of a sea urchin) isn’t exactly my idea of a fun day out with the kids so I tend to avoid uni, but my friend raves about it. The two of us order the £5 supplement, which comes in-shell with a dash of aged soy and yuzu. His is delicate and creamy, reminiscent of a kind of marine foie gras; mine is slightly briney and gritty, reminiscent of an unexpected mouthful of beach.
Fortunately that taste is not allowed to linger for long. Angelina’s take on ramen is a warm bowl of tagliolini inundated with rich lobster bisque. After the light bites of the fritto misto, it is a return to true Italian heartiness. Fleshy chunks of lobster and juicy pork shoulder are elevated from basic surf ‘n’ turf to something special by a touch of grated wasabi and pearly spheres of salmon roe, which pop amongst the pasta. I do the only polite thing and pick up the bowl to slurp the final dregs. It’s second only to the luxurious tagliolini gratinati at Harry’s Bar in Marylebone, which has the somewhat unfair advantage of being drenched in a toasted layer of Parmesan and cream.
We also request one of the daily specials: a cacio e pepe risotto with slices of smoked unagi. The rice needs a heap more Parmesan and pepper to truly evoke its Roman namesake, but the chunks of grilled eel are bursting with potent umami and smoky sweetness. A sprinkling of shiso gremolata gives it a zesty flourish.
Sadly, the final secondi is disappointing. Dry chicken thighs with rubbery morels are unsatisfying and the combination of warm meat and fridge-cold nira (garlic chives) sauce is quite unpleasant, like microwaved leftovers that haven’t been properly heated through.
Dessert, however, more than makes up for it: a delicious rice pudding made from a premium type of Japanese rice called yumenishiki. It’s similar to Greek rizogalo (which I haven’t had for years), with bittersweet blood orange compote and a scattering of Levantine pistachios and chocolate nibs adding crunch and texture.
If this had been a parade of six thoroughbred Italian dishes, it is highly likely that you would have needed a wide door and a very large forklift to extract me from Angelina. Fortunately for both my self-esteem and the restaurant’s structural integrity, the little Japanese touches added by chefs Daniele Ceforo (ex-Bocca di Lupo and Murano) and Robin Beparry (ex-Daphne) temper the natural richness and heaviness of each dish. What remains is a measured, intelligent menu that provokes much discussion between our group, even more licking of lips and provides plenty of scope for exploration in its weekly variations. Buona fortuna and ganbatte, Angelina! I shall return to see what you do next.
Dinner for four very happy people, including a couple of glasses of wine and an additional bottle of Roero Arneis (£39), cost us a reasonable £266.63 – thank God for Dalston! If you’re only in the mood for drinks, Angelina even has a cute little Tokyo-style secret bar right near the back.
A Moveable Feast