Rustic and fuss-free, yet executed with an inimitable degree of finesse… Theo Randall’s approach to Italian cooking has always left a memorable impression on me – be it the signature dishes I’ve sampled at Taste of London, or at my recent brunch at Theo’s Simple Italian.
The secret – and indeed art – lies in his food philosophy which remains unchanged, right since his days at the iconic River Café where he earned a Michelin star back in 1997. Quite fittingly then, this is the first topic of discussion when we sit down at his eponymous restaurant at the InterContinental Park Lane…
We meet on a Friday evening. It’s not even 7pm but already the restaurant is buzzing, and it feels as much of a treat to be here as it did the first time I visited, back when it had just opened in 2006 (the decor has changed since then, echoing the more relaxed style of Theo’s cooking).
Finding ourselves a quiet spot in the adjoining Private Dining Room, the endearingly-affable chef enthuses passionately about his love for vegetables and the unequivocal emphasis he places on enhancing their natural flavours, to let these key ingredients speak for themselves.
The problem he muses, is that often we do not fully understand vegetables before we cook them. Take zucchinis for instance. As commonplace as it is boil or grill them, a completely different technique involves slow-cooking larger zucchinis with a good glug of olive oil for at least an hour, to release their natural sweetness (the resulting mush makes for an excellent pasta sauce).
Similarly with artichokes, which are Theo’s all-time-favourite veggie. There are eight to nine different varieties available this time of year, opening up a world of possibilities from pickling smaller artichokes (having boiled them beforehand with thyme, lemon and olive oil), to deep-frying the little Violetta variety with milk and flour.
By a natural extension, his menu is incredibly vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Although as he notes, it’s not a matter of being entirely vegetarian or vegan. With the welcome shift away a protein-heavy diet, most of us would like to be meat-free for at least a couple of days each week, reflecting a more balanced lifestyle choice.
Theo’s unending quest to discover new cooking techniques transcends the cuisine he has adopted. When quizzed about his ideal stay-at-home-supper (aside from a comforting plate of pasta of course!), he reveals his love for a good curry on a Sunday night; the process of finding the right mix of spices to perfecting the blend, holding as much appeal to his epicurious nature!
Of course we also speak of his cherished childhood summers in Italy, which shaped his fascination and timeless love for Italian food. To Theo, one of the greatest compliments he could ever have received was from a Sicilian worker at Taste of London a couple of years ago, who upon having tried Theo’s pasta della nonna, nostalgically declared it to be as good as his grandmother’s (translating to grandma’s pasta, pasta della nonna is a Sicilian specialty involving the distinctive violetta aubergines).
Conscious of time and the tables filling up rapidly outside outside, I reluctantly move on to my last question, requesting Theo to recommend a local dish worth planning an Italian sojourn for. While there are many contenders, he extols the virtues of Verona in spring when there is an abundance of fresh greens from peas to broad beans. I’m told that the place to visit is Trattoria Al Pompiere, where the risotto is made-to-order and dished up from pan to plate at your table. Highlights include a spring-time special featuring bruscandoli (an elusive variety of wild asparagus available for just two weeks in the entire year), as well as an indulgently-rich risotto involving copious amounts of Amarone wine…
Short of flying over to Verona, I do the next best thing that evening – stay on for dinner with a friend, whence we tuck into a risotto con funghi (that is, with porcini and portobello mushrooms). The deep earthiness of the dish is deftly balanced by a smooth blend of butter and parmesan, which adds a distinct umami-rich note.
A deceivingly-simple combination of violet aubergines, tomatoes and basil also shows off Theo’s masterful grasp of these ingredients, with the plummy sauce elegantly clinging onto the silky-smooth strands of linguini. Simply put, this is Italian soul food.
We also enjoy the simple pleasures offered by a vibrant assembly of veggies which need no dressing up (pictured above), and a baked Fontina cheese soufflé presented in an unapologetically creamy pool of parmesan!
The amiable service and happy chatter carrying across the spacious restaurant adds much to our overall enjoyment… as do the formidably-knowledgeable sommeliers who artfully complement the flavours of each dish with their thoughtful wine pairing, right down to our post-dinner digestif – a cider-like vermouth with a hint of sage, sourced from a small artisan producer in the Mont Blanc foothills.
Meanwhile the cocktails imbibe Theo’s passion for high-quality ingredients, the Martini d’Amalfi a particular highlight for its zingingly fresh, citrusy notes which herald the advent of spring!
Speaking of Amalfi lemons, they represent the key ingredient in Theo’s signature dessert – a lemon tart which is both sweet and zesty, with a potent aromatic note that hints of carefree summers cruising along the Amalfi Coast…
Just make sure to order a few scoops of the blood orange sorbet on the side, they work wonders in refreshing your palate in-between courses!
I quietly slip backstage towards the end of the evening. It’s been such a memorable evening, that I can’t resist commemorating it in the old-fashioned way, posing for a picture with the great chef himself.
Theo Randall, InterContinental London Park Lane, InterContinental, 1 Hamilton Place, Mayfair, London W1J 7QY
I was a guest of the InterContinental Park Lane, but as always all opinions are mine and mine alone.