Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Restaurant Review: La Barca

A proper old-school Italian right in my neighbourhood. I like this place a lot, even if it is a bit slebby.  This is my review of Waterloo's La Barca for my South London Press column.

London’s restaurant scene is ever-changing.  You need look only as far as the Russell Norman empire of Polpo, Spuntino and the likes in Soho, or the hoard of overhyped burger joints to get a feel for what’s on trend at the moment. Whilst the quality of food being dished up at these establishments is not in question, the rest of the experience has a lot to answer for. 

It’s great that these establishments can leverage a bit of twitter talk to build instant demand, and with limited seats available, a no-booking policy makes vague sense. But most people consider eating out to be something of a luxurious occasion: a time when you’re waited on, rather than waiting in a line. Call me a snob, but standing for an hour in the cold before being grumpily ushered to a tightly packed table (or worse still, bar stool) just doesn’t do it for me.

With this in mind, Waterloo’s La Barca is a revelation. The restaurant has sat in the same spot on the edge of Lower Marsh for more than thirty years, and the pristine Italian food it serves has varied little in that time.  Entering on a sunny lunchtime, it’s the owner Gino who greets us rather than a surly doorman, and he’s a man that understands the importance of service. In fact, all the staff here are exemplary.  We’re laden with freshly baked bread, crisp breadsticks and plump olives as we’re serenaded with stories of the numerous celebrities who’ve passed through the doors.  This is a popular spot for actors appearing at the Old Vic and has a loyal following from the nearby ITV studios, too.  To suggest this is South London’s answer to The Ivy doesn’t seem too far off. It’s old school in exactly the way it feels right for an Italian restaurant to be.  Before long we feel more like old friends than customers, and indeed most of the tables are on first name terms with their waiters.

Some of the food on the menu could almost be considered retro, but it really isn’t. It’s Italian food, cooked with love the way that it always has been. A starter of chicken liver paté is rich and vast, slipping down nicely with toast and suggesting a meal of epic proportions to follow. It certainly does. A Steak Diane (forgive the French) is cooked by the table, seared and served medium-rare with a creamy, mustardy sauce. Vegetable sides are served to share, and – being cooked by an Italian – are naturally al dente.  There’s no chance pudding is being missed, no matter how full. A classic zabaglione is once again cooked before our eyes, and features a particularly generous glug of masala.

The meal could well have taken place 20 years ago, and I look forward to returning to La Barca in another couple of decades for exactly the same experience. I’ll certainly be back before that, though.

La Barca, 80-81 Lower Marsh, SE1 7AB evenings.

>> originally published in South London Press

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