La Figa, Limehouse


Recently I saw a documentary about the chef-proprietor of an American-Italian fine dining experience, which included a dish included six tortellini in a line with a smear of sauce. Yes, just six. If the aim was to make the diner appreciate each one individually rather than gulping down a mouthful of hand-crafted pieces of stuffed pasta, they probably succeeded – though that is a world away from the culture of Italian restaurants in London. Most stay pretty close to cooking as mama used to make, which is not to say they don’t produce the occasional innovative touch.

As regular readers will know, I’ve remarked at intervals on the high standards set by Italian restaurants in this country, not just in London either. There may be some on autopilot but you don’t have to look very hard to find family-run restaurants that draw heavily on Italian roots, take time and trouble to source top ingredients and serve with a flourish. I’ve recommended the likes of the River Café, Bocca di Lupo and several more, though there are probably a dozen or more local to me that set equally high standards for those with hearty appetites.

La Figa in Limehouse very much belongs to the old school, and is none the worse for being unreconstructed. The restaurant is not without its faults but is much loved by a loyal clientele and much praised for doing those dishes well. That it was packed on a Sunday evening is testimony to the fact that the dishes served hit the spot for their market – and the food is what keeps them coming back for more, of which more in a moment.

In keeping with the traditional styling, the place comes complete with reproduction Michaelangelo sculptures outside an otherwise modern milieu dominated by a logo designed to look like two people sitting back to back as if not talking to one another, or alternatively a pair of bull’s horns upside down. Of the dining room, TimeOut Eating & Drinking Guide 2011 had this to say:

Bright and cheerful, the interior is entirely modern with an upbeat, almost canteen-y feel to its simple furnishings and glorious pantone-esque colour scheme, which just can’t fail to make you smile.

Not sure it made me smile, though neither did it entirely relax me. A piano by the door tells of entertainments provided on some evenings, though not this occasion; this is a shame, since one of the consequences of popularity is a buzz of conversation that rose as the vino flowed. Conversation being difficult to follow in the face of the hubbub, some live entertainment would have been a welcome distraction.

La Figa’s tried and trusted formula is based on charming Italian waiters serving pasta, pizza, good meat, good fish, decent wines (emphasis on the Italian terroir), plus, if you have any space left, desserts with a zillion calories (we didn’t.) Our waiter came originally from Venice and, apart from a spell when he apparently went AWOL, proved efficient – even if he had an eye for the ladies (my female companion got all the attention – don’t think he noticed me!)

Tell the truth, the menu plus specials could be pared down, given Millward’s theory of choice (that too much paralyses the human brain, so 5-6 options per course is plenty) but I don’t doubt the love and attention devoted by the kitchen to each one. The other question is whether you can keep fresh ingredients for every item on a long menu, but I’ll give La Figa benefit of the doubt – so long as they stay clear of pub grub microwave cooking.

We were tempted by the Octopus salad but in the end chose to share a starter of mixed appetisers at approaching £10, reminiscent of the Sunday teas my mother used to serve. This sampler cold plate could easily have been a light main course, assembling a wide assortment of charcuterie, olives and peppers, marinaded mushrooms, cucumber, tuna with beans and red onions, hard boiled egg with prawn and thousand island dressing, tomato and mozzarella, and probably more besides. Nothing wrong with any of it, though it would not have suffered for a small rationalisation; less can indeed be more at times. “Sharing platter” might have been a better description.

This was however just a side show; the main event was truly stupendous at all levels. My companion went for comfort food in the form of spaghetti vongole, being a favourite of hers and arriving on a huge oblong dish. The pasta was perfectly al dente while the clams reclined in a mouth-watering and aromatic base containing chilli and garlic aplenty. From the one I ate it was quite evident this was a vongole in a thousand, though the sheer quantity defeated the diner.

Nobody who knows me will be surprised to learn that I chose the veal chop, technically it is a veal T-bone steak and a huge slab of meat. For all the fact that milk veal is no longer produced, and farms raising calves for slaughter maintain a high standard of animal welfare, rosy veal is still not top of the hit parade with British diners, unlike their equivalents on the continent and especially Italy, where veal escalopes are used widely in veal Milanese (similar to Wiener schnitzel but served with spaghetti alla pomorodo) and saltimbocca. Cuteness may be our primary rationale for this omission, but if we follow the logic through we should not eat lamb or any other animal slaughtered early in life for human consumption – the so-called “Bambi effect.”

To real carnivores veal is tender, succulent, delicate and delicious. Here it arrived as a huge slab of unadorned meat, perfectly seared and brown as a berry, with a separate and mercifully smaller plate of potatoes and veg on the side. As is often the case with big chunks of meat where consistency of cooking is difficult to achieve, it was pink and tender at heart but very slightly overdone on the outside. I can’t complain though – it left me with a full belly and big beatific smile.

Full marks to La Figa then for having the courage of its convictions by sending its butcher’s finest to be judged on its own meaty merits.  I’ve long believed fine ingredients don’t need anything more – they should stand by quality and flavour alone and avoid too much fussy cheffy touches. By the same token, a passing waiter bore a whole branzino (sea bass) from the specials menu. It was cooked on the bone, with minimal garnish and saucing, and looked the dog’s whatsits.

Meanwhile, the bottle of Gavi de Gavi, Piedmont’s finest white made from the cortese grape, ordered with the meal impressed us both with a crisp, floral, peachy notes, certainly not a wine to overpower the veal, and one that would work very well with pasta and the sea bass too.

However, the true test will come when we go back for a further visit since there are yet many dishes both of us need to try. The good lady suggested pizza, for example, in which case I may have to bring my son, self-confessed expert in the perfect margarita. Fact is that La Figa certainly deserves a second go, though shortening the menu and reducing some portion sizes would sharpen up the act just a tad and allow the perfection of good dishes – but please please please don’t go down the route of serving six tortellini in a line.  That way lies madness, not to mention an empty restaurant!

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