Pret-a-diner is the most exciting dining concept of the year, but you’d be very mistaken if you thought it was just a culinary experience. The German company Kofler & Kompanie first set up their successful pop-up restaurant, the Minotaur last year at the Old Vic Tunnels – celebrities, foodies and critics were all begging for a table. I went along for the opening of Minotaur but regretfully never had the chance to try the food. This year I ignorantly turned up at the same location for this season’s ‘Italians do it Better’… and had to sprint across London to find the new, correct venue.
Through the doors of Mayfair’s 50 St James’s is a magical world of temptation and titillation. Pret-a-diner has temporarily occupied this tired and dated building transforming it into a wild and wonderful place of mysterious allure… opulent and extravagant decor, eccentric and thought-provoking art and best of all, some of Italy’s most talented Michelin chefs have been invited for a ten day residency each, including Viviana Varese, Norbert Niederkofler, Accursio Craparo and the Costardi brothers. There is a choice of two menus each evening – a classic and a more creative option.
The main hall is set up like a magnificent and crazy basketball pitch lit to the extreme and dressed with wacky contemporary artworks. It’s designed by Benjamin and Philip Wyatt with an art exhibition by the prestigious Gazelli Art House and fabulous installations including some Emin-esque neon signs by Olivia Steele, and other works by Monica Bonvicini, Aron Demetz, Vittorio Corsini and Giovani Ozzola. Downstairs the stylish cocktail bar is controlled by cocktail coinesseurs 69 Colebrooke Row which I was lucky enough to review quite recently.
I went to try Viviana Varese‘s simple but innovative menu on her opening evening. A group of excited individuals, we sat at a beautifully decorated wooden table, with the pret a diner newspaper, Il Corriere as the unusual place mat. The set menu is priced at £75 per person, which is expensive for a concept that intends to make fine dining fun, however after the experience it seemed worth it… and is certainly very memorable.
Amuse bouches arrived first along with steaming brown paper bags of bread. To start the Viviana presents ‘Spoonwise’ a soft and fleshy zucchini flower, stuffed with fluffy creamy ricotta and floating in vibrant light tomato water. It was my ideal first course, light and full of flavour… courgette flowers are seriously underrated, paired with the right flavours they are an exemplary ingredient.
I avoided most of the next course, due to my aversion to seafood. ‘King Polpo’ is octopus with a duet of potatoes elegantly arranged in a glass with a succulent sauce, the dish is a bizarre combination of hot and cold, each mouthful is different. The table nodded in appreciation, apparently the octopus was the softest ever tasted.
The main was perhaps the most imaginative and artistic course: a clever dish with duck breast, foie gras and raspberry. Rich and fruity with a wonderful cut of meat and creamy foie gras… the raspberry took some getting used to but was a distinctive and attractive accompanying flavour. There is the option to ‘pimp it like an Italian’ – upgrading the dish to beef fillet with parsnip, edamame and Asia jus, but for this privilege you must find a further £13!
Dessert was my favourite, and after finishing my own, I proceeded to take donations from the rest of the table, I savoured every mouthful. The ‘Golden Dome’ (pastieries, candid lemon-orange peel and vanilla) is a light, airy and sweet pudding, a genius combination of vanilla and citrus components.
The food is the star of Pret-a-Diner, but it is about so much more… when I visited I was overwhelmed by the sensory overload, an explosion of invention, creativity and expertise. I cannot wait to see and taste whatever Kofler & Kompanie have next in store for us…
Pret a Diner is open until 30th June and The Costardi Brothers’ menu has just begun. Christian and Manuel Costardi run Cinzia of Vercelli, a hotel and restaurant that has been in their family for generations; their motto is ‘tradition and innovation’ and their dishes are their way of expressing their love for the important people in their lives. Their menu promises to be spectacular.
For more information and to book visit: www.pretadiner.com