I once spent a great semi-year in Los Angeles. As often discussed, the City of Angeles is less an actual city, more conurbationised sprawl. Sure, there was a liberating feeling of opportunity, a sense that my creative germ was being activated by all that vitamin D, a slight electric thrill upon realising I was physically interacting with the landmarks of my childhood TV memory. It’s just there’s no buses after, like, 8pm. And I couldn’t walk anywhere because the sidewalks just ended and, like, ‘why aren’t you driving?’. And when I did give in and get a car – ‘what ARE you driving?’.
There’s a brief flashback to my Californian chicken runs as I jaywalk across the Aldwych to get to the other side, where the shiny ME Hotel lives. Being on this promontory, just off The Strand, gives the ME a certain LA elevation. Even as a flaneur, you travel to get there. Inside, being part of an American hotel group, it feels very LA as well. Go upstairs to the roof and you get spectacular views of nearby landmarks (London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge). I’m lunching at their rustic Italian, Cucina Asellina.
In New York, Asellina (at the Ganesvoort on Park Avenue) is packaged as an Italian Vogue iteration of Tuscan and Umbrian delights. Chef Marco Porceddu creates earthy dishes that feed the soul, whilst the Midtown crowd and their couture provide the eye candy.
On a Wednesday afternoon, our only eye candy is the handsome, bright room. Everyone else is obviously knuckling back down to work after three courses. My dining partner owns a guest house on a cliff top hamlet, slap bang at the intersection of Tuscany, Lazio and Umbia and is delighted by what he finds on the menu. Big, NY-sized versions of fayre he recognises as indigenous. He coos over the veal meatballs, slathered in a windfall of freshly grated parmesan. I’m doing the same over the oven-baked aubergine tortino, a ricotta-bathed stack of tomatoey, fleshy goodness. Being greedy boys, we have a third starter, a limoncello-sauced tuna tartare – a delicious counterpoint to our richer choices.
After that, we’re spoilt for choice. The demonic wood fired oven offers luxuriantly topped flatbreads, with cipollini, black truffle, fontina, smoked scamorza cheese and prosciutto Saint Danielle all on the pizza menu. We opt for pasta – I go Northern with chestnut gargenelli – a subtle, strong and perfectly balanced marriage of firm short pasta, savoury porcini and fennel-infused sausage. M beams in recognition again, as lobster fettucini, speckled tomato red and herb green emerges from it’s Martini bianco sauce dialing a direct line to an Adriatic beach. The wines are holding their own. The La Spinetta Vermentino di Toscana is a Piedmontese white that grasps in its golden hue a perfect balance of fruit and mineral for the pasta dishes. A 2011 Venetian Soave – 95% of it Gargenaga grape – is crisper, drier and lightly perfumed, hand-picked to go with M’s approaching Wild Bronzino. I’m looking forward to the red, though. The Castello Banfi is a Brunello di Montalcino to be savoured. The velvety pinnacle of Tuscan Sangiovese goodness, it brings gallons of berries, deep fruit with a trace of vanilla and spice. This is the perfect foil to my main – a handsomely-seared Steak Tagliata, served in its griddle with caramelised onions. A great piece of beef, moderately priced and pretty as a picture. But not for long.
We still find room for baby-smooth, hazelnut-strewn Gianduja (Turin’s classy nutella) semifreddo and a light-as-air Tiramisu, accompanied by a divinely moreish Banfi brachetto d’aqui – a lovely, sweet frothy red.
After a brilliantly erudite exposition on the state of Italian politics from our charming waitress (we’ll all miss Berlusconi), we stagger out. Very full, very contented, but in no state to cross the contraflow around the hotel. It’s just like being back in LA. Luckily, my London arm still works. ‘Taxi!’
For more info, visit: www.melia.com/hotels.