Tom relives the real-life pleasures of dining out with box kits from his favourite Italian restaurants
Just after noon on a brisk spring day, and I’m sitting outside at The River Cafe with co-columnist Olly Smith. As ever, he takes care of the wine, and as the food starts to appear, lockdown seems like a dim and distant dream. Here, with an old friend, in one of my favourite restaurants on earth. But then cold reality crashes through those blue-striped awnings. When we realise we’re alone – save a bustling kitchen knocking up endless restaurant boxes – sitting two metres apart, Covid tested and Covid safe. We’re doing a photo shoot for the main paper, and the communal joys of a busy restaurant are still a while away.
No matter, as we get to devour one of their boxes – Set One, to be precise (shoptherivercafe.co.uk, £140 for two people, plus £15 delivery within M25 only; other options available nationwide) – sitting outside in the sun. The food is simple but peerless. Excellent fresh mozzarella with smashed chickpeas and soft, charred pumpkin. Then a great majestic tranche of turbot, with garlicky greens, and a bowl of slow-cooked Datterini tomatoes, sweetly intense. And whole charred Violetta artichokes. Any remaining juice is mopped up with great chunks of oil-slicked focaccia. For pudding, a joyous pear and almond tart. Not cheap, but worth every penny.
More class from East London’s Luca (luca.bignight.app, from £90 for two). Braised artichokes and fennel with a rich, pure walnut salsa, all well balanced acidity and satisfying crunch. Then lasciviously creamy whipped salt cod with bitter cima di rapa, soft confit garlic and shards of spicy fried bread. Simple to make, joyous to eat, a riot of tastes and textures.
Strozzapreti with wild mushrooms and winter truffle butter is a pasta dish of quiet genius. It renders my brother-in-law and I speechless with greedy delight. Again, cooking involves little more than boiling fresh pasta and heating up the sauce. There’s a slow-cooked short rib of good, aged Hereford beef, soft and rich, with smoke-scented potato purée, with a sharp, lively salsa verde. Pudding is a chocolate mousse with vanilla cream.
The menu will have changed by now, but the quality will endure. Like the River Cafe, this is box food of the highest order. For us, a lockdown luxury. But for those restaurants working so hard to stay afloat, it’s nothing short of a lifeline.
Drinks: Olly’s light and floral reds
Red wines may not be quite as scented as face-planting in a jasmine bush, but pick the right grape and you’ll find fragrance as gentle and heady as roses wreathed in lavender. Gamay and Pinot Noir are decent options, or try Grenache for more welly. Open these bottles young for full flowery power. Lighter reds are delicious served chilled as the weather warms up and with nibbles from salami to tuna steaks.
WINE OF THE WEEK KURTATSCH BLAUBURGUNDER 2019 (13%), £16.90, hhandc.co.uk. Sleek and refreshing as frozen berries, this fragrant ace from Italy is liquid finesse. Magical!
BEAUJOLAIS LES PIERRES DORÉES CUVÉE LOUIS DÉPAGNEUX 2020 (12.5%), £8.50, The Wine Society. Best-value Beauj, scented as strawberries and rose petals.
BONTERRA 2018 YOUNG RED (13.5%), £17.95, greatwine.co.uk Organic Grenache from the US: satin redcurrants and a blooming bouquet!
MEYER-NÄKEL SPÄTBUR- GUNDER 2018 (13.5%), £19.70, thewinebarn.co.uk Silky German Pinot with cherry-blossom scent to make your heart sing.
ADNAMS CENTRAL OTAGO PINOT NOIR 2015 (13.5%), £19.99. Dark scent of deep berries and the perfect grippy texture to pair with tuna steaks.