We were invited to dine at award-winning Italian restaurant, Incanto
Here at SOW, we're proud to say that when we arrive on your doorstep with our cooking ingredients, you can be confident that we've brought only the very best. That includes free range chicken, farm assured meat, and produce sourced locally wherever possible. Incanto focusses on local produce and sustainable food concepts, so we were delighted to be invited.
Having recently won a 2 AA Rosette, Incanto's owner David Taylor is in a deservedly good mood. "We're about to get incredibly busy," he says. He might be referring to the hectic Christmas period, but judging by the delicious and innovative meal we enjoyed at Incanto, this could easily relate to the future of the restaurant in general.
Their food philosophy is simple - authentic regional recipes with good quality ingredients
But if you're thinking of a classic Margherita pizza or a run-off-the-mill Spag Bol, think again! This is the cutting edge of Italian restaurants.
We began our meal with some hearty starters to warm us up. Jez opts for a flavoursome porcini and parmesan risotto, whilst I go for eggs enrobed in ravioli with black truffle and cauliflower puree (the trick is apparently to keep the pasta as thin as possible to get perfectly cooked eggs). Being a pasta obsessive, I'm pretty impressed, as the ravioli is bitingly magnificent.
We are then told to expect a Caprese salad as our next dish, but the plate that arrives on the table is nothing short of a masterpiece. It's almost as if every ingredient has been re-invented. The tomato is wafer-thin, sundried, almost like a crisp, whilst the basil flavour comes under the guise of a deliciously light ice-cream. Providing a quirky yet perfect accompaniment for the creamy buffalo mozzarella are some tiny balsamic vinegar jelly cubes, made from Iota Carrageenan (the entire menu is gelatine-free!).
It's the surrealist of salads, and one of the most recent moments of inspiration from head chef Marcus Chant. "The idea actually came to me in the middle of the night," he explains, whilst expertly gutting a fish. "I had to get a pen and scribble it down before I forgot it."
We await the next dishes with an almost giddy anticipation, and we're far from disappointed. Jez tucks into a succulent pigeon breast (water bathed at 60 degrees for two hours before roasting to keep it tender), nestled on a bed of winter kale with grapes and walnuts, with deep-fried shallot rings perched on top. Smoked mash and a rich, red-wine jus make it a brute of a dish.
Meanwhile, another creative flourish is brought to the table, this time in the shape of a wild black sea bass. Sitting a-top a mass of foraged sea vegetables and served with its own sea spray (a light radish foam), it's undoubtedly an aesthetic crowd pleaser.
But whilst presentation is clearly a big focus of Incanto's philosophy, it's never at a compromise to quality ingredients
"The way we source our produce is really important to us," explains David, who recently signed the restaurant up to become a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. "We're especially passionate about using sustainable fish, because research has shown that the rate of farming is way too high to viably continue. We also try and keep packaging to a minimum and recycle."
With much of the produce sourced locally (there's even a vegetable patch where fresh herbs and tomatoes are grown), Incanto have done their homework, and are now proud to serve the best quality food available from Great Britain and Italy. The scallops hail from the Hebrides, local game from Chesham, Berkshire, even the tomato seeds used in the vegetable patch are from the Harrow-based Italian Seed Company.
In fact, my intriguing mass of sea vegetables are courtesy of a forager from Whitstable, who will regularly visit the restaurant with a new crop of sea treats. Depending on the season, these may include vegetables such as Neptune's Belt, Sea Fennel, or even the fantastically named Sea Thong.
"Having a good relationship with our food foragers and changing the menu with the seasons keeps the restaurant exciting," David adds.
But with expensive dishes including venison, wild boar and sea bass, and prices high but far from extortionate, how have they managed to survive (and win awards) during a time when many restaurants have folded?
"When the recession hit, I decided to do everything I could to go against the tide of cutting prices and lowering quality. Our prices have remained consistent, and instead we chose to invest heavily in the food and wine," he explains.
"It may have been a risky decision, but it's paid off and the restaurant has improved tremendously as a result."
Tucking into a decadent chocolate torte with gingerbread ice cream, I nod heartily. I might not know what it was like before, but one thing's for certain - this little gem on the Hill is a special one indeed.
Visit the Incanto website here.