My son and I are out for
a night in the West End. This is unusual as he is a teenager and, usually, he
wouldn’t be seen dead with me, not even after I’ve given him my word not to do funny dances in front of his friends or kiss him just as we’re passing the local gang of hoodies or appear at the school gate wearing leather and a push-up bra. Can you get fairer than that? I don’t think so. But he has his own social life now, which seems to involve going to somewhere called ‘the top field’ quite a lot. What do you do at ‘the top field’? ‘Stuff,’ he will say. What sort of stuff? I will ask. ‘Just stuff,’ he will say. What sort of just stuff? I will ask. ‘JUST STUFF!,’ he will say. That’s all you do, just stuff? Doesn’t that get boring after a while? Don’t you ever do any unjust stuff? Put people on trial without juries? Arrest them without informing them of their rights? I’m usually only just getting going when, whoosh-bang, he’s off with a slam of the front door. Heaven knows where he goes. The ‘top field’ to do ‘just stuff’? That’s my bet.
However, I have managed to tempt him out this evening with the promise of a) a movie screening of Sixty Six (to be reviewed here shortly, as I still seem to be doing everything round here) and b) dinner out. This, coupled with a further promise never to turn up at the school gate in the leather and bra (although, if I haven’t had time to go home and change, what am I expected to do?) seems to do the trick. Yes, it is going to be a bit of a pot-luck event as I haven’t booked anywhere but, come on, how hard can it be to find somewhere decent to eat at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night in the West End? Very, it would seem.
Sure, places like Pizza Hut and the Angus Steak House and Garfunkel’s are empty enough, but wouldn’t you rather stab pencils in your eyes and then saw your own arms off? Nope, neither would I. That would be silly and quite out of proportion. But you get my drift. I’d been minded to try Ping Pong, the new chain that, I think, is hoping to do for dim sum what Wagamama did for nood-les. There is one on Great Marlborough Street, just next to Liberty’s, but when we arrive there is a long queue and a minimum 30-minute wait and, to be honest, we feel we have better things to do. Like trailing round from restaurant to restaurant while being turned away again and again? Listen, how were we to know?
I have a brainwave. We’ll push the boat out a bit and try Alan Yau’s new all-day teahouse and dim sum emporium, Yauatcha, on Broadwick Street. You never know. So we schlep to Yauatcha only to be told on arrival that there are no empty tables. We are told this even though the person telling us is actually standing in front of a vast room full of empty tables. How does this work? I’ve no idea. I do protest. ‘But look,’ I say. ‘There’s an empty table. And there’s an empty table and there is another one.’ ‘We’re full,’ says the lady, shooing us out the door. Maybe we just don’t look right, in which case I blame my son, who has a hairdo like Shaggy from Scooby Doo and wears his jeans halfway down his arse. He says it’s the fashion. I say there are only a couple of things you ever have to consider when it comes to fashion: is it roomy and does it itch? If it’s ‘yes’ and then ‘no’, wear it. This is why I’m a style icon, I think.
So, on we go. We try St Moritz, the little Swiss fondue place that looks like a sauna (full) and then an Indian that doesn’t look that special (full) and then a Spanish place (nothing until 10.30 p.m.) and I’m just beginning to think it’s going to have to be Garfunkel’s — oh no, I’d nearly, but not quite, rather stab pencils in my eyes! — when we hit a small Italian on Poland Street. Those pesky Poles. Now they are even taking over our streets! Anyway, it’s called ‘Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion Restaurant’ but, alas, it seems horribly popular. It’s modest inside, only the size of a largish living-room, and it’s busy, busy, busy plus buzzy, buzzy, buzzy, just as, I suppose, a decent neighbourhood Italian should be, but it’s very annoying all the same. ‘Any room?’ I ask desperately. Well, a couple are just finishing. Can we wait five minutes? Yes, we can. And, yes, we will. You bet.
We’re eventually seated. It may be a modest-sized room but they sure pack ’em in. Flourish a butter-knife and you’ll take someone’s eye out on the next table. Still, it seems to be popular with TV people and the eavesdropping is tip-top. ‘The thing about Kelly Osbourne,’ says one chap, ‘is that she’s actually a very ordinary-looking girl. It’s just that she has a great stylist.’ What, she pays someone to tell her if an item is roomy enough and doesn’t itch? I could do that for nothing!
The decor is a trifle jaded — walls of a quite nasty yellow, tapestry chairs — but it also seems a blissfully authentic little place. The staff are all Italian. The fresh pasta is all made on the premises. The regional focus is, I think, Umbria with many of the ingredients — wild mushrooms, seasoned cheeses, cured meats — being directly sourced from there. The menu is simple: salads and pasta for starters, meat and fish for mains and exceptionally good value, I would say, at £22 for two courses, £27 for three.
I start with the carpaccio of pear, balsamic and pecorino. I didn’t want to, actually. I wanted to start with the homemade sea-bass cannelloni, which sounds so, so delicious, but they’re out. Shame. Big shame, but there you have it. And so what? Have you ever tried pears with cheese? You should. It’s wonderful. The pear slices, beautifully sweet and ripe, contrast magnificently with the sharpness of the pecorino and that dash of balsamic. You may say, but hang on, it’s not exactly cooking. Well, I would say, with ingredients as good as this, why bother? If you’ve got tip-top produce, why mess with it? Shaggy has the avocado and tomato salad which isn’t especially adventurous, I admit, but again, it’s a generous portion and the tomatoes are terrific. Have you noticed, by the way, that Tesco have started selling tomatoes ‘grown for flavour’? In which case, what were they previously grown for? Indeed.
Next I have the grilled salmon with shallot dressing and french beans. Again, perfectly simple but delightfully executed. The beans are fresh and crunchy while the salmon is moist and just ever so slightly shallot-ty. Shaggy has the spaghettini with calamari, tomato and fresh herbs. This does not stint on the calamari or any of the other ingredients for that matter. All in all, excellent Italian food that doesn’t even pretend to be fancy, and is all the better for it.
So I commend both Vasco and Piero, whoever they might be. This place knows what it does and does it well without any pretension. Is a night here as good as a night at ‘the top field’ doing ‘just stuff?’ I’ve no idea. But I might turn up one night in my roomy, non-itchy leather, just to see. Shaggy would like that, I think.
Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion Restaurant, 15 Poland Street, London W1. Tel: 020 7437 8774.