Restaurant Review: Can Diciannove in the City bring brilliance to Blackfriars?

Or is this hotel-foyer restaurant mutton dressed as lamb?

Why would you ever choose to go to Blackfriars? Situated on the riverbank between the City and the West End, it is a place of transition rather than a destination; a conduit between work and play.

The area first gained a foothold in my mind when as a teenager I saw a brawl in the road outside a pub where I had stopped for a beer and a pickled egg. It was a warm summer evening, and as a huffing red-faced copper rounded up the combatants into a car, I thought, quite happily, that I would never go there again.

But I was wrong. Various jobs have since seen me working on both sides of the Blackfriars divide, and come 5.30 I have repeatedly found myself acquiescing to meet friends or colleagues at this unexceptional intersection.

Since the evening of the pickled egg, an expansive new road layout has been introduced, and the old Tube station has been replaced with a vast palace of a transport hub, both of which have served to cement Blackfriars’ position in my mind as a duct through which I must pass, swiftly.

But could that be about to change? Kings Cross has managed to shrug off its notoriety for drugs and prostitution and reinvent itself as a trendy centre for the tech sector. Can Blackfriars do better for itself too?

I say yes. That is because I recently had my first wonderful night out in Blackfriars. And you could too. Diciannove at the Crowne Plaza is a snazzy Italian restaurant lurking behind the façade of an imposing old stationary warehouse, and it was here that I was forced to reassess my view of the area. 

Formerly known as Refettorio, the rebranded restaurant is a safe bet for smart business lunches and evening meals. Decked out with dark wood tables, colourful modern lighting and sharp lines, this is a pretty straightforward dining experience. On a Thursday night the place was about three-quarters full and had a tranquil atmosphere. Well-to-do hotel guests occupied most tables, including a table of about 12 volatile Armani-clad tourists in their early twenties who were drinking red-bull and taking photographs of each other in dark glasses.

The starter was in keeping with the glamour of the surroundings – pan fried scallops with butternut squash purée and pancetta; tender orange cylinders gleaming on a little bed of yellow paste. Meanwhile my companion had the considerably more rustic burrata crostini – one of the restaurant’s signature dishes – served with a well-balanced tangle of aubergines, chilli and tomato.

The scallops had the pleasant effect of fully rousing my occasionally gargantuan appetite, the consequence being that my concern over the main course lay chiefly over the size of the portion rather than the quality of the cuisine. But my worries were unfounded. A substantial slab of bronzed lamb was laid out before me that put my stomach’s suspicions at rest. Opposite me, an equally voluminous portion of pasta, the pappardelle ai porcini, a creamy mushroom dish, also landed.

Wine-wise, we opted for a bottle of Chianti. Excitingly, the menu said it had a 2011 vintage, but my hopes were dashed when it turned out the restaurant had run out. Nonetheless the 2012 had a pleasing dark cherry warmth that was a perfect accessory to the lamb.

Now the lamb – I love lamb. Growing up near south Wales, my parents kept sheep, and indeed still do. Early spring is lambing season, and then a few months later we would be seasoning lamb. Home-grown organic lamb is the most exquisite flesh on the planet. Unfortunately Diciannove didn’t impress me hugely here. The meat had good flavour, and the thin seam of fat was perfectly cooked, but the texture was just slightly too tough to gain full marks. The accompanying fennel and courgette, and a sweet tomato mixture made for a perfectly balanced meal with punchy individual flavours – however.

But the star dish was the pasta. Thick-cut chestnut-flour pappardelle draped in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce was, like all great Italian food, both sumptuous and simple.

And simplicity is clearly what Diciannove does best. Being a hotel restaurant, this is not the place for truly daring cuisine. Instead it is an enthusiastic celebration of modern Italian food in a conservative environment.

Chocolate mousse and a shared glass of grappa saw us out and back onto the mean streets of Blackfriars. Cars swished through the rain and we dashed into the sparkling entrance of the station. No pickled eggs, no fights, just a very enjoyable evening.

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