Victoria has always been my golden gateway into London, purely from a train travelling point of view; a portal to a foreign and exiting land far removed from Beckenham. For all it stands for, it’s always remained, throughout my life, simply somewhere to pass through. Nothing more a station. Bad coffee. Cheap burgers. WH Smiths. Boots. There isn’t even the simple sugar rush of a pick ‘n’ mix any more – always dissapointing I know, but still, there’s a certain childhood anticipation associated with journeys and treats that the dried fruit & nut stands just can’t replicate.
Victoria then is a place of transition, I never leave the station unless to embark on a walk elsewhere, usually onwards to the west end/Soho. The longest I ever spend, and it’s entirely enforced, at Victoria, is if I miss the penultimate train, usually by a matter of mere soul crushing seconds. So easily and so often done, the wait then to the last is a tortuous forty minutes, wherein relief is only available if you’re hungry enough to browse the baguette and burger shops for filth or drunk enough not to care. The hope of Twitter distraction usually dashed by a long dead battery iphone this late into the evening.
Having established itself as a bit of a general and more specifically culinary wasteland I was surprised to all of a sudden keep hearing more and more about a restaurant called Tozi, located spitting distance from the station itself. This makes it about a short thirty minute trip door to door from my flat and a very tempting proposition indeed. It doesn’t take much to convince the boy, I mean it’s practically on our doorstep, it’s also ‘safe’ i.e. in a hotel, in a bit of a naff area, therefore not likely to be too trendy or have mega queues. Yup, sold to the boy and his intense hatred of East London.
There’s no denying it’s a grim place to put a restaurant; grey concrete structures and roads, drab offices, cabs, bad suits spilling out of bad pubs – yuk, it’s enough frankly to make you turn on your heels and escape back up to the safety net of Soho and it’s merry grid of dining gems. But then we turn a corner and it’s upon us, a blank looking front, rather too Zizzi for my liking and part of the Park Plaza hotel, admittedly not a great first impression but we’re hungry and feeling lazy, so push open that glass door. There’s a rather welcoming looking bar to the left and a sort of reception directly in front where we’re greeted and led out past an open kitchen, huge bowls of vegetables, impressive ovens and through to an anaemic, generic, bland dining room. I’m not a fan of white table cloths or hotels and this honks of both, although the air is relatively relaxed and looking back there doesn’t appear to be any actual starched cotton table cloths, there’s still a stark, cold edge I associate with both (plus I totally and utterly get the dreaded scraper treatment, though not the napkin of shame on this occassion)
Undeterred, we get to grips with the excellent looking cocktail list, there’s enough here to keep me entertained all evening but I can’t see much further than a trio of Negroni’s. You know me. The boy goes for a sickly, girly and off puttingly named Mrs that combines Bombay Sapphire with Campari, Chombard and blackberries; saccharine. I opt for the masculine version that’s a far more palatable aged number; spicy, smooth and almost woody. Much better. I’m assuming its punchy nature is the reason for my insufficiently full looking glass… A bread basket is immediately plundered of salty little squares of foccacia which we double up on oil content by dunking in rapidly depleted olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip, we tire of the game as soon as we’re left with unimaginative slices, and you know where you can stick your bread sticks.
Trying to get our heads around the food menu is a trickier matter entirely, it’s somewhat vast and all sounds like the sort of stuff I’d happily scoff way beyond the point my body is screaming at me to stop being such a glutton. It’s tempting to try and pick something from each of the categories in order not to feel like we’re missing out; wood oven, fritti, counter & salad (mainly charcuterie and cheese), pasta & soups, grill, baked and sides. Essentially though it’s sold as a Venetian chichetti menu, so lots of little sharing plates and we end up ordering more on the snacky side rather than what I’d consider ‘proper’ cooking.
It seems daft not to order the grand selection of cured meats and cheeses in this situation and it appears at our table first, an impressive wooden platter plied with rugged chunks of aged cheeses and attractively scrunched folds of fatty meats that seem to implore me to grab great fistfuls with unladylike abandon. A sheeps parmesan is dictionary umami; sweet, savoury and pungent, mortadella winking with pistachios is enough honestly to encourage me to order more immediately, if only the other plates hadn’t started to quickly fill our table. Bresaola is simply but magically doused in Sicillian lemon, with more of that parmesan tumbling across in small clusters, a combination that adds bright, rich complexity to an unfatty cut.
Spianata from the wood oven breezes over on another little wooden tree stump, looking all rustic and blistered. But, oh my. This is not the simple pizzette that it appears; a charred crust shatters to puffy cloud like softness, smoky aubergine and pancetta reinforce that oven char and then this is all topped off with the most sublime ricotta – nothing like any ricotta I’ve tasted before, this bears not a fleeting resemblance to anything in my memory, it’s loose and creamy but still stringy rather than cottage cheesy, not a hint of graininess, sweet and heavenly and far more akin, I’d say, to a stracchino. Wow – I sit on my hands for fear of tearing into it and cramming handfuls straight into my gob. You know that compulsion you get near a cliff edge? Yeah, that.
I’m not quite sure why we ordered the roasted potatoes with sage because they don’t really make any coherent sense now that the food is placed in front of us, I guess we were thinking too literally tapas in style – we always order the patatas bravas. They’re waxy with a tough skin, not bad but not a great choice on our part. Zucchini fries are exactly as they are so often not; perfectly executed, properly skinny, crispy, salty and utterly addictive. Our final dish of gnocchi is worth waiting for; tiny, plump pillows are draped with tender shreds of intense duck ragu and showered with parmesan; small but perfectly formed in every way.
The only real disappointment is our dessert of millefeuille ordered out of sheer curious gluttony, as we certainly don’t have the actual stomach space for it. We’re missing at the very least a good nine hundred and ninety seven of the promised pastry layers, however after a large quantity of their tap prosecco we’re really beyond caring too much and the complementary Brutti ma Buoni go some way to repairing the damage. I score myself bonus points for knowing the name of the Italian ‘ugly but good’ cookies and our lovely waitress even feigns an impressed face. Impressive.
We finish the evening with another couple of excellent cocktails and leave fully stuffed for around £50 a head and with an overwhelming urge to return.
On a journey that requires a change at Victoria, I steal a pitt stop opportunity for a quick dinner, slipping out of the station and ease myself into a seat at the bar within the space of about five minutes. The bar is dark in contrast to the bright dining room and bristles with waiters, but I feel at ease enough to request a nonchalant dinner alone rewarding me with a not entirely alarmed reaction. The menu is subtly changed but not enough to upset, I select a casual couple of snacks and almost stop before predictably adding a plate of mortadella to my order.
Deep fried baby mozzarella balls are rescued from average by an astoundingly sprightly tomato sauce. Piadina is unlike any I’ve seen in this country in that it’s just like the ones I had in Riccioni. The bread is flaky and oil enriched as it should be, prosciutto is abundant in it’s porky folds, salty, soft and contrasting perfectly with bitter rocket leaves and creamy, silky stracchino. That simple combination effectively transporting me, for a second, back to that scorching, extravagant Italian holdiay town.
In reality the room I’m in contains a far dowdier crowd than you’d expect to find amongst those flamboyant vacationing Italians, mostly suited and booted men at the bar and small gaggles of girls chittering over post work cocktails.
All washed down with a martini, I’m in and out within half an hour, less than the time it usually takes me to get home, I can see this becoming a regular cheeky refuge. There’s no doubt I’ll be back for the food, I expect I’ll be chastised for not ordering the ricotta and truffle ravioli so that’s reason enough to return.
There’s something a touch soulless about the place however that would have me suggest you prepare to bring your own company and atmosphere. I’m more than prepared to do that and you should be too; I’m delighted to have found such a treat so close to home.