Pret a Diner: “Italians do it better”. Really?

After trying out Pret a Diner 2011 venture in our local Old Vic Tunnels and not being particularly impressed with the food, I was curious to try this year’s proposition, antagonistically named “Italians do it Better’. Name apart, it was going to be a feast of contemporary Italian food and art. At the time of booking Massimo Bottura was even listed amongst the chefs! Moreover, seeing Paolo Marchi’s name associated with the event, put more weight on the whole thing and I booked a random saturday night in June. 
Fast forward and it’s the night of our booked diner. Gone is Bottura – he was removed from the listed chefs shortly after I paid my deposit (typical). Weekly emails from Pret a Diner inviting people to book have been quite worrying, as apparently last year’s spectacular Minotaur was fully booked well in advance. Nevermind. 
We arrived at 30 St James’ Street, where kitchen staff were smoking by the door and a photographer was hanging about. It turned out that the ‘art space’ on the ground floor was in fact closed for a private function. Nice. Surely the inability to view the art does diminish the ‘value proposition’ of the whole night. 
Greeted by various, friendly, front of the house people (most of whom asked ‘have you dined with us before?’) we were accompanied to the first floor where the dining area is. Immediately we felt the buzz of last year’s Minotaur was missing.
This venue used to be a private members’ club and a casino was hosted on the first floor. It is surely  impressive and with some interesting art scattered here and there, appealing. The dining room has a large middle long table, with a massive lampshade hanging over and a big beautiful flower vase. We were told there would have been live music, and we took our seats at a side table. As we sat down, we were pointed the wine list on page 15 of the ‘Corriere’ newspaper we had by our plates. The back page has a bold claim: “This is not a pop up restaurant – this is a real Italian dining experience”. Wow. Bring it on, sono pronta.
However, the wine list was the first let down. Three whites only and two of them over £80. We chose of course the cheapest, a Vermentino from Tuscany priced at £28. We both opted for the menu by Niederkofler & Cucchelli, as the other menu by the Contardi brothers did not appeal to us much. I was unsure at this stage which one was the ‘traditional’ and which one was the ‘innovative’ as they both seemed pretty similar.
After a fairly good amuse-bouche (anchovy bruscetta‘ and a cauliflower mousse) we got our starters in super quick time. It felt like they were pre-prepared and ready to be served. Deja Vu?  
Beef tartare with burrata and rhubarb, called ‘North and South, uniting Italy’ was possibly the best dish of the evening. The tartare was light and gently seasoned (Angus beef is so Italian!), the burrata was good but it’s just burrata. I have no idea where the rhubarb was, but the mini quenelle of basil ice cream was a nice touch which matched the textures perfectly. A decent start.
Our Gnocchi with Salmon arrived. This was the most puzzling, disappointing dish of the night. The gnocchi were too soft and too watery. Completely covered by smoked salmon and curly leaves with balsamic vinegar. Why, oh why? What in the name of Bacchus makes one put together a cold smoked slice of fish (which to my knowledge we do not have in Italy) with a pasta which marries much better with so many other ingredients? I did not even bother asking if the salmon was sustainably caught. Besides, the idea ‘bring the sea to countryside’ doesn’t really work with salmon, a fish that mainly lives in fresh water.
A very odd dish which felt made of mismatched parts. 
I was also longing for some bread but the waiters had taken it away. That’s not very Italian, either.
Finally, our mains. I opted to go for the menu main, Veal with Caponata, ‘Patience and Lust’ (great, pointless name). The veal was fairly well cooked but lacked seasoning and was slightly tough, while the caponata also puzzled me. It was not what you’d usually call caponata, rather a bunch of crunchy vegetables I could not quite identify (parsnip?) covered in tasty pea mousse (my guess) and roasted pine nuts. It was ok. @bmcboy ‘upgraded’ the veal for a fillet steak (£13 extra) which he enjoyed. It came with parsnip mash and the very Italian edamame beans and Asia jus. The name was another really funky joke (not!) ‘Pimp it like an Italian’. Not sure if they are trying to be clever, funny or what else. I am guessing I’m not their target market anyway: waiters polite and professional in English, swearing freely in Italian by our table. An elegant touch.
Dessert? no thanks. Neither of the two proposed, at £9, appealed to us. It was 8.30pm and within an hour we’d arrived, ordered, eaten and presented the bill. 
A musician had come on and played for half an hour. While he was actually quite good, it was difficult to have a conversation and 8£ per person was added to our bill. Discretionary, apparently.
A total of 182£ lighter, we left – laughing at the rip off we’ve just been given. I cannot help but feeling that where last year the lack of wow factor in the food was made up for by the fantastic set up in the tunnels, this year the set up was nowhere near as good. 
A lot of the ‘art’ was not even Italian, some looked like it was from last year and we did not even see all of it. In and out within an hour and quarter for a soulless meal. 
If the purpose was to showcase the current Italian cuisine, then personally (as an Italian?) I feel Pret a Diner has put together a misleading offering. It might be worth explaining that the only really Italian thing about the food are the chefs cooking.
Maybe the others (Locatelli, Varese) would have made the whole experience different and we were just unlucky. Who knows. I am surely not going to fall for Pret a Diner’s charme next year.

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