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The Park Room
WHEN you think of an Italian restaurant you think of somewhere small, cosy and bustlingly intimate, somewhere precisely at the other end of the spectrum from the ornate dining rooms of our grander hotels, where up till now French cooking, in its more elaborate forms, has held magisterial sway. The Hyde Park Hotel has changed all that. It has brought in a brilliant young chef, Giuseppe Sestito, who has produced a menu that promises to do for good Italian home cooking what nouvelle cuisine did for the sauce-swathed specialities of French haute cuisine.
The brief is now familiar: no butter, no cream, low-fat and light cooking. Not that his menu, which he identifies as La Cucina Mediterranea, offers anything which is exactly new: Italian cooking at its best, at home and in native trattorie, has always been based on fresh ingredients, simply presented. This is exactly what you get at the Hyde Park Hotel.
This 'historical revolution in the kitch- en', which is how the hotel sees its Italiani- fied menu, is not matched by a correspond- ing move away from tradition in its re- vamped decor. Pale shades of Balmoral linger over the padded sitting room where you sip your aperitivo and mull over the menu. Plump cushions covered in defiantly fake tartan are strewn over the deep-tinted flowered chintz sofas and armchairs uphol- stered in plaidish material embroidered with thistles. A particularly graceless chan- delier is suspended from the high ceiling and over the fireplace hangs a murky oil depicting a boating scene from days gone by.
When you book, try and make sure you get a table near the window. Through the steely blue and cinnamon curtains there is the perfect urban-pastoral scene: the quiet flow of traffic in the foreground; behind, the tree-latticed sweep of Hyde Park. The blue-speckled, gilt-edged dining room, at lunch time at least, contains the usual quota of stripy-tied businessmen, but there were a couple of sleek-haired little girls being taken out for a treat by their granny, which is just how things should be in this sort of hotel.
At lunch there is a prix-fixe menu, two courses for £17, three for £18.50 and four for £22 and a supplementary three-course daily changing menu for £18.50. You would be mad not to try the hors d'oeuvre
from the buffet, a large oval table set over to one side decked with the best antipasti I've had outside Italy: scallops with oil- darkened radicchio, stuffed courgettes, paper-thin slices of grill-scorched auber- gine, breadcrumbed eel, a glossy peper- onata, tongue-pink ham and tuna and olive salad. The only trouble with going for these is that it precludes a pasta course. Sestito says that he is trying to get away from the 'pasta-pasta-pasta image of Ita- lian cooking', but luckily he hasn't done away with farinacei altogether: the rigato- ni, short fat tubes of corrugated pasta, with juliennes of courgette and aubergine was perfettissimo.
Next stop the main course. The salmon with thyme, a thick slab of perfectly cooked, coral-coloured flesh, seared to an intense crispiness on the outside, juicily soft within, and the monkfish with a tomatoey sauce of olive and capers, were both magnificent, with the salmon just making it to first place. For meat-eaters, there's veal with asparagus and sage, beef braised in red wine, grilled cutlets with stuffed chicken breast.
End with a seriously alcohol-soused tiramisu or apricots stuffed with gooey macaroon. The wine list is on the expen- sive side (the cheapest barolo is £17.50, the pinot grigio is £22.50) so I should stick to the house wine, red or white, at £11. A bottle of mineral water will you back £3. Lunch for two, with a bottle of house wine, coffee and petits fours will cost between £50 and £60. Service is better than any- where in London; the Hyde Park Hotel should offer up a prayer of thanks daily for its head waiter.
Dinner looks to be a more expensive, but intensely pleasurable, affair: slices of marinated sea bass with fennel, seafood- stuffed black ravioli, saffron risotto deco- rated with gold leaf, fillet of beef with rosemary and wild endive, calf s liver with balsamic vinegar. Dinner for two would probably cost the price of lunch and half again, but I am tempted all the same.
My compliments, as they say, to the chef.
The Park Room at the Hyde Park Hotel, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1. Tel 01-235 2000. Lunch and dinner daily.