In the newly refurbished Ambassadors hotel in Bloomsbury, Santino Busciglio's menu at restaurant Number Twelve is a fine balance of British and Italian cuisine. Tom Vaughan reports
Sicilian-born and Bolton-bred, head chef Santino Busciglio's dual nationality permeates his menu at the newly launched Number Twelve in Bloomsbury, London. And bearing in mind his previous role as head chef at Rosmarino in St John's Wood, as well as stints at Zafferano and Volt, it's no surprise to see strong Italian influences in his cooking.
Buffalo mozzarella, Italian plum and cherry tomatoes and basil (£5.95) kicks off the à la carte starters. So far, so Italian. But then pan-fried fillet of sea-trout, spinach, sauté potato and beetroot sauce (£13.50) and pan-fried fillet of native sea bass, morel sauce and asparagus (£16.95)?
"I was brought up in a Sicilian household where everything - family, dinner, cooking - was as Sicilian as Sicily," Busciglio says. "But I also spent all this time surrounded by the wonderful produce on this island and this gives me a chance to showcase it."
The result is a menu that approaches British produce with edges of Italian technique.
Situated in the newly refurbished Ambassadors hotel in Bloomsbury, the 70-cover site was formerly a run-of-the-mill hotel restaurant. It now has a separate entrance and a bright, simple interior of white tablecloths and large windows overlooking the Dickensian gem that is Wolburn Walk lane.
Busciglio's first objective was to source the British produce that was to form the backbone of the menu. The set-lunch menu (£13.50 for two courses, £15.50 for three) features Richard Vaughan's pork from the Wye Valley in south-east Wales - it's thinly sliced, grilled and served with a soured vegetable salad and Madeira wine dressing. La Fromagerie provides the restaurant's sizeable cheese selection, including what Busciglio describes as "the best ricotta outside Sicily". The second of two starter options on the set-lunch menu, the ewes' milk ricotta, comes served with home-made pasta twists, basil and Sicilian extra virgin olive oil.
There are two stand-out à la carte starters. The first is a generous portion of Devon crab meat - 65g to be exact - with avocado and a radish salad touched with a hint of lime and chilli (£7.95). The second is an expertly pan-fried piece of foie gras, with a gently caramelised shell and soft, velvety inside, accompanied by the slight saltiness of a small heap of Italian lentils, a touch of reduced balsamic and the clean wash of seared pear (£7.95).
Another highlight among the starters is yellowfin tuna - "so fresh when it arrives it practically winks at me" Busciglio says - coated with salt, pepper, sugar and fennel seeds then seared at a high temperature to caramelise the exterior and served with a warm Sicilian sweet-and-sour salad of onion, fennel and pine nuts (£5.95).
The main courses also mix British produce with il bel paese. Home-made pasta twists come with seasonal, thick-sliced wild mushrooms in a white butter sauce (£12.95), sitting with a warm, creamy sheen in a shallow dish. Scottish red-leg partridge is prepared two ways: the breast roasted and the leg cooked and shredded, and served with those staples of the English game season Savoy cabbage and (excellent) bread sauce, and then, for that extra, rich edge, a small cut of pan-fried foie gras (£14.95).
Indecision is rarely an admirable quality in a restaurant, but Busciglio's flitting between cuisines isn't a mark of uncertainty, rather a shared heritage of Mediterranean and Lancastrian cooking. For example, roasted rabbit, Jerusalem artichoke and spaghetti of carrots (£13.95) sits comfortably alongside pan-fried English calves' liver, mustard and crushed potatoes, spinach, white onion and Parma ham crisp (£12.50).
But it's in the desserts that a Bolton upbringing most shines through, namely in the raspberry trifle, amaretti biscuit, peaches, vanilla egg custard and clotted cream (£5.95). "When I was at school up north we had all these versions of English desserts - trifle, spotted dick - so it's what I grew up eating," Busciglio says.
Light touches also sit alongside the heavier dishes of warm apple sponge, hazelnut sauce and vanilla ice-cream (£5.50). For example, there's Dorset bell heather and honeycomb semifreddo, made with honeycombs from the Hive Honey shop in Clapham, accompanied with baked figs (£5.95).
The restaurant is currently doing 60 covers a day. With the revamped St Pancras less than a 10-minute walk away, the Bloomsbury area is set for a make-over in the next few years. Number Twelve may be only the first of a probable glut of restaurants aimed at testing the area, but few will have quite the unique offer of Busciglio's menu.
Also on the menu
Cream of borlotti beans, rosemary-scented cèpes, garlic bruschetta, £6.50
Irish salmon from Claire Island three ways - terrine, tartare, cold smoked, £7.50
Tartare of Donald Russell fillet beef, shallots, capers, rocket, soft poached quail egg, £6.95
Medallion of Donald Russell beef fillet, celeriac, braised red onion, cèpes, Scottish girolles, £15.95
Steamed silver hake, pak choi, sun-blushed tomatoes, clams, capers, black olives, £13.95
Carnaroli risotto with seasonal wild mushrooms, acidic butter, organic Parmesan, £13.95
Almond sable biscuit, organic carrot sorbet, plums in spiced wine, £5.50
70% Valrhona chocolate mousse, hazelnut biscuits, vanilla sugar syrup, £5.95
Sorbets: green apple, Champagne, Valrhona chocolate, £5
Away from the stove
"I'll eat at Ristorante Semplice in Mayfair. It's such simple cuisine but the attention to detail is amazing. Head chef Marco Torri is a phenomenal chef - if you want a risotto Milanese it's the best on the planet."
12 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1 0HX. Tel: 020 7693 5425www.numbertwelverestaurant.co.uk