I’m walking down Berkeley Street in Mayfair to the notorious Novikov, expecting something stand out. It’s early evening in March and dark already, and my dinner date waiting next to the restaurant’s bouncer makes it feel as if we’ve stepped back some years and are heading to an exclusive club night. A few hours later and it’s ramping up to just this at Novikov. But that’s not why we’re here; We’ve come for the food.
I’ve heard of Novikov as a swanky pan-Asian restaurant but never its Italian string, the second dining room at the same Berkeley Street location. The venue is huge and the Italian is set back, behind the street-fronting Asian restaurant and beyond the stairs leading down to Novikov’s ‘lounge’ bar. Novikov Italia is a space designed a little like an indoor food hall or market, under a high finished ceiling. A bar stretching the length of one wall is adorned with colourful fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, bread, as well as fresh fish and lobster on ice. Potted olive trees break up the tables and add to the aesthetics. The room is brightly lit and open – perfect for people watching. It’s not your classic Italian experience (one that I do crave) or even the London-Italian scene of low-key, intimate eating in small, atmospheric familial settings. But the waiters are charming Italians and passionate about their recommendations, especially of the dishes local to their home region. And anyway, you’ve not come to Novikov for Italian feasting in an understated setting. You’re here to eat very well, splash out and to see and be seen.
Starting with a generous glass of prosecco, I’m reminded of the quality of this place. Prosecco isn’t my favourite fizz, after a decade of overindulgence (and possibly overproduction to sate mine and everyone else’s thirst), but of course this is a dry, clean and minerally Prosecco with no sugary sweet. On being presented the vast menu, I can see it’s quality all the way. Many ingredients are locally sourced from the UK and there are some exciting souped-up versions of classics – the Bolognese is made with Wagyu beef sourced from Yorkshire. An endless variety of traditional dishes and Italian favourites make it very hard to choose.
We start with burrata, a well received recommendation, with datterini tomatoes and olive oil. It is as delicious as expected – a simple (and generous) plate of quality ingredients. Alongside, we have beef carpaccio and wood-roasted Peperoni with black truffle tuna sauce, another suggestion by our waiter and a deviation from a personal favourite and go-to dish, vitello tonnato. Less a compromise, more an indulgence as we split out beautiful ingredients into separate starters. Everything tastes divine, the sweet peppers especially, a beautiful combination with the rich, salty tuna cream, the beef is incredibly soft and simply served with parmesan. Each starter costs £18 and we accompany it with a shockingly expensive rocket salad at £12.
Doing this Italian feast properly, it’s now pasta course. My dinner date is a Bolognese man, not hailing from, but one who orders the city’s famous dish anywhere he can. A perfect test for Novikov from a true critic. Tagliatelle with Wagyu ragu is rustic, rich and simply done. And, perfectly sized for a primi piatti. I indulge in another last-meal favourite – spaghetti with clams, bottarga, garlic and chilli for an equally as indulgent £26.50, steep for this Venetian dish that classically started life as peasant food. But of course it doesn’t lose its deliciousness in the price and here is Novikov-ed up with added bottarga – salted, cured fish roe.
My date is on beef, beef and beef tonight, ordering steak for main course. I take note for future dining and reviewing; he’s a great food companion opting for firm favourites to put to the test, giving me a taste whilst trying out house specialities or recommended plates. He goes for the more modest Spanish sirloin at £42, although there’s a pricier Chilean Wagyu sirloin (also halal) at £69.50 to choose from. I eat something that I realise now was not on the menu. At this point the waiter is so clued up with my preferences and taste buds that he’s gone off-piste and seemingly invented a new dish: Grilled sea bass fillet with sweet and sour roasted peppers and a beautiful salmoriglio sauce, with more clams (I must have made my love for clams well known) and softened tomatoes and black olives. Heaven, but we’re nearing full. Too full in fact for pudding – shamefully we can’t handle even a taste of tiramisu or panna cotta. Our disappointed waiter prepares a ‘little bit of fruit’ to help digestion, which of course turned out to be a luxury and Instagram-able plate of berries, pineapple, melon, dragon and passion fruit served on ice. During dinner I have a glass of Vermentino di Sardegna and one of Pinot Grigio (£14 and £15 respectively for 175ml) which both worked well with the food.
As we eat, the hall fills up and in come much dressier patrons. The restaurant feels like the entry scene, the holding room of what will kick off later down in the bar. But it’s still reasonably early – 9.30pm – especially for Italian dining. It’s a London scene I forget exists, I’m so rarely in Mayfair or in such glitzy venues. In a city filled with Italian restaurants, with arguably the best independent Italian joints outside of Italy itself, it’s a big one to take on. For a similarly upmarket meal but in yet another very different atmosphere, you can visit Angela Hartnett’s contemporary restaurant just one street away that serves fine modern Italian in a sophisticated space. Both, however, for me lack one of the most charming qualities of Italian eating, which is the casual, intimate setting. But this is the London Mayfair scene, accompanied by delicious Italian food. It’s a lavish fare. I can’t party after an Italian feast but eat less and join the majority of the other guests – for whom the food doesn’t seem to be the main event – and descend to the bar for a Novikov London night.
50A Berkeley Street