Restaurant Review: Nolita, Brookmans Park

Richard Cawthorne finds how Nolita, the sibling of London restaurant Little Italy, is living up to expectation

NolitaGreat North RoadBrookmans Park AL9 6NA01707 644 858

MISS Moneypenny, or so she sounds, is crisp and efficient on the phone. What is my first name? Is this a special celebration? Do I prefer first sitting (7pm-9pm), or second (9.15pm onwards)? This from a simple call to Nolita at Brookmans Park to book a table. It's clear one is not dealing with an ordinary restaurant.

So it proves. First, the name - nothing to do with an infamous novel but, in a fit of trendy branding, standing for North Of Little Italy, reflecting its links to the just-refurbished Little Italy in Soho and its associated Bar Italia.

From the outside, the Hertfordshire outpost is a much grander statement. Alongside the Great North Road, it looks like a misplaced country house, though the building has always been a restaurant.

First impressions carry over into the interior, where a large bar prominently displaying various brands of grappa plus other goodies leads to a huge eating area. The 120 or so covers are set off by a slightly over-the-top gentlemen's club-style d�cor with the odd ornate flourish. There are flowers on the tables and along the walls.

Several tables, set for sixes and tens, are already decked out with birthday balloons, which goes back to Moneypenny's inquiry about celebrations. If you're going to have one, this, it seems, is the place to do it.

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The lady herself commands the reception area in that friendly but slightly guarded way and we are escorted to our table past a large screen in the bar showing an old Italian film. It's La Strada, since you ask, but the collection also includes La Dolce Vita and Il Postino.

At table, a basket of breads appears, followed by free amuse-bouche - two vol au vents filled with mixed vegetables. Service is attentive and the waiters respond willingly if you feel like chatting. We talk about the films in the bar and I earn extra points for knowing Il Postino means The Postman.

The menus and wine lists are large in size and scope, with a small ceramic tile bearing the legend Nolita in the cover of each, which also makes them quite heavy. The prices are large and heavy to match, although a study of the website before arrival, an essential step these days, forewarns us and we're ready for it. This is a place for a treat.

Not everything on the menu is on the website, so there are still surprises. Samphire, delicious and gaining rapidly in popularity and availability, catches my eye as an accompaniment to the deep-fried baby squids. That's one starter sorted. For the second, we choose seared fresh tuna with sesame seeds and a balsamic vinegar reduction.

The squids are pronounced perfect, the best my companion, knowledgeable in Italian food, has tasted outside Terracina, near Rome. The tuna has a good consistency but is too chill, which robs it of taste.

The website promises another favourite, sea bass baked in a sea salt jacket, but it's not available tonight. I elect for the same fish baked in foil, which arrives with the foil shaped like a swan. Inside are two generously-sized fillets surrounded by baby courgettes, potatoes and carrots, the delicate fishy taste perfectly preserved.

For the other main, we go traditional with calf's liver and bacon. It arrives cooked medium as requested, the pancetta very light, served with stewed cabbage and a mound of finely-sliced crisp fried onions. As with the sea bass, it cannot be faulted.

Nolita sets a high standard which, on the evidence of this visit, it meets. We barely scratch the surface of the food and drink on offer. But we can always go back.

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