Sunday, 3 April 2011


On the surface Japanese and Italian cuisines have very little in common. But scratch a little deeper, and similarities emerge, from the preoccupation with fresh, seasonal, regional ingredients to the focus on simplicity and purity of flavour.

It seems fitting then, that Japanese chef Yoshi Yamada is at the helm of Tempo in Mayfair. An economics graduate, he worked for L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Japan, then cooked in various restaurants in Florence, Sorrento and Naples during a four-year stint in Italy before becoming sous-chef at the now defunct Corbin and King’s St Alban.

Decked out with tastefully upholstered (and pleasing to the touch) turquoise velvet chairs, wooden floors, glass-topped tables and marine-like round mirrors, Tempo's pared-down interiors allow the food to take centre stage. The restaurant, whose former incarnation was the less forward thinking and more peppermill-waving Italian establishment Franks, is part owned by hotelier Henry Tonga, who decided to open Tempo last summer rather than retire after the lease of his townhouse hotel 22 Jermyn Street came to an end.

The menu is divided into cicchetti (small, tapas-like plates), antipasti, pasta and risotto, and meat and fish. The cicchetti, priced between £2-4, originate from Venice, where they are served in traditional Venetian tapas bars, known as 'bàcari'. I tried the full spread on my visit, which included wild garlic prawns, hot as Hades Calabrian pork sausage, marinated peppers and beautifully bitter puntarelle flecked with apricot-coloured slithers of salted gray mullet roe. While amusing to the bouche, I felt we had barely scratched the surface of Yamada's potential.

Before I continue, I must make reference to the bread. In most restaurants bread serves to keep your palate entertained until the starters arrive, but at Tempo bread is an event. We were presented with a small basket heaving with treats, from fluffy, salt-strewn focaccia to heavenly grissini sticks, flecked with aniseed. Never before (and probably never again) have I got so worked up about bread. The savoury, twig-like sticks from Turin, rolled by Yamada that morning, had a slight sweetness from the aniseed and wonderful crunch. I munched my way through the entire offering in under a minute.

We moved swiftly on to calamari, which proved so light and grainy, that one bowl wasn't enough. Having been weaned on Spanish calamari, the dish felt naked without aioli. A quick request to the waitress, and a giant bowl filled with freshly-made garlic mayonnaise appeared. In the end it went largely undipped - the light, airy calamari working best with a simple lemon spritz rather than an aioli bath. The next dish (pictured) proved the culinary highlight: razor-thin slithers of Scottish beef, adorned with hazelnuts, parmesan, rocket and a glug of olive oil. So thin, fresh and flavoursome, it was almost sashimi-like, with Yamada's Japanese influence apparent in the dish. Lemony, light, and brought to life by the hazelnuts, it was a pleasure to eat.

Before the main event, we indulged in a pair of pasta dishes: wild boar pappardelle with chestnuts and parmesan, and Cornish crab linguine with chilli and lime. The former was rich, earthy, succulent, warming and utterly delicious. It made a perfect match for our smooth and approachable Barbera d'Alba 2008 from renowned Piedmont producer G.D. Vajra, with its spicy notes of black cherry, bramble fruits and black pepper. The linguine was perfectly al dente and had a lovely citrus lift from the limes, but, crab-light and lacking in bite, it was a little too dainty for its own good.

The main event for me was pan fried scallops with golden beetroot, chilli and lemon, and for my companion a mammoth grilled veal chop with spunta potatoes and peperonata. Lightly crispy on top, the meaty, silky-soft scallops were perfectly cooked and full of flavour, lifted by the zesty lemon sauce and tangy, crunchy blonde beetroot – my culinary discovery of the evening. Of the sides there was a hit and a miss, the hit being sublime olive oil mash, and the miss over-oily zucchine fritte.

Desert hit a high note with the best lemon tart I've ever experienced, recommended by the waitress as something of a Tempo institution. Served with a crème Brûlée-like crunchy top and perfectly crumbly pastry, the interior was creamy and so packed with zing, it tasted like lemon curd. I could have happily eaten the entire tart. The beauty of Tempo lies in its simplicity. From the finely tuned wine list featuring top boutique Italian producers, to the tasteful interiors and fresh food, there's nothing shouty or showy about Tempo. The restaurant is a lesson in refined elegance – an Ozu rather than a Fellini.

Tempo, 54 Curzon Street, London W1J 8PG, Tel: +44(0)20 7629 2742. A meal for two with wine costs around £100.

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