I’m nestled in a low-slung black leather booth opposite Jonesy, who, much to his dissatisfaction, is spotlit. Above us hang curious light fixtures that resemble hovering hot pink lipsticks. There are no windows in the basement room, and the restaurant is naked save for a quartet of ladies to my left.
Tucked away far from the madding crowds of Oxford Street in Portland House, Degó, an amalgamation of “degustazione” (tasting) and “osteria” (tavern), boasts walls covered with black and red mosaic tiles seemingly engaged in a frantic game of Tetris. Decked out like a sushi-serving Japanese-themed nightclub, it’s the strangest of surroundings for an Italian restaurant. Running with the osteria theme, they missed a trick by not playing to its strengths and going big on rustic charm.
Split between two floors, at street level a degustation bar serves a selection of wines by the glass, hand picked by Venetian head sommelier Massimo Mioli, and a mixture of charcuterie and antipasti from the Veneto’s throbbing heart. Nearly all the wines on the list are imported from Italy and stored in a humidity-controlled cellar. Downstairs, Dario Schiavo serves up an ambitious selection of dishes.
Having placed our order, Jonesy and I take lingering sips from our Italian-themed cocktails. My Aviation is exemplary: light, lemony and deliciously thirst quenching, it’s like showering in citrus. While waiting for our antipasti, the strangest dish I’ve ever encountered arrives at our booth, consisting of a piece of white bread cut into an isosceles triangle, resting on six small, halved tomatoes. Flummoxed as to its significance, we chomp on it dutifully.
Our ebullient, Italian sommelier Alexandra suggests we might like to try their specialty – a Franciacorta Cuvette Brut 2005. My first experience of the sparkler, made in the same way as Champagne, it glints gold in the generous glass and tastes deceivingly like the French fizz, sharing the same brioche notes. Noticing our delight, Alexandra beams and proclaims bubbles to be Degó’s point of difference.
Charmed by both the sommelier and the wine, I sit back, relaxed, and enjoy the theatre unfolding in front of me. My beef tartare is being prepared by our waitress on an archaic device involving a meat grinder. In it she flings capers, anchovies, onions, garlic, and anything else within arms length, then proudly presents the raw red medallion on a black slate. Soft as an earlobe, it tastes sensationally fresh, almost sashimi-like, and is enhanced by drops of fiery Tabasco. Jonesy’s poppy seed-flecked cod coins are less of a hit, erring on the rubbery side.
Fortunately, greater culinary discoveries are to follow. My primi piatti of homemade fettuccine with morel mushrooms arrives covered in a black blanket of summer truffles. So generous has the chef been, I can hardly see the pasta beneath the razor-thin shavings. The combination of the summer truffles and morels is hedonistic, the buttery pasta mixing seamlessly with the earthy mushrooms into a decadent whole. In another expert pairing from Alexandra, my Montenidoli Fiore Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2008 cuts confidently through the unctuous pasta. Meanwhile, Jonesy’s meat-filled tortellini with butter and sage is hailed a success, with both pasta dishes disappearing off our plates faster than a Ferrari in a high speed chase.
Gripped by existential musings and Jonesy’s tales of taming wild beasts in the South African outback, I barely notice our mains arrive. Mine, a confit of duck leg on a pea green duvet of rocket, avocado and pistachio, his, boned rabbit with veal and prune stuffing. Dressed in rose petals, my dish takes me back to Morocco, where they like to douse everything in rose water. While I appreciate the romanticism of the dish, nay, I can almost hear the Azan call to prayer resounding from the plate, it would have triumphed without the rose. The duck itself is tender and juicy, but rubbed with rose, it tastes like a wedding bouquet.
Dessert however, is an exiting affair. I opt for an ice cream trio comprising salted caramel, hazelnut and basil. The triptych arrives in three separate dishes. All are delightful, and help assuage the memory of munching on a rose garden. Alexandra completes a hat-trick with her final flourish – a 1980 Marsalsa, bottled before I was born. With a nose of roasted hazelnuts and a caramel palate balanced by lively acidity, it sings of Oloroso. Despite the dodgy décor, Degó is worth the detour for the wines alone. Served by knowledgeable staff with unbridled enthusiasm, each glass is a liquid history lesson.
Dego 4 Great Portland Street, London W1W 8QJ; Tel: +44(0)20 7636 2207