Li Veli, Covent Garden

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In three words: Passionate, Charming, Authentic

The Lowdown: The Italians are known for being a passionate lot – be it love, football, or food, they throw themselves in whole-heartedly. And it is adoration for the latter subject that spurred a new bistro and winery to recently pop up in Covent Garden.

Those who are familiar with the geography of Italy will know that, in the heel of the boot, lies the Southern region of Puglia. This area is renowned for its cucinapovera – translated as ‘Peasant Cooking’ – as well as wonderful wines, and it is this fine combination that has now landed on English shores courtesy of a joint venture. The Falvo family, who own the Masseria Li Veli Winery in Puglia, have teamed up with the Melpignano family, founders of the San Domenico Hotels Group, to bring us authentic and delicious Italian flavours, all enjoyed in a relaxed and friendly environment.

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Location: Just a hop skip and a jump from Seven Dials in Covent Garden, on bustling Long Acre street. So right in the hub of the action, then.

The Occasion: This makes for a great date spot – Italian food is conducive to romance, after all (hey, just look at Lady and the Tramp and the famous meatball scene if you need more proof). Li Veli is also a must stop for any wine lovers, and foodies should come with an appetite – although those not looking to eat carbs can find things to chow down on, it would be a massive shame to miss the sensational bread.

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Decor: Upstairs has more of a relaxed, casual-café vibe, and is also the place to pick up a bottle of Italy’s finest vino. For a more romantic or intimate affair, then head down to the restaurant. Rustic wooden floors, pale stone walls and matching cream seats make for a cool, cavern-esque feeling (almost like being in a posh wine cellar), and when the lights are dipped the place glows. Plus there are nooks and crannies so you can feel you’ve got your privacy too.

Atmosphere: It’s no surprise this is a family-run establishment – Italian charm and hospitality envelops you as soon as you step over the threshold. The waiting staff are all lovelyand speak with a Mediterranean lilt, and will guide you through the menu thoroughly. Upstairs was more bustling when we visited, whereas down in the restaurant things were a little more sedate and intimate.

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Menu Concept: The food is based on traditional Apulian cuisine, and there’s a staunch dedication to using products grown in Puglia or delivered daily from local markets. It’s obviously very important to the ethos of the owners that the ingredients can shine for themselves.

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What We Ate: The whole meal at Li Veli was a bit of an adventure into this new cuisine, and we couldn’t have asked for a better gastronomical guide than Alfredo – the son of the wine-producing Falvo family who joint-own the establishment. Managing the place for a spell to make sure everything runs smoothly, he told us we couldn’t not try the ‘Frisella’ bread.A typical repast in his area, it is bread that has been baked twice and is molded into a round, bagel like shape. We ate it topped with the freshest chunks of vibrant red organic tomato, drizzled in extra virgin olive oil. The bread was lovely – it had a real satisfying crunch, was perfectly seasoned, and the juice of the tomatoes burst in our mouths. Home-made Focaccia was spongy-deliciousness specked with rosemary, and the burrata cheese…. Don’t leave here without trying it. A snowy white orb appeared, between the size of a tennis and golf ball. We cut into it, and here the only word that fits is ‘oozing’. How something can be so delicate in flavour and yet have such an incredible impact on the taste-buds astounds me.

Then it was on to the main courses, and I decided to be led by Alfredo – while secretly hoping he’d suggest pasta. Luckily, this was his recommendation, since of course it was home made orecchiette. Named because it resembles a small ear, the pieces of perfectly al-dente pasta were smothered in a ruby red tomato sauce, and pepped up with cacioricotta cheese and basil. This probably best summarised the meals at Li Veli – simple food, nourishing, healthy (it’s organic too), and just completely vibrant with flavour. When a humble pasta dish can be made to taste so incredible then you know you’re on to a winner. It’s also worth noting that my companions sea-bass with accompanying silky-smooth bean mash was a delight, and the tiramisu we finished on was rich, loaded with booze, and as good as you’d hope from a family run Italian.

Best of the Booze: Obviously here the tipples are just as important as the food, and boy were we satisfied by what we drank. The meal was started perfectly with a punchy and beautifully-bitternegroni (so hot right now), and then it was on to the wines – all from the Li Veli winery, naturally. The white we sampled was the Fiano. It was superb – fruity and yet complex, with additional layers of smokiness and definiteminerality from the coast. Then we moved onto the Passamante, which is the name of the forest of the area. This is translated in the bold, intense and cherry burst of the wine, which gave lingering hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was so good we went home with a bottle.

Overall: Looking up Italian proverbs about food, I think my favourite was probably Atavola non siinvecchia, which means‘At the table with good friends and family you do not become old.’ All I can say is that four hours in Li Veli flew by, because we were enveloped in warm hospitality, superb and yet rustic food, and incredible wine. It is obvious that everything about Li Veli is inspired by a love of the region it represents, and London is now a richer place for having this opportunity to indulge in this passion.

Li Veli Winery and Bistro

@Li_Veli_UK

BOE Magazine

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RESTAURANT REVIEW: J SHEEKEY OYSTER BAR, COVENT GARDEN

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In three words: Classic, Irrepressible, Exemplary

J Sheekey Interior by Sim Cannety-Clarke (12)

The Lowdown: There are some places in London that are iconic staples – that people know about, talk about, and hope to one day visit. J Sheekey is undoubtably one of those establishments. Frequented by stars but not flashy; famous for oysters and champagne but not decadent; busy and yet with the most attentive, charming staff one could hope for.

They’ve had time to hone their excellence – J Sheekey have been serving up superlative seafood since the 1890s. Josef Sheekey was a market stall holder given permission by Lord Salisbury to serve fish and seafood in his 1896 property development in St Martin’s Court – on the condition that he supply meals to the Lord’s after-theatre dinner parties. The deal was done, and now, over a century later, fish, oysters and shellfish are served up with same Victorian charm. You can either take a seat in the restaurant, or enjoy a more casual affair at the adjoining oyster bar, which is where we decided to head for lunch.

Location: In the bosom of Covent Garden, where thespians, luvvies and fans of the stage are ten-a-penny. The restaurant is just off the main drag, in quaintly cobbled St Martin’s Court. This helps it retain its old-fashioned, authentic air.

J Sheekey - Sheekey's fish pie

The Occasion: Come for a date, come for dinner, come with friends… come when you want to embrace a piece of historic London and taste the sea in your mouth. It’s the ideal place for when you want to be sure of a good experience – there’s no chancing it at J Sheekeys.

Decor: The oyster bar has a hint of classic bistro meets Victorian allure,with incredibly comfortable leather banquettes, a welcoming large central bar, mirrored surfaces and gleaming fittings. All the usual suspects are here – impressive wood panelling, pristine white tablecloths, and a visit to the toilets will reveal photos of their famous diners. The open kitchen in the oyster bar adds a bustling warmth to the room.

Atmosphere: Lunch on Sunday was a pleasant escape from the London crowds, with the perfect balance between refined and chilled out. We’ve been told the evenings can get rather rumbustious around the hub of the bar, which we’d like to experience – there’s the feeling it’s an old thespian with a hint of show-girl still peeping out.

Culinary Concept: The best seafood available, served fresh! The oyster bar specialises in shellfish and small plates of fish and vegetables.

What we tried: Well, we naturally had to start with the oysters! I went for the West Mersea Native Oysters No.2, while my dining partner tried the mixed dozen with spicy boar sausage. Served with two different vinegars and the standard tabasco, they arrived glistening on the platter. Needless to say, they knocked my socks off – my West Mersea Natives were plump, succulent, and rolled around my mouth with the brisk smack of the ocean. Soon we were simply sprinkling them with a bit of lemon and quaffing them with closed eyes, being transported to a wind-swept pier somewhere. looking out into a churning sea. His mixed variety made for fun experimenting, and the sausage afterwards was a really tasty accompaniment, with its rustic, bold flavour.

Next up I had the Whole John Dory, served with surf clams, broad beans and a chilli relish. It’s a fish not often seen on menus so I decided I had to go for it. And I was very glad I did – the texture was fabulous and sumptuous, and the springtime pop of green beans and shards of mint gave it a refreshing, garden-fresh lift. Ideal with the drizzle of olive oil and generous clams. My partner had the classic fish pie – a J Sheekey staple, and rightly so. It was as comforting as a warm pair of slippers on a chill afternoon – creamy mash, huge chunks of fish, and a rich sauce.

For dessert we shared a lemon posset, which proved the chefs are able to turn their hand at sweet treats. It was so silky it almost slid off spoon, a beautiful sunshine yellow, with pistachio biscuit for dipping. A wonderful end to the meal.

For next time: With a new spring menu starting now, there’s sure to be a huge variety of wonderful options that make the most of seasonal produce. Better go and investigate!

Veggie delights: Obviously vegetarians won’t get the best of the menu, but a place as professional as J Sheeky still caters for non fish eaters with dishes like Buffalo Mozzarella and asparagus risotto

Best of the booze: We had a delightful cocktail to start made with fizz and elderflower – a burst of bubbles and floral hints to start the meal off in a special way. Throughout our lunch we were recommended the Chablis 1er Cru 2010 Domaine Chaude Ecuelle from Burgundy. Dry as a bone, crisp as morning, and ideal with the fish.

Overall: When a place has so much fame on the foody, scene, you assume it must be doing something right. But there’s always the worry that, when visiting, it won’t live up to the hype. Luckily J Sheekey has no worries here. If a restaurant wrote the book on fabulous service and delicious dining, then it would be them. And yet they don’t take themselves too seriously, and aren’t stuffy . They’re the aristocrat with a glint in their eye – charming, gracious, and a still fun, while never letting their passion for seafood slip. I’m thrilled I cast my net wide enough to catch J Sheekey and give them a go – and I encourage others to do the same.

J Sheekey Oyster Bar

BOE Magazine

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