Restaurant review: Bianco 43

This article first appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-bianco-43/

I lived in Croydon for over a decade and during that time, Mirch Masala on South End was a firm favourite. Great spicy grills in a no frills environment and BYO booze policy meant that I was there a lot, lateish back from the city, grabbing a quick, cheap, excellent dinner.

However, I moved back to Sutton, and Mirch Masala coincidentally moved down to Coulsdon at about the same time, leaving the restaurant vacant. Until, that is, a small chain of traditional trattoria, based around classic Italian cuisine and a wood fired oven, moved in. Croydonians should sing an Ave Maria in thanks: this is a seriously good restaurant, masquerading as a proto-chain of the Zizzi/Pizza Express format in something of a warehouse/barn type building.

Let’s start at the start. A short list of appetisers includes wonderful buttery green olives that I’d guess were something like nocellara. Better than anything that you’d get at a chain. They also have a short classically Italian cocktail list that included a very well made negroni. This made for an epic start that in Soho would have cost £20. At Bianco it was £10. As a brief aside, the negroni was very good, but where else in Croydon could you find a well-made one? Answers in the comments below would be appreciated.

For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up
Our party ranged widely across the menu and everything was fantastic. There was a delicate hand with the deep fryer for bone dry crispy courgette and calamari. A deep, rich, gooey melanze parmigiana was great comfort food, skilfully put together, with a confident hand on the seasoning of a brilliant tomato sauce. A selection of cured meat and a tomato/mozzarella salad showed the team source very high quality ingredients and have the guts to let them sing for themselves, adding context with lovely grassy olive oil and aged balsamic.

The mains kept up the quality. The wood-fired pizza adds heft to outstanding Neapolitan-style pizzas. A bit of char on the crust to combine with a lovely sweet tomato base and some great traditional toppings. My diavola was properly spicy but it also had real depth of flavour. The best pizza in the Cronx by a long way. For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up.

My wife said that her very generous portion of spicy sausage and mushroom pasta was great. Again, nowhere to hide with this. A deep rich sauce with fiery sausage and herbs. Could have been dull. At some well-known chains, or local trattoria, it would have been professionally bland. Here, it wasn’t.

Everyone else raved about their steak, chicken Milanese and lasagne. Six old mates – who due to careers, moving away and kids, don’t see as much of each other as we would like – spent less time talking than would have been expected, due to the quality of the food.
Desserts weren’t really investigated as we decided to give the all-Italian wine list some serious attention.

I’ve seen some TripAdvisor reviews suggest that the wine is expensive. I fundamentally disagree. Of course you can get a cheaper glass/bottle in a Wetherspoons (more on that later) but I actually thought that for the quality on offer, the wine was keenly priced. The Montepulciano was a great accompaniment to both meat and pizza; a classic spicy, savoury red.

Proper Italian dark roast espresso and a grappa provided a traditional end to a great meal. We walked out into the night very well fed and watered, all of us of like mind. This is a great Italian restaurant that might be part of a chain, but had the charm and quality of a neighbourhood favourite.

The variety on offer was reflected by the diverse range of parties dining in the restaurant
Bianco offers its customers either a cheap dinner out or something rather more special. You could pop in for a pizza and a beer and be out for less than £20. That will keep them in business on wet Wednesday evenings. Or you could range across the menu, drink a lot and spend twice that per head on a special occasion. This was in evidence with the range of parties in the restaurant. It was pretty diverse. Romantic couples; young and old; a few big tables. Lots of different accents. The place was rammed and I hope that they continue to be as successful.

A short postscript to this review is to note that the restaurant is next door to the Skylark. We met in there and then went back after the meal. It is a great example of how when a ‘Spoons is good, they can be very good indeed. Polite, engaged, efficient staff serve a great range of beer at an unbeatable price, served in a simple, comfortable pub. As is traditional when I’m out in Croydon, I was able to drink locally. Cronx American pale ale was a technicolor dream of hops and tropical fruit. Just the thing to finish off another great night in Croydon.

How Clausewitz helped me think about poppies

There has been an awful lot written and said about the wearing of poppies. There has been a growing pressure in the popular media that poppies must be worn from mid October onwards.

I’ve seen this professionally, with fellow PR advisers understanding that our clients, even if foreign, must be seen wearing a poppy at this time of year, or they are likely to attract quite intense, personalised criticism.

What I’ve found particularly frustrating is that over the past few years the issue seems to have intensified into a binary choice. One is either a patriotic supporter of the U.K. Armed forces, or you’re a traitor. The voice of entitled moral indignation makes me grit my teeth. The certainty that they are right and anyone that disagrees is simply beyond the pale. Take the PM in the house today moaning about FIFA. I hate being told what to do, even if it’s something I might well do anyway.

I’m a big supporter of the British Armed forces, not least because I’ve compared them with other Sovereign operators such as Russia, France and the US. (Some people reading this might be aware of my fascination of military history, which lead to post graduate study of War Studies. I had a particular focus on the integration and interaction of intelligence and military capabilities in low intensity war zones, specifically Ulster & Chechnya). In general HM Forces intelligence, professionalism and commitment to operating within legal and moral guidelines does our country great credit, and has done for many years. I’m not saying I’m desperately keen for Aidan to become an infantryman, but in general I think the institution is a positive one.

Of course WW2, Bosnia the Falklands and Sierra Leone and other conflicts were entirely “just wars”. Of course WW1 was a national tragedy, if not one as morally simple as WW2. These are the conflicts we are meant to remember with poppies and pride. These are the conflicts my family fought in, and were effected by.

Ready for the “however”? The British Army, Royal Navy and RAF have not always been used for pure, certain, moral purposes. Geopolitical decision making in briefing rooms in London can lead to exceptionally nasty reality on the ground. Whether it was the colonial operations of the early to mid 20th century to secret wars in the Middle East for nasty allies; from decades of questionable operations in Ireland by a small minority of the U.K. servicemen actually engaged, to Iraq; UK armed forces are both prone to occasional moral failure and are the tip of the spear, executors of government policy that may in hindsight have been regretted.

This leads me to my final points. The poppy is designed to commemorate all UK combat casualties since 1914. There are therefore two lines thrown around a lot that I just don’t buy.

1- “they fought and died so you’re free to moan”

P2- “poppies are not a political symbol”

Both to me feel incorrect if you’re referring to a combat casualties in conflicts that are Clausewitzian in that soldiers are in harm’s way due purely to British geopolitical interest, particularly if we are referring to professional soldiers and not national servicemen. Often these men are not “defending” us in any meaningful way. They are hard, methodical professionals executing government policy. Saying the poppy is apolitical feels somewhat naive. Forget arguments about how the Irish / Germans / Kenyans / insert your choice here, feel. These men often died due to simple Clausewitzian logic. If war is the continuation of policy by other means, the wearing of a poppy can be seen as a political act.

So my conclusion? Wear a poppy if you want. Be proud of our outstanding armed forces. Give a lot of money to the Legion and Crisis because a horrible % of homeless are ex forces and need help. We should ask why we have to give to a charity, as surely the government should be taking better care of men it has held too close to the fire? At the same time there are plenty of reasons why one might not want to publicly celebrate the memory of wars which were far from self defence or glorious. Those people should not be made to feel as traitors.

As it happens I’ve given regularly to the appeal this year, as I do every year and I wish all UK servicemen well. I don’t necessarily wear a poppy as I lose them all the time. I don’t feel I have to have to wear one on every day up to 11 November. With the slashed budget and capacity stretched to breaking point and some kit not fit for purpose, HM Forces need a lot of luck.

So, Dail Mail Dacre and team, who’s the real traitor, someone who doesn’t buy a poppy, or a government that won’t properly equip troops but send them into combat of questionable legality against enemies who don’t follow Geneva or Hague conventions, and then not support them when they come home and return to civilian life?