Picture the scene, you’ve turned a few corners in the maze of Venice’s back streets and find yourself lost. You turn a few more corners and stumble onto a bacaro, a small Venetian restaurant bar. It’s a real find, there’s not a tourist in sight and you sit down and order what the locals are eating, mostly fresh seafood cooked simply but with robust flavours that reflect the centuries of culinary excellence of the great city-state of Venice. There are crispy yet moist bacala croquettes filled with moreish salt cod, and fresh grilled sardines served on crusty bruschetta adorned with sun-ripened tomatoes and punchy capers. You look around and see a gleaming tranche of pearly white fish seared to perfection, it flakes into soft juicy petals when prodded with an eager fork. All the dishes are small, Venetian tapas you could say or dim sum, a little something with which to touch the heart. In Venice the small dishes served in bacaro are called Cicchetti and this is also what is served at Fumo, the sister restaurant of that Birmingham favourite San Carlo.
Let’s snap back to reality, I was in a party of seven recently and ordered what seemed at the time half of Fumo’s lengthy menu. Olives, bread, bacala, octopus stew, octopus salad, crab salad, gnocchi with gorgonzola, porchetta, lamb osso bucco, sardines, halibut, scampi ravioli, sea bass ravioli, tuna tartare, baked ricotta, soft-shell crab, aubergine parmagiana, smoked salmon, buffalo mozarella… and a selection of desserts. Small plates mean more choice and more chance of landing a great dish. The real standout dish for me was the octopus stew, these were soft baby octopodi in a deep tomato based sauce with a good hit of chilli. I could have eaten a big bowl of it with the good bread. Shame it was one of the specials of the day as I would come back just for that dish. In the main though most of the dishes were fairly ordinary. The octopus salad lacked any distinctive vinaigrette and hence flavour. Porchetta tasted good but only two thin processed ham-like slices is pretty mean. Lamb osso bucco was tender and tasty but was the knuckle end, if you’re going to call it osso bucco then please make it the bone with a hole and plenty of marrow. The ravioli were well made, the sheets of pasta thin and delicate but the fillings were underwhelming. A generous portion of gnocchi was smothered with a pungent creamy Gorgonzola sauce but was marred by the Parmesan basket it was served in. I assume it was a basket but by the time it reached us it was as flat as a pancake. It had also been overcooked by a fair degree, the acrid tang of burnt cheese did no favours to the well made gnocchi.
Then there were the less than enjoyable dishes. The bacala came as three thin croquettes, the cod had not been soaked for long enough and it gave them a chewy mealy consistency coupled with blandness that made eating them a chore. The sardines on bruschetta were buried under a mountain of cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were good, maybe that’s the reason for sheer volume of them, to hide the rank piece of sardine. The kitchen would have done better to open a tin of sardines and served them instead. There was a thin halibut steak that had been seared past the point of well-done and then some more. It didn’t taste fresh at all and stuck your teeth together with it’s dryness. The worst dish was the Honey Smoked salmon. This was a finger sized tranche that was unpleasantly salty and had a strange fishy bitterness. Worse it wasn’t skinned, worst the skin wasn’t scaled! Who in their right mind serves smoked salmon like this?! The kitchen needs to sort this out right away, it’s embarrassingly incompetent.
The service is typically Italian, that mixture of rushed and slow at the same time. If you’re not too demanding a customer it can be quite entertaining having up to six different servers getting your order mixed up. Some of the staff were very good but some clearly were there for decoration and should not be handling orders. We arrived around 7pm on a Friday and got a table right away. By 8pm the room was packed and there was definitely an enjoyable buzz about the place. The bar is elegant and the dining area comfortable. Which is why it’s such a shame the food was so hit and miss. With such a long menu I think it’s possible to have good meal there if you choose well. But on the other hand if you’d ordered the bacala, halibut, sardines and smoked salmon you would be close to having the worst meal of your life.
San Carlo have recently opened Cichetti in Piccadilly, if the food is twice as good as Fumo then it won’t be half as good as Polpo around the corner in Soho. Now there’s Venetian small plates to lose yourself in.