Strada York – Restaurant Review
by Matt Callard
What is it about restaurant chains that makes foodies – and food critics – so averse to them? There’s the perception that they’re about bland, ‘everyman’ food. A sort of sterile and cynical re-hashing of classic styles without any sense of the beauty of food culture and history. There’s the sense that facsimile food, reproduced ad infinitum, just can’t measure up to the local delights of an independent eaterie who’s struggling with suppliers and marketing budgets and, well, with big, bad restaurant chains who have come to snatch all the little-man’s profits. And maybe, most of the time, they’re right.
So why, then, did we enjoy our meal at Strada so much? The chain is growing and growing fast. It possesses a reputation for good, clean Italian food at reasonable prices. A sure-fire recession-busting method, it seems. There are 27 branches in London alone. For sure, the classic simplicity of Italian food is easiest to try and replicate on a massive scale. Hence, the plethora of other, inferior, who-shall-remain-nameless plastic Italian restaurant chains. Strada do lay on the Italian authenticity a little too much. When you ask for the Baby Spinach Leaves Salad or the Fish Stew, do you really need service repeating it back to you in Italian?
“Quest for authenticity”
I don’t blame service – it is, otherwise, exceptionally friendly and perfectly timed. But there’s the feeling that you’re the victim of a Strada decree – ‘when customers ask for their food in English, you must repeat it to them in Italian. This way we look more authentic and they look a bit daft.’ Plus, as if to hammer home the point, the Fish Stew isn’t just Fish Stew – it’s Puglia Fish Stew. The Salami isn’t just Salami, it’s Napoli Salami. Mantovano, Tuscany, Parma get a mention and everything – and I mean everything – is Italian. Italian Ham, Italian Risotto, Italian Pork Sausage – we get the idea! We’re in an Italian restaurant! In this endless quest for authenticity your average foodie might just start to smell a rat.
But then comes the food. A starter of Melted Buffalo Mozzarella (£5.50) wrapped in Speck (cured ham) on a Salad of Plum Tomatoes, Cucumber, Sweet Peppers, Onion, Croutons and Olives was everything Strada promised. Vibrant, colourful, fresh – straight out of a Roman marketplace. Now, how authentic do you want it, cynics? My guest’s starter too was a success. Baby Spinach Leaves, Sliced Avocado and Crisped Pancetta (£4.95) in a delightfully zingy mustard dressing. Suddenly it didn’t matter about the plastic aubergine ornaments. This was good food, Italian or not.
Puglia-Style Fish Stew (£14.95) would be a real test for Strada, however, having visited the famous seafood hot spot on a couple of occasions. The tomato and herb sauce was pretty good – nice and wine-y – and, while you can forgive the seafood being a few bars under Puglia quality, I was disappointed by a few measly pieces of Red Mullet, one King Prawn and a cracked Mussel. And what about those shards of shell in the stew?
Still, the Clams and Squid were good and the lightly toasted ciabatta dipped into the sauce was a treat. My partner’s Butternut Squash Risotto (£9.75) was perfect – and sizeable! Never mind simple Italian dining this was full-on Yorkshire portions! She managed barely half of it but it was expertly prepared and of perfect consistency. Risottos are Strada’s speciality – and it showed.
“Taste of Italy”
A couple of classic Italian sweets closed the show. I was recommended the Ricotta Cheesecake with Pine Nuts, Almonds and Vanilla Ice Cream (£4.75). The biscuit base lacked a little depth and crunch but the sweet flavours combined nicely overall and my partner’s Torroncino Affogato (£4.25) (Espresso poured over Ice Cream – a proper Italian dessert) was ideal. Is there a better combination of bitter and sweet in world cuisine? I doubt it.
Never have anything but an open mind when sampling restaurants – that’s always the rule here. But we’d be lying if we said we weren’t expecting Strada to underwhelm, to niggle our little foodie consciences with chain restaurant mass-reproduction – but it didn’t. We were impressed. A little taste of Italy, indeed.
Editor’s update: Strada, York, closed in January 2018
Strada York, 75 Low Petergate, York, YO1 7HY
Monday to Saturday: 11.30am to 11.00pm
Sunday: 11.30am to 10.30pm
Three course dinner for two without wine about £45.