Our undercover meal reviewer The Insider heads back to an old favourite for his last dining review.
This is quite an emotional moment for me. Five years and two weeks since I first invited you to join me on my voyage around the culinary hotspots of the West Midlands, I am finally hanging up my trenchcoat and trilby. This is to be the last Insider
Actually, I never wore such garments during my adventures. After all, there would hardly be much point in a disguise if you all knew what it was, would there? Still, it’s a nice metaphor. And besides, why let the facts get in the way of a good cliche?
Anyway, the burning question was where should I go for the last ever Insider review? It needed to be in the Sandwell area, as it was due for a visit. I was keen to try Franzl’s, a well-known Austrian restaurant in Bearwood, which has been highly recommended over the years, but (as on a previous occasion) it was fully booked.
I guess that’s the price you pay for success.
So instead I decided to end this column, where it began. Well almost.
One of the first places I visited when I started this column back in April 2008 was Di Napoli, an Italian restaurant along the busy Wolverhampton Road in Oldbury, and it was a place I have always looked back on with some affection.
From the outside it is rather a strange looking place. Not unattractive, it’s just that you don’t usually expect to see an Italian restaurant concealed behind full-height smoked glass windows, in a sort of annex to a large furniture showroom.
Last time I turned up on a Friday night without a booking, and had to wait for 20 minutes on the sofa until a table became available. This time I had a booking, but wouldn’t have needed one: I was a little surprised to find it was only half full, on what you would expect to be the busiest day of the week.
Nevertheless, there was a warm welcome on arrival, and we were taken straight to our table by a cheery young gentleman dressed all in black.
The decor is clean, bright and airy, and is quite smart in a modern, minimalistic sort of way, with cream floor tiles, simple straight-grain square tables, and comfortable black leatherette seats. There are a couple of paintings of Italy on the walls, and there is a slightly more plush area at the back for special functions.
It seems to attract a fairly young crowd, there were two or three young couples there during our visit, one middle-aged couple, and a larger group of around eight people which probably spanned a couple of generations.
No fewer than 28 Italian wines are on offer, plus a further six champagnes (no vintages are specified), but there is a choice of just red or white house wine if you are drinking by the glass.
We both went for the white option, a fruity quaffable Trebbiano which most people will find to their satisfaction.
There is no shortage of choice on the menu, with a total of 33 main courses on offer. There is a particularly good choice of fish, with Dover sole, swordfish and monkfish all available, as well as a choice of veal, chicken and vegetarian dishes. I considered the rack of lamb in red wine sauce, but in one final show of defiance, I decided to go for the steak.
I know some of you think I eat too much steak, but I would like to point out that I have not had one for two months. Anyway, this is the Insider’s last week. So it’s my party, and I’ll eat steak if I want to. So there.
Anyway, I went for filletto al pepe, while my companion opted for the steak diane. They arrived within half an hour, delivered by the chef who kindly ground the black pepper and served up the vegetables at the table.
And they were both excellent. My fillet was quite a thick cut, I always prefer these to the flatter variants, and it was very tender. The pepper and brandy sauce was wonderful. It was served with very nice saute potatoes, and a selection of veg including carrots, beans and broccoli, although I wish I had chosen a side order of chips as well.
My companion said the diane sauce with her flattened fillet was the best she had tasted, and I suppose you can’t get much better than that.
For afters I had caramel panna cotta, which was pleasant enough, but probably with hindsight I think I would have preferred the limoncello. My companion went for the torta selve nera, a sort of chocolate sponge gateau topped off with strawberries. Again, not bad, but not up to the standard of the mains.
The total bill came to £59.80, which I think is decent value for what was a very good meal, and the service was friendly and efficient, but I didn’t quite feel there was quite the same sense of joie de vivre as the last time I visited. But perhaps my memory makes me look through my early adventures with rose-tinted glasses.
It is still a very good restaurant, and I was pleased to see that two of the three minor criticisms expressed during my last visit have now been addressed.
And finally, on a more personal note, I would like to express my profound gratitude to all of you who have followed this column over the last five years, and especially those of you who have written in to share your views. Yes, even those of you who have given me a hard time on occasion.
It’s been one big blast, and I couldn’t have done it without you. A big thank you to all of you – and bon appetit!