10 August 2012 by Luke McCormick
Tempo offers modern Italian cuisine without pretension, set against a backdrop of Regency splendour in the heart of Mayfair.
With a Japanese chef, Yoshi Yamada, breaking rules and turning conventions on their head, it's hard not to fall in love with place.
Tired old Italian this is not. Yamada spent four years cooking in Michelin star restaurants in Sorrento, Sardinia and Florence - before coming to the UK and working at high profile establishments such as Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and L'Atelier de Robuchon. So he's well placed to help evolve the cuisine of his adopted country.
And Yamada recently won the Academia Barilla pasta world championship competition in Parma. The Italians are confused, Japanese tourists can't get enough of the place and the locals keep coming back for more. It seems he is on to a winner. Italian purists might not like it, but it's fine dining, done in friendly and relaxed way.
There's a focus on cicchetti, the Italian small plates typically served in the bàcari bars of Venice, and sharing plates of carpaccio and antipasti. Dishes include spicy Calabrian pork sausage crostino (a mix of pork sausage paste, sun-dried tomatoes and plenty of chilli), grilled porcini, light and airy calamari and tasty Asian-influenced prawns with seaweed.
The carpaccio dishes (currently swordfish, salmon and beef) could easily moonlight as sashimi.
The first Italian restaurant opened in Tokyo in 1890. At first the Japanese didn't get the al dente concept, but when they did, they went wild for it. And it seems they're still going mad for it, judging by the number of Japanese diners the restaurant attracts.
"And they love the regional cuisine concept as well," Yamada said.
The carpaccio of fresh swordfish was particularly enjoyable, with a smooth olive tapenade and fragrant basil leaf, while the burrata was a creamy mozzarella from Puglia with a delightful pea puree.
This is not the place to come for pizza though: they don't serve it.
And you could easily skip the pasta entirely in favour of the seafood-centric main plates. But that would be a mistake.
Born in Japan, Yamada was brought up in the full awareness of his Italian roots. This is mirrored in his cooking, which revolves around impeccably sourced, seasonal ingredients, handled with care and simplicity. His passion for Italian cuisine was reflected in his winning dish: Barilla Bavette with scampi, clams, mussels and baby squid.
Yoshi's colourful seafood inspired dish went against what the other - exclusively Italian - chefs were offering.
"They were all making traditional rustic dishes like pumpkin ravioli with pureed peas, which mustn't have been very exciting for the crowd to watch," Yamada told me.
"Having won this award is a real honour," Yamada said.
"It shows me that all the passion I put into my cooking, which starts with the careful selection of the ingredients I use, is recognised.
"I think I'm free to experiment with Italian concepts - I don't have to be as rigid as Italian chefs.
"I think I only won because I was more relaxed and colourful, but I never thought I would win."
It seems his wife shared the view; even booking her ticket home on the day of the final, not thinking Yamada had a chance.
Tempo's thrilled owner Henry Tonga said: "It was pure show cooking that won it, but we could never replicate it here - we'd need 40 chefs in the kitchen!"
"He cooked each type of seafood in its own pan to retain the unique flavours, only mixing them at the very end."
"It was my mum that first pushed me to go to Italy," Yamada told me, "she said ‘If you want to be an Italian chef you need to go to Italy, otherwise you are wasting everyone's time.'"
"She's a great mum, it's her fault I'm here cooking."
Back to the food and it seems Yamada has picked up a few tricks on his travels.
A pleasing gnocchi of tomato, mozzarella and chilli simply dissolved in the mouth, while a deliciously flavoursome boned whole bream was presented with a salsa of chilli and garlic, seared from the char grill and stuffed with rosemary on a bed of rocket. This is eating with the eyes.
And that's not all there is to look at.
An exhibition of political cartoons from Togna's life-long friend Jeffrey Archer's personal collection is also on display alongside the delicious food.
In fact there's not an area of wall that has escaped the hammer of curator Chris Beetles', such is the breadth of the exposition.
The 50 original works on display in the restaurant are an amusing and satirical look at political life spanning the history of cartooning over three centuries.
"And there's some quite famous ones in here, too," Togna said.
Mainly based around British and American politics, the collection features cartoons of Churchill, Macmillan, Kennedy, Reagan, Nixon, Heath, Major, Blair and Thatcher by many major political cartoonists, including James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Sir David Low, and Ernest Howard Shepard.
Lord Archer said: "It has long been my ambition to leave this collection to the nation and Chris Beetles and I are currently discussing with various institutions a place of permanent residence to which the public will have access."
The salon upstairs, which was originally built for the Duchess of Devonshire in the 1850s and now acts as an inviting lounge bar, is a lovely space to enjoy the fabulous cocktails on offer.
The outstanding dessert (dolci) menu will ensure every meal ends on a high. A deconstructed tiramisu was the perfect finish: resembling a crème caramel with the flavour of mascarpone, complemented by coffee ice cream and a crisp savoiardi biscuit.
"We didn't want to do a clichéd Italian menu, but everyone was asking for tiramisu, so we deconstructed the dish with all the elements," Tonga said.
"It's not typical, but it's delicious."
Tempo Restaurant & Bar
54 Curzon St, London, W1J 8PG
T: 020 7629 2742
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