If you fancy Italian for lunch in a bright, efficient, and trendy place, and you have deep pockets, then Vapiano might be the restaurant for you. But for me, there is something slightly wrong about self-service Italian restaurants that charge up to £9.95 for pasta that comes out of a packet.
Fine, the packets show that the pasta is fresh, and advertise different shapes you can choose from. But after the initial attraction, one does remember that such packets are stocked in most supermarkets. Better stocked, it turns out, than the branch I went to, which had run out of pappardelle at 4:30pm. Maybe they had too spectacular a lunch hour – but they did have two hours after that to restock. For a restaurant that markets itself as an economic but diverse eatery, it is not so swift at restocking the shelves. I hate to ruin Neil MacGregor’s efforts at dispelling preconceptions about the Germans, but this is a German restaurant chain, and manufacturing (the pasta is made fresh daily in the restaurant’s own kitchen) is meant to be a forte of theirs.
Also, Italian cuisine is not just about the food, but also about the philosophy of eating. Appreciation, Bibulation, Conversation, Digestion – all are what I associate with eating out, Italian style. The fresh, quick, and easy method is best practised at home, as one of the foolproof 15-minute meals after a long day in the office – or in my case, the library. From personal experience on an archaeological dig near Naples, I know how long a pausa (‘break’) can be – 30 minutes – and a pranzo (‘lunch’) – 1 hour – and see no reason to depart from tradition. In any case, for a city office worker, lunch on average apparently consists of a sandwich wolfed down in 15 minutes at one’s desk. Either you have time or you don’t. If you do, let’s say, at supper time after work, and you have £9.95 to spend, why not sit down at a candlelit table? If you don’t but can still manage to squeeze enough time for a hurried meal at Vapiano’s, then I have no idea why the water glasses come in such minute sizes (only just taller than the bread slices). The heavy, rich sauces led me to head for the water machine more times than I can count. Next time I will remember to fill 10 glasses in advance to prevent my food from going cold. Maybe it’s a trick to make us eat more; the climb up and down the bar stool and repetitive walk between one’s table and the water machine means that by the end of the main your stomach feels ready for dessert?
However, there are many redeemable features, as should be the case for any successful restaurant chain. My favourite thing in the restaurant turned out to be the pot plants – two are distributed on each of the bar tables, rosemary and basil. Not only does stripping bare half the plant makes your spending worthwhile, but it also adds flavour and freshness to your dish. These are Vapiano’s greatest strengths, not the revolutionary chip card system that piqued my interest in the restaurant in the first place. The Salsiccia con Ficci (spicy Italian sausage, fresh figs, tomato sauce) I ordered, with campanelle pasta, was extremely well balanced. The sweetness of the figs is essential alongside the saltiness of the meat. The genius of the simple combination was a particularly pleasant surprise for me, since I don’t actually ‘like’ cooked fruit and am not a meat-craver. Not to mention, the pasta was cooked to al dente perfection. As for the health factor, proof of the freshness of the ingredients is before your eyes, and they also offer a choice of spelt pasta.
This isn’t a restaurant I would revisit once the novelty wears off. But since there are interesting fusion items on the menu I have yet to try, I will come again. I do not have high hopes for pasta with pak choi, but their food did not disappoint me before and might exceed my expectations again. They flash-fry the pasta (after boiling it) in a wok, so it’s sort of halfway to being oriental. If they get fusion ‘right’, then by association I may have discovered a welcome alternative to the fusion pizzas at Fire and Stone!
Find the Vapiano nearest to you in London, at:
19-21 Great Portland St, W1W 8QB
84 Wardour Street, W1F 0TQ
90 B Southwark Street, SE1 0FD