Santino, Italian Restaurant, 11 A. Topchubachov Street, Baku
Tel.: (994) 12 597 9092 www.santino-restaurant.com
Goodness, some reviews are hard to write! Some just flow off the keyboard smoothly with little stories that spring to mind and a very definite view of the experience. This one involves a lot of soul searching. Why? Because when you see that someone is making a huge effort and really trying to please, you don’t want to be callous and dismiss what they are trying so lovingly to create.
Back in December, I visited Santino and really did not enjoy my meal. It was tasteless and sloppy and expensive to boot. I was not impressed. I aired my views on the Baku Expat Forum and received a multitude of indignant responses. The food was divine, I was told, authentic and as Italian as you can get. Some went as far as claiming that Santino is by far Baku’s best Italian restaurant. Now, I do take these comments on board. Not only am I well aware that I am not the non plus ultra authority on food but also that any establishment can have an off day. Let’s face it, it happens and it would be grossly unfair to use a one off negative experience as the load star for all future. So, obviously, with all that feedback, I had to return for a second chance and try again.
All gung-ho and with a positive mind frame we went back to this restaurant, hidden away in a side street, just by the Hennessy off-licence behind the ISR Plaza, on a Sunday evening during the month of Ramadan when it was sizzlingly hot in Baku and most Expats were away on their summer holidays. Ah…..bad timing, I hear you say, and you’re right. In the event, we were the only guests in the restaurant for the entire duration of the meal. Apart from skeleton staff there was no one else in sight. Not ideal for us and certainly not ideal for the restaurant. Those circumstances are always going to skew the outcome. But having spent AZN130 on one starter, two main courses, a pudding, a bottle of wine and on water, I’m going to bring you my review anyway. Just please bear the circumstances in mind while you read it.
The presentation of the restaurant is slightly odd. Imagine a cross between your average Azerbaijani restaurant and an English pub. Damask wall paper and a giant chandelier on one hand and leather chesterfield type furniture, burgundy downstairs and black upstairs, on the other. The premises are long and narrow with a galleried mezzanine floor above, the ceiling of which in places is very low, beams covered in the same buttoned leather as the seating. The narrow exterior windows house revolving cake stands and look out onto a small outside eating area.
We were welcomed very warmly and seated. The waiter was incredibly charming and helpful. He’d worked in London for many years and had lived in Chelsea Harbour, so his English was fluent and his service as good and exacting as in any superior European restaurant. This alone was an absolute blessing as it meant that we were well advised on our food choices, specials (fresh Mediterranean lobster, no less, newly flown in!) were explained, food was brought as ordered and on time, wine was properly chilled and our plates weren’t removed while we were still chewing. After the average restaurant experience here, you really learn to appreciate these little things and they certainly make for a wonderful sense of well being. So, without a shadow of a doubt, 10/10 for the service at Santino’s on this occasion.
The food, well, that was fine too. Not outstanding but good. We started with Carpaccio which was, quite unusually, cured rather than raw beef with parmesan shavings and lemon juice and along with the three different oils already on the table, we were offered olive oil infused with rosemary and mandarin, so that gave the meat a very nice extra little bit of subtle flavour. For a main course, we both chose grilled fish. I had John Dory and the lovely husband, sea bass. The John Dory, as more or less predicted by the waiter, had more flavour and, I thought, tasted better. Both were well prepared and nicely unadulterated, just good plain grilled fish. These fish dishes came with some mixed vegetables, though they were almost more of a garnish than proper portions. I could have done with more. The dessert, a slice of pistachio cake and another of blackberry tart with an accompaniment of small balls of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream was a little uneventful, to be honest. A bit dry, a bit too much dough and not enough fruit, not much taste to them. Maybe they had been sitting on the revolving cake stand in the window too long, I don’t know, but they were on the forgettable side. Perhaps we should have had ice-cream instead which all Italian restaurants do so well.
My verdict? Well let me put it this way: the service was exceptional, the ambience, through no fault of the restaurant’s, a little lacking and not helped by ‘Just One Cornetto’ type background muzak, the food was on the nicer side of so so, the price quite steep. Santino is a pleasant little neighbourhood restaurant where they do make a big effort to get things right. Would I hotfoot it there to repeat the experience? Possibly not in preference to some of the other restaurants I like, although I do feel that I should give it a third chance to excel under more conducive circumstances and I will, so watch this space!
Santino has a very loyal following among whom it inspires much enthusiasm. To add some balance to my view, I’d really appreciate comments from readers who have been to Santino recently and can enlighten us further.