France-based Italian chain Francesca has landed in London to prove to us that fast food has indeed changed. One of a growing number of ‘concept’ chains based around maximising efficiency and freshness whilst minimising avoidable costs, Francesca styles itself as a fast-food outlet, serves your meal within moments, and dresses its staff in identical baseball caps, but there’s a catch: the food is fresh, nutritious and authentic. And what’s more, it’s cooked just behind the till, right in front of your peering eyes.
Francesca approaches the question of how to furnish a modern restaurant of the chew-n-go template equipped with a one-word catch-all answer: Ikea. Clean, crisp and bright, they’ve done an excellent job of making the place smart without erring on formal, although if you squint it does seem a bit like a well-kept airport departure lounge. Black and white photos of children happily munching pasta, shelves filled with iconic Italian brands (Illy coffee, De Cecco pasta) and signs declaring ‘Antipasti’ and ‘Momenti del Caffé’ all remind you that this is an Italian restaurant, after all. The whole place has a minimalist, skinny-latté feel to it.
Ordering is, once again, simple and clear-cut – you choose your type of pasta (with helpful pictures on the menu to aid those who don’t know their fusilli from their farfalle) before selecting which sauce you want smothered on it. There is, of course, the option for antipasti, but I opt for the meal deal – ever the spendthrift – which offers any pasta dish from the menu, a dessert and a bottled drink for £7.95. The salmone and the tiramisu were my choices, both of which arrived on a bright red tray less than three minutes after I ordered. Impressive, if a little reminiscent of a school cafeteria.
Although the cream sauce – laced with red onions and finely-chopped dill – was a touch too thin, the salmon was delicate and plentiful without overpowering the dish. And the pasta itself, which so rarely gets a mention unless poorly prepared, was cooked perfectly al dente. It’s not going to get Heston Blumenthal waking up in an icy sweat, but all too often I’ve had limp pasta in tasteless sauce, and not only when I’m the one doing the cooking.
Alarmingly, the tiramisu came in its own dinky plastic container – considering the pasta arrived in a bowl (a real one too, no plastic), it felt a bit strange for Francesca to suddenly go all in-flight meal on me. Frothy and light, the tiramisu avoided confirming my fears and was actually surprisingly decent. I expected a hint of staleness when I prodded at the sponge, but it tasted as it should: moist with a grainy texture. Yet it was hard to shake the feeling that this was a sorry-looking sugary supplement to the meal rather than its glorious sweet conclusion. Ultimately, I was left with a sense that dessert was an afterthought, as though the good folks at Francesca had let the final course somehow slip their minds. Considering that two courses, one in a plastic pot, and a soft drink come at almost £8, I can’t help but think that Londoners might find that they can get more bang for their buck elsewhere. Fast food is fighting back, alright, but it’s got a lot of catching up to do.
215 Baker Street
Tel: 020 7486 9800