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A recent trip to Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth saw us looking for a spot of lunch after a morning’s shopping. As per usual I’d taken a wee peek at Money Saving Expert the day before we went to see if any of the restaurants at Gunwharf were doing any special deals. Sadly the deals were rather thin on the ground and I was limited to either 40% off food at Café Rouge or two main courses for the price of one at Azurro. I didn’t really fancy either of them so I was rather pleased to find a last minute entry from Strada where they were offering £20 off four main courses.
Just like Ask, Prezzo, Bella Italia, Pizza Express, Carluccio’s, Azzurro and Zizzi, Strada also offer Italian themed dining. To be honest there are so many different brands on our high streets all offering the same sort of Italian dishes at the same sort of prices it does make one wonder how they can all manage to scratch a living. Having been underwhelmed by distinctly average food at nearly all of the above**, I hoped Strada were going to impress the hell out of me.
** I’ve eaten at (and reviewed) Ask, Prezzo, Zizzi, Pizza Express and Carluccio’s, but have yet to pass judgement on either Azzurro or Bella Italia.
~*~ POSIZIONE, BENVENUTO E ATMOSFERA ~*~
The Portsmouth Strada is located at Gunwharf Quays, a vast leisure complex which houses a cinema, bowling alley and casino as well as tons of restaurants and high street outlet shops. It’s a great place to pick up a bargain or two (especially the Marks and Spencer outlet shop which can be a bit of a bun fight but is nonetheless superb). The focal points of Gunwharf are the renowned Spinnaker Tower and the Lipstick (a huge block of flats shaped like a lipstick), both of which can be seen for miles all around.
Strada is located in a very nice spot approximately half way between Spinnaker Tower and the Lipstick. Although set back from views over Portsmouth Harbour itself, Strada still overlooks the waterway that adjoins the harbour so you do still get pleasant waterside views. The venue has plenty of outdoor seating, and it must a lovely spot for lunch or dinner on a warm summer’s day. Sadly the bitter winds of February did not encourage us to linger outside and admire the views, so we hurried on indoors.
Strada at Gunwharf is rather large. The venue is split over two floors with plenty of indoor dining space as well as tables and chairs on the balcony upstairs and the terrace on the ground floor. We dined there on a Wednesday lunchtime in February so none of the outdoor space was being used, and neither were any of the tables upstairs. It has to be said that the restaurant wasn’t all that busy, and I estimate that about half of the tables within the ground floor area were occupied by diners. This was just as well for us, as were hadn’t booked in advance and just took pot luck on whether they’d be able to accommodate us.
Upon entry we were greeted almost immediately and invited to sit where we liked. The venue is very light and bright inside due to the huge glass fronted picture windows to the front of the place and mirrored walls and pillars to the back which reflect all that light back into the room. The décor inside feels quite retro mainly due to all the low hanging paper shades suspended from the ceiling (I can remember the same sort of spherical paper lightshade over the dining table at home when I was growing up in the 70’s!). The venue also has a predominance of wood everywhere, not just the tables and chairs, but the bar and a huge oak staircase leading up to the first floor. All in all, it’s very light and bright in Strada and it had a nice welcoming atmosphere.
~*~ IL MENU ~*~
Strada offer traditional Italian cuisine with a well rounded range of all
Strada, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth
the dishes you’d expect to find on any good Italian menu. There are salads, antipasti, pizza, pasta and risotto on offer. Starters (antipasti) feature all the usual suspects from Olives, Ciabatta, Bruschetta, Zuppa (soup) and Flat Breads with prices ranging from £2.25 to £6.95.
Main courses offer a goodly amount of choice but aren’t over heavy on the pizza and pasta front. Yes, you can have both pizza or pasta, but there are plenty of alternative dishes if pizza isn’t your sort of thing (that’ll be me then!). There are lots of more interesting meat and fish dishes such as Branzino Basilico (panfried sea bass on basil mash) or Agnello Brasato (lamb shank) or Tegamaccio (seafood stew). If you like your Italian cooking to be limited to pizza there are eight different flavoured pizzas to choose from ranging from your bog standard Margherita through to a slightly more exotic Contadina (goat’s cheese, aubergine and caramelised onions). There are six different pasta dishes ranging from Spaghetti, Linguine or Penne, and there is a choice of three different Risotto concoctions as well. Pizza, pasta and risotto prices tend to range between £7.95 to £12.25. The meat and fish main courses are slightly more expensive and range from just over £10.00 up to £16.95.
The dessert card is short but sweet and features old Italian favourites such as Pannacotta, Tiramisu, Gelato and Sorbetto. Dessert prices range from £3.95 to £5.25 apiece.
~*~ IL NOSTRO PASTO ~*~
Our waitress offered us a choice of olives or garlic bread with our drinks order, but we declined any of these as we were keen to get stuck straight into the main event. Before we ordered we clarified with the waitress that the discount voucher I was clutching in my sweaty palm was valid and that we would receive a £20 discount on four main courses. She said she would confirm if there was a problem, and as we heard nothing further we assumed all was well. Our discount voucher allowed us to choose any dish from the main courses, be it pizza, pasta, risotto, salad or meat/fish dishes, and there were more than enough to choose from.
After some deliberation, I chose the Pollo Milanese at £10.95 which was described as Panfried Chicken Breast covered in Grana Padano cheese, lemon zest and breadcrumbs with a tomato and basil sauce. The dish was served with roasted new potatoes and green beans. My mother was going to order the Gamberoni (sautéed king prawns with garlic, white wine, red chilli butter and parsley), but thought it may be a little too spicy for a luncheon dish. Therefore she decided to join me in having the Pollo Milanese. The chicken breast had been beaten flat and then coated in crispy breadcrumb. The chicken was nice and moist inside the crumb and the coating nice and crunchy. Unfortunately I couldn’t taste any of the cheese or lemon the dish should have had in either the breadcrumb or the chicken, but it was still tasty enough. The tomato and basil sauce was a very nice accompaniment and added a bit of flavour to the chicken which tasted a little bland on its own. The dish was served with a small portion of green beans and new potatoes. All in all, this was a tasty enough dish and I thought it was reasonable value for £10.95.
My partner and my father both chose the Bistecca Manzo at £16.95 which is a 35 day aged chargrilled 250g rib-eye steak marinated in rosemary. It came served with caramelised onions and peppers, roasted new potatoes. They also had a choice of sauce with their steak and both of them went for the Marsala sauce rather than the Gorgonzola one. They both enjoyed their steak as it had a lovely chargrilled flavour to it. The Marsala sauce was a nice accompaniment as it was rich yet quite subtle, so it didn’t detract from the main event which should always be the steak in this case. Marsala would certainly be my choice too as a cheesy Gorgonzola sauce sounds like it may be a little too overpowering. Gorgonzola is a cheese that makes its presence felt so I cannot see it lending any subtlety to a sauce! Where the dish fell down was the rather risible portion of potatoes accompanying the steak. Both thought that the portion of new potatoes was rather on the mean side. As they were paying £16+ apiece for their meal, it seemed rather mean not to serve this steak with a bigger portion of potatoes and at least one, if not two, side dishes. They were both asked if they’d like some broccoli with their steak, but had luckily spotted that this would add a whopping £2.95 to the dish so it would cost just shy of £20. All the side dishes at Strada are priced at £2.95 each and that seems a little greedy. For the portion served, I thought that the £17 price tag on this dish was a little cheeky. They should throw in a couple of sides and up the potato portion to increase the perceived value here.
My mother and I lingered for a dessert apiece whilst my partner and father returned to the pub next door for another pint (more on that later…). My mother chose Affogato at £4.95 which is iced nougat semi-froddo ice-cream with a shot of hot, fresh espresso to pour over the top. I’d never heard of Affogato before but it is evidently a favourite of my mother’s and she pronounced the Strada version as one of the best desserts she has had in eons. Affogato is Italian for "drowned" and it gives its name to the dessert as it is a scoop of vanilla gelato (ice cream) literally drowned in a shot of hot espresso. It did look mighty tasty, but she wasn’t letting me try it no matter how much I pleaded :o(
Instead I had to make do with my choice of Cioccolato Fondente at £5.25. This was a chocolate fondente (steam pudding) served warm with one of those melting chocolate centres. The dish was served with vanilla ice-cream. Whilst I enjoyed this pudding, I did think that the chocolate fondente was rather miniscule and it looked rather lonely on the huge plate it was served on. The melting middle, however, was as rich and gooey as one would expect it to be.
~*~ IL SERVIZIO E LE BEVANDE ~*~
Strada offer a full selection of mainly Italian accented drinks. My mother and I stuck to bottles of mineral water at £3.50 apiece. However, there were plenty of other tempting options if you like wine with your meal. Wines, not surprisingly, have a mostly Italian origination with red Valpolicella and Chianti and white Soave. If Italian wines don’t appeal there are plenty of choices from other countries too. Beers-wise you're limited to bottled lagers with the matching horrendous prices. Strada offer Peroni lager at a vastly inflated £3.60 for one tiny 330ml bottle. My father and partner were most unimpressed as they had expected a venue of this size to have at least one draught lager on offer. They both made do with a Peroni apiece but grumbled intermittently about the price and the fact that their bottles weren’t all that chilled. After muttering amongst themselves for about ten minutes that one tiny 330ml wasn’t going to hit the spot or do much in the way of quenching their thirst, my partner hit upon the bright idea of going next door to the pub and having a “proper” pint. As my mother and I raised no objections they duly hot footed it to the Fullers Brewery pub next door to Strada, The Old Customs House, where they enjoyed a pint apiece for less than the overpriced tiny beers at Strada.
We were slightly concerned that their food would arrive whilst they were in the pub next door, but we had no worries on that front. From the time of ordering to the delivery of our food we were kept waiting for 50 minutes, so they could have had plenty of time to enjoy not one, but at least three pints next door if they’d have wanted to. Considering Strada was rather quiet with at best 25% capacity, I have no idea quite why it took them 50 minutes to serve our food. Goodness knows how they’d cope if they had a rush on! When we were paying our bill, our waitress asked us if we had enjoyed our meal, and my mother said that although the food was good, a 50 minute wait for its delivery seemed a little slow. The waitress replied that it was because all the food was freshly cooked, but that seemed a little too pat and rehearsed to us, so one suspects it’s an ongoing problem. Nothing we ordered was all that complicated - two steaks and two chicken breasts. I very much doubt they are rolling out the chicken breasts and coating them in breadcrumbs on site to create our Pollo Milanese. The breadcrumb coating certainly didn’t look homemade - it looked very much like the sort of thing that is made on mass and shipped out to all the freezers in all the Strada outlets.
Delays in food service aside, the service was mostly attentive and always friendly. It would have been nice if our waitress had dropped by our table after 30 minutes or so to explain there was a delay in the kitchen, but she studiously avoided our table until the food was actually ready. I do think that a 50 minute wait for lunch is unacceptable without an apology or an explanation, and Strada need to work on that if they cannot improve the speed of service in the kitchen.
Thanks to Money Saving Expert, we had a printed off discount voucher entitling us to £20 off four main courses. Therefore the final bill came to £57.50 for four main courses, two desserts and a round of drinks. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to pay £77.50 for the same meal, but thought it was good enough value once the discount had been applied. The food was certainly tasty enough when it finally arrived, just not particularly outstanding.
~*~ RACCOMANDAZIONE? ~*~
Would I return to Strada? And how did they fare in comparison to all the other middle of the road Italian high street chains I’ve dined at?
The food was nice enough, but not all that special. Strada, like its Italian competitors, is just serving generic high street cooking with an Italian accent, and you can sit yourself in any Pizza Express, Ask, Zizzi, Strada, Carluccios etc etc and eat exactly the same sort of dishes in the same sort of surroundings. It would be nice if one of them rose head and shoulders above the rest and did something a little bit different so they stood out from the crowd.
Three stars from me - the food was nice enough, but generic. The drinks are overpriced, but expected in this type of venue. However, where they really let themselves down was the slowness of the service. A fifty minute wait in a virtually empty restaurant without explanation or apology is just simply not good enough. Strada need to pull their socks up, and fast. There is so much competition at Gunwharf Quays, diners will vote with their feet and swiftly go elsewhere.
I would eat at Strada again, but I wouldn’t be in any tearing hurry and there would have to be two provisos….. only if I had a good hefty discount voucher and  they did something about the speed of the kitchen.
~*~ ALTRE COSE ~*~
There are over 70 Strada outlets throughout the UK. Strada is owned by the Tragus Group Ltd (http://www.tragusgroup.com), who also run all the Café Rouge, Bella Italia, Amalfi and Belgo outlets (amongst other lesser known brands).
Strada R2-R3 City Quay Gunwharf Quays Portsmouth Harbour Portsmouth Hampshire PO1 3TW