What makes a truly great restaurant and how does it reach into our consciousness to become an institution? As I set off to Andiamo I pondered such questions and desperately hoped this stalwart of Herne Bay would impress me as much as the last time I'd critiqued it, three and half years ago, as my first bona fide restaurant review. Had I been too starry-eyed back then? I wondered if I'd hardened up, or sharpened up. I recalled that I'd given them plenty of praise but were they worthy of it or did it spring from my naivety?
I took along the same fellow food fiend as last time, though now she resides in New York City, principally to eat, and I deliberately didn't re-read my last review so as to remain unaffected by that experience.
We took a table outside in the setting sun and in a nod to my friend's chosen neighbourhood, Brooklyn, where negronis are the favoured cocktail among the thinking drinking set, we ordered a couple. They took forever to arrive, as well they should, because each was spectacularly put together: bitter but balanced, strong as all hell and well-capable of working their magic as the ultimate aperitif to get us in the mood for eating. Anticipation builds character.
Our waitress was fantastic from the get-go. Throughout the night she found it in her to give us her opinion if we appeared to be vacillating between options, and she nailed it every time with her recommendations. She also knew when to leave us be. Brilliant.
We ran the whole gamut: pate for starters, entrees, mains, digestif, dessert, coffee. And I want it all again right now just writing about it.
Chicken liver pate takes on a whole new meaning at Andiamo. It is light and buttery but still erring on the side of pate, not parfait, and comes served with the best bread ever - brushed with oil then charred, like on a camp fire, until crisp but not in a gum-damaging way, having been considerately sliced thinly. And slivers of beetroot come with it - sweet and earthy to off-set the richness of the pate.
Scallops were from our shores, small and sweetly intense in flavour. The chorizo crumb had a kick but was a little like chewing on scoria. The spiced tomato chutney was a much better concoction.
We had a bowl of rigatoni pasta too and it was a knock-out. It stunned us into silence with its gloriously deep flavours: oxtail rendered soft, a cream sauce sharpened with plenty of grana padano, and pinenuts for a textural surprise. It's amazing when a dish is so sublime it is complete in its satisfaction and you want only that.
As our meal progressed I noticed the steady stream of happy locals calling in, as well as diners more geared towards a special night out. Andiamo is capable of satisfying both groups with its crisp, casual delivery of an upmarket bistro experience.
A lamb rump, with skin singed like a good Sunday roast, was rosy and juicy inside and so tender I had to ask whether it had had a dose of the sous vide. It hadn't been near it. Chef Scott Smith is just a genius.
At first I thought my fish dish - oven-roasted john dory - lacked salt but I was wrong. The fillets, with their gunmetal-grey skin slashed to a pretty pattern, got plenty from the accompanying salsa verde, tomato reduction and tender rings of calamari. Another triumph from the kitchen.
We couldn't stop short of dessert but a nip of calvados was necessary to aid digestion. I surprised myself by ordering a sweet that I rarely fall for - sticky date pudding. Too often they are sickly sweet and stodgy. Not this one. The sponge was light and fluffy, spiked with pear, barely sweet but that was entirely appropriate as it sat in a deep pool of the most divinely buttery hot caramel sauce. Paired with gingernut icecream, this was a dazzling dessert.
We also tucked in to the best brulee I've had in a long time - perfectly set and with the tang of lemon curd at the base to lift its spirits.
At the end of our meal we sat back and marvelled at how it is no surprise that some restaurants thrive, decade after decade.
After 19 years in the business, Andiamo still gets it so right and creates such an effortlessly perfect dining experience, which simply means that you leave vowing to return - and you do.
From the menu: Chicken liver pate $15, scallops with chorizo $22, rigatoni with braised oxtail $22, market fish (john dory) $37, lamp rump $36, sticky date and pear pudding $14, lemon curd brulee $15
Drinks: Award-winning wine list, great cocktails