REVIEW: Carluccio's cuts through the autumn chill

'Book for Christmas'
'Book for Christmas'

As the evening approached, outside on the bench the silhouette of a figure had an almost envious turn of the face.

And who could blame the life-size sculpture of the celebrated poet John Keats which since it was unveiled two years ago has been destined to wait outside Chichester Carluccio's - and yet never invited in to sample the hospitality.

The lamb shank

The lamb shank

This is a tough time for the high street and those chains of restaurants which bring colour, taste and variety to its street scene.

Carluccio's knows it has to be constantly at the top of its game - everything from new menus blended with signature favourites and service and ambiance that excels.

While Keats, crafted by sculptor Vincent Gray, sat forlornly in the enveloping night, we were in the warm glow inside working our way through the new autumn into winter menu which sees the introduction of some of Antonio Carluccio's original heritage recipes.

We began the meal with one of the best value white wines on the menu - Carluccio's Exclusive Bianco which comes in at £4.95 a glass or £16.95 for the full bottle.

The chicken breast in mushroom sauce

The chicken breast in mushroom sauce

It's a great little number - soft but full of flavour; bouncing with personality. If a restaurant can't deliver a decent house wine then don't expect too much of the food. This was a great opener to the evening.

There's plenty of good value to be had at a decent price. The evening Set Menu comes in at a delicious £16.95 for two courses with the option to add a dessert for £3 and a glass of Sicani wine for £3.95.

Nor are there any outrageous prices on the A La Carte - just a range of dishes which hit the mark without the need for unnecessary flamboyance. No doubt, a reflection of Antonio's motto MOF MOF: minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.

A hint of autumn foraging underpins the new dishes - mushrooms, rich and earthy soups, and slow-cooked beef and red wine ragu with olives. A regional selection of cured meats with fresh focaccia; beef meatball in a tomato sauce.

The focaccia

The focaccia

Just the job as temperatures fall and daylight struggles against the clocks moved back an hour.

Olives first. Plump and proud on the dish. Then a favourite - chicken liver pate. It never disappoints. We had the lamb shank and the chicken breast covered in prosciutto Gran Sasso in a rich mushroom sauce.

No need for sides but broccoli and spinach seemed two choices to tick our five a day. The spinach was rather dry and stringy which was a shame but not a meal breaker.

Finally dessert. Was there room? The team that serves always make you very welcome and fizz with enthusiasm for the menu - even on those occasions when you are there incognito and not reviewing as a guest of the company.

The sculpture of Keats outside the restaurant

The sculpture of Keats outside the restaurant

On this occasion, I was persuaded to abandon my conservative taste and choose ‘Bosco Incantato’ - meaning ‘Enchanted Forest’ - a dessert inspired by Antonio’s passion for all things funghi. It's a ‘toadstool’ sculpture made of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, chocolate and hazelnut sauce, on a forest floor of pistachios, hazelnuts, fresh raspberries and panettone.

Fresh mint tea at the end cleansed the palate.

As we stepped outside, we cast a pitying glance at Keats - destined only ever to give a sideways glance at the bounteous culinary pleasures inside.

[ ] We were invited to review by Carluccio and attended as their guests. However, the review was not linked to any commercial arrangement and was entirely independent of them