Although I am fortunate enough to eat out a lot, I do not often write restaurant reviews. I am more than happy to give an opinion if someone happens to ask me what I think, but the issue I have is that, for me, taking photos of food and restaurants in the middle of meals is a bit intrusive and interrupts the flow of a good meal. I do not really want to be fiddling about with shutter speeds while my food goes sadly cold. The other thing quite important point is that I am so inherently greedy that I always forget to take the picture until I have ploughed halfway though a dish and it does not look that photo-ready anymore.
A recent exception was Cafe Murano in London’s St James’. An early dinner meant a quiet restaurant and and table tucked away in a private corner ensured that no-one else would be disturbed by me messing about with flash settings on my camera.
Cafe Murano is a fairly recent venture from Angela Harnett, and is the ‘little sister’ of the excellent Murano, headed up by Head Chef Sam Williams. Like Harnett, she is clearly a magician behind the stove. The concept is much more relaxed than Murano, with a distinct lack of formality. Staff were immediately friendly and attentive, but not intrusive; the last thing I ever want is someone running through the menu that I can read perfectly well myself. The room is long and quite narrow, with a high ceiling which absorbed a little of the atmosphere. It is very Mayfair in look, with leather banquettes and a fabulous marble-topped bar, where you can also eat.
We started with Aperol Spritz (of course), which were well mixed and not too sweet or watery. Despite clear directions on the back of the bottle, it amazes me how varied this drink can be in different places. This was followed by a beautifully crisp carafe of Sicilian Grillo. The wine list is brilliant, with lots to choose by the glass and carafe, an asset sadly missing on many wine lists. The food menu is broadly northern Italian (with a few borrowings) and all the better for it.
Then came the only real negative and that was the bread. My love of bread is well documented and I really believe that it reflects the quality of what is to come in the meal ahead. What we received was a few meagre slices of what was excellent Italian bread. Very much like an olive oil-rich ciabatta. This in itself was great; crispy and soft in the right places and served with a peppery olive oil, but it was crying out for some dense foccacia or long sticks of grissini to accompany it. The plate was happily topped up when requested, but did not reflect the quality and generosity of the meal to come.
As part of a short but punchy list of chiceti came the truffle arancini. The unique smell reached you before the bowl got to the table. Three small balls of crispy, earthy heaven. At this point, I thought the meal would go the way of all others and I would fail to get any photos, as they were inhaled before I could even take my lens cap off. Suffice to say, we ordered more and I managed to just capture the last one.
So onto the antipasti and a steely determination to get some structured evidence of our meal on record.
Warm octopus, chickpeas and pesto was probably the highlight. Many people think they hate octopus as they have only had it overcooked, when it is akin to chewing on a rubber band, but less pleasant. This was meltingly soft and coated with the type of deeply rich tomato sauce you usually only find in Italy. It came with blobs of the best pesto I have every eaten in my life; the combination of flavours and textures was just perfect. It was a stellar dish.
Risotto with rocket and walnut pesto came from the ludicrously good value set menu (two courses £18, three courses £22) and was perfectly al dente. The rocket pesto was quite bitter, which worked really well with the creaminess of the rice. Although it was delicious, I must admit I was too busy dribbling pesto down my chin in delight to give it my full attention.
Next on the set menu was a sausage and radicchio tagliatelle. Again, a brilliant combination of rich and slightly bitter flavours; radicchio is a bitter and red-leaved type of chicory that you cannot get away from in Northern Italy. It cuts very well through rich flavours such as meat or creamy cheese and was great here. The sausage was not as highly seasoned as most Italian ones and therefore the sauce overall lacked a little bit of richness and depth. The pasta was perfect.
I thought I had peaked early with my octopus, but then came the gnocchi. Morel, artichoke and wild garlic gnocchi to be precise. Although it wasn’t. Artichoke seemed to have mysteriously morphed into asparagus en route from the kitchen. Not that I had any reason to complain. There are certain dishes in life, well my life anyway, that I will always remember. This was one of those. The gnocchi were large and had been pan-fried or grilled so they had an amazing, slightly crispy texture on the outside, with soft meltingness within. The asparagus was chunkily sliced to give great contrast in texture to the potato dumplings and the judiciously used wild garlic elevated the seasoning to the highest height. Despite the richness of all the ingredients, each one tasted of themselves, which is rare. The sauce was so good I had to put a surreptitious finger around the bowl at the end to catch the last few droplets.
Too full for main courses, we opted for pudding. Lemon tart was beautifully zingy, not too sweet with very thin and deliciously short pastry. The crackled sugar glaze on the top was a thing I will definitely copy at home.
Ice cream was a little disappointing. The texture was creamy and smooth, but I felt the flavours could have been more pronounced. The chocolate was not as deeply rich and dense as I hoped for and the hazelnut was slightly bland. Some might say, why not choose a ‘proper’ dessert, but since we were in Mayfair rather than Milan, there is not a proliferation of gelato shops on each corner. More’s the pity.
Despite the fact that there are probably thousands of Italian restaurants in London, most are depressingly awful. The exceptions always stand out as the cooking goes so much further than below-par chianti, bland bolognese sauce and breadsticks in plastic packets. This is exceptional Italian cooking of the highest order in a corner of London where it is notoriously hard to find good food if you do not rate The Wolesley, which I don’t.