I think Angela Harnett is one of the most exciting and likeable chefs around and being half-Italian on her mother’s side – her maternal grandparents came from Emilia-Romagna – the Italian influence of her cooking has obvious appeal to this Italophile. Harnett trained with Gordon Ramsay and has worked at top restaurants like Aubergine and Petrus; she became chef-patron of London’s Connaught Hotel’s restaurant, MENU, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2004. Murano was opened in 2008 and won a Michelin star the following year; Cafe Murano, a more relaxed and informal affair, opened last year, in St James’s Street, just off Piccadilly. I’ve been wanting to go there since I heard about its opening and suggested to Annie that we give it a try and despite heavy rain and a Tube strike today, we were determined to make it to our booking. And we did!
Inside we were met in a friendly fashion with a nice welcome and our dripping coats and umbrellas taken. Then we were shown to our table. The interior design is sleek and sophisticated. This is no ‘cafe’ other than an informality that meant later on people came in for cocktails and cicheti at the bar and by the time we left, it was very busy and full. There were warm browns and creams; elegant lighting dimmed just enough to create a relaxed atmosphere but still enough light to read the menu and see what you were eating. We immediately decided we liked it and felt comfortable there.
There’s an excellent value pre-theatre menu at £18 for 2 courses and £22 for 3. But we decided to go a la carte. As always we were attracted to the same dishes so we just went with it. But first we were brought some focaccia and olive oil and we ordered a 50cl carafe of Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo (£13.95) – which was excellent. There was a wide selection of wine by the glass or in 50cl carafes which is always welcome. A 175ml glass isn’t always enough but sharing a whole bottle would have been too much for us.
The focaccia had more open texture and was less soft than some I’ve had but it was really good: a great flavour with sea salt and rosemary. The accompanying oil was delicious too; it’s a sign of a good restaurant I think when the oil served with the bread is good enough to make you note its flavour. For our starters, we both chose Charred Butternut Squash with Gorgonzola and Sunflower Seeds to begin (£9).
This was really delicious. The squash had been cooked with its skin still on but was beautifully tender and sweet; the Gorgonzola was rich and creamy and perfectly ripe. The combination worked well. The salad had a wonderful dressing and the toasted sunflower seeds added a nice extra sweet crunch of texture. It was a very good dish.
Next, we both chose Osso Buco with Risotto Milanese. This was unusually listed in Primi (rather than Secondi) and came in two sizes – £11.50 or £16.50 – and we ordered it as a main course. This is where my first – and only – disappointment came. My piece of veal was tiny – just a couple of mouthfuls – and it was very dry. Annie had a slightly larger piece of meat and said hers was tender, but really this shouldn’t happen. Osso Buco is something I’ve cooked a lot myself. The veal should be melt-in-the-mouth. And, as I said to Annie, what size piece of meat would I have been given if I’d ordered it as a starter! I wondered later if what they’d meant – as it was listed in Primi, thus usually risottos and pasta – was that it was essentially a Milanese risotto with some osso bucco dressing. But if so, they need to be clear. We’d ordered ‘Osso Buco, risotto Milanese’ expecting a good piece of veal shin accompanied by the risotto. £16.50 isn’t a lot to pay for this dish, but I would have happily paid a bit more for a proper portion of meat. The risotto was good but when your main course is a disappointment, the meal as a whole can never come up to scratch as it should.
We decided to share a dessert and chose panna cotta with rhubarb This was definitely back on track. The rhubarb was perfectly cooked and delicious and the panna cotta was fabulous: incredibly light and soft, obviously made with just enough gelatine to hold it together.
We finished with coffees which came with homemade cantucci. And we happily sat and talked on … until they politely reminded us we’d agreed to have the table for only 2 hours. We’d actually had it for over two and a half hours (but Annie and I are good at talking!) and they were so apologetic that we had to reassure them that it was perfectly OK. The service throughout was really good. The final bill was just over £87 for food and wine including tip for the two of us, which we thought was very good value for what we’d had and in this part of London.
I wanted to really love Cafe Murano and there are many things about it I like a lot: a great atmosphere, friendly and efficient service, reasonable prices and the food mostly great. But … that veal … it’s hard to forgive a main course that’s not good, or not good in part (the risotto was good). And for a restaurant of this quality, it’s not really acceptable. I’d like to go back and try it again but that tinge of disappointment means I’m not going to be rushing back.