When the Italian restaurant brings you focaccia and a bowl of olive oil, do you groan inwardly? It has become a standard-issue "freebie", but the olive oil is standard issue itself all too often. At Café Murano, the oil is so good that I could quite happily drink it (from Planeta, it's grassy and refined).
…And we're off. It would be surprising if a restaurant connected with chef Angela Hartnett were anything other than good, but the fact that this is supposed to be a café, and casual, and all that, makes the level of attention to detail astonishing.
Murano itself, the grown-up Hartnett restaurant up the road, is Michelin-starred. In recent months, she has been involved in the launch of The Merchant Tavern over in Shoreditch and revamped the restaurant in Limewood hotel, Hampshire, as Hartnett Holder & Co. All are adored (as were her previous gigs, in association with one-time mentor Gordon Ramsay); and she is adored too, by staff and customers alike. In Café Murano's head chef Sam Williams, Hartnett now has a female protégée herself.
The word café in the title, though, is a misnomer; all marble-trimmed bar and butter-soft leather banquettes, you'd be disappointed if you came here for a take-out coffee or bacon roll. The lighting is delightful and the long, slim room has plenty of nooks for romantic evenings. The staff move as if on wheels, bringing treat after treat from behind the kitchen door, where Williams is cooking up traditional Lombardian dishes.
Can you tell that I am rather in love with this place? I think it's because I went with half a mind to find it lacking, the result of Hartnett spreading herself too thin, so to speak. So the seduction was all the more delicious
Talking of delicious: Mr M's sweet-and-sour sardine starter (£9.50) is a well-judged marriage of flavours, just right for intoxicating the taste buds. Golden raisins, soft, braised radicchio, a tart dressing and fresh, char-fringed fish make a delightful combination – a little reminiscent of Sicilian cuisine (a favourite of mine). Just as good is my warm octopus with chickpeas and pesto (£9.50). Unadvertised pine nuts add a mellow crunch to the triumphant melting-soft octopus. This is food that tantalises and warms all at once.
We need such warming food now winter's here. And what could define it more than risotto Milanese with osso buco? The one tiny hiccup in an otherwise flawless service is that our waiter mishears my order and brings me chicken Milanese, but it's swiftly removed and a glass of delicious Montepulciano softens the short delay (my first choice from a terrific Italian-heavy wine list, a Puglian Primitivo, is sold out already).
And it is a short delay – how chef managed to produce unctuous risotto at no notice is a mystery. (OK, it's not really, this is a top-flight restaurant, but I'm always in awe of something so many places get wrong; I still shudder at the thought of a champagne risotto at the – now closed – 5 Pollen Street.) It's in a rich puddle of meaty sauce, and three hunks of veal sit atop, surrounding a bone from which they have fallen with little resistance. The traditional saffron has been added with a light touch, as have butter and cheese so the result is rich but not claggy. Hartnett's fabled Italian grandma would, I feel sure, approve – it's a steal at £16.50.
Across the table, a plate (they are all plain white, the better to show off the food) of sausage stew with butternut and tomatoes (£15.50) looks smaller and less luxurious, but delivers an intensely savoury warmth.
We have been seduced by a menu that reads like a greatest hits of northern Italian favourites. Zoe, running the Turnbull & Asser-clad front of house with verve, suggests something light – a blood orange ice-cream, perhaps? Well, yes, why not… but perhaps also a tiramisu, just for a sense of completion?
Both are giddily lovely examples of their kind. Our greed is daft but so, too, is our post-dinner joy. And am I daft to rattle off an almost entirely uncritical review? I used to work 100 yards from Café Murano and it was impossible to find a wonderful plate of pasta anywhere. For that alone, it deserves our love.
Café Murano, 33 St James's Street, London SW1, Tel: 020 3371 5559. £100 for two, with wine
Four more of this week's foodie moments
I have to control my kitchen-kit addiction, but made an exception for a Netherton Foundry cast-iron pan. The whole range is sturdy and as sexy as cookware gets.
After a hospital appointment, I crave comfort food. Luckily mine was near Sapporitalia on London's Portobello Road, where the veal meatballs are very good indeed.
Have been dropping heavy hints at home about The Modern Pantry's new online store – a plethora of amazing ingredients and treats.
I don't care how much people get het up about sprouts, I could eat a supper of them stir-fried with pancetta and chestnuts and lots of black pepper at least twice a week.Reuse content