The Caponata opened in April on the site of the old Café Delancey, in the heart of trendy Camden. I remember the Café from years ago, mainly for the crepuscular gloom of its candlelit dining areas, regularly filled with whispering couples planning some act of colossal infidelity. At lunchtime, light would pour in like a blessing on to the heads of more innocent eaters, but the evenings were mostly devoted to spicy romance and low, urgent voices.
A major transformation has been wrought since I was here last. There are now two eating areas on two levels, and the architects have re-made the place like a Scandinavian glasshouse, a shrine to light, airiness and greenery. Over our heads a glass roof let in a dazzling late-November sun. Behind our table, a picture window allowed intimate views of neighbouring gardens and a workman painting someone's kitchen. Over the balcony we could inspect a wall of greenery in which dazzlingly colourful rows of ferns and Virginia creepers are arrayed like a Babylonian hanging garden.
The ground floor "Osteria" is laid out in minimalist-chic style, with grey plastic chairs and antiseptic décor, and offers wine and aperitivi snacks. It spills into a courtyard that it shares with the next-door arts venue The Forge, where live music plays every night. To my surprise, there was hardly a soul to be seen that lunchtime on either level, despite the offer of a three-course meal for a very reasonable £16. Where do all the Camden dwellers go for lunch, if not here?
The menu is heftily and authentically Sicilian, full of gutsy flavours, rootsy vegetables, robust sauces, mashes and creams. The antipasti feature rabbit terrine with carrots and courgettes, scamorza (smoked cheese) and spring onion in pastry, and tuna tartare with aubergine caviar and caper berries. You can practically taste Mount Etna rumbling away in the background. You half expect Caroline, the waitress, to make you an offer you can't refuse (but she is Polish, not Sicilian, and far too classy to deal in crap Mafia jokes).
My friend Amy's perfectly seared scallops sat on cushions of turnip mousse that were unexpectedly, and subtly, delicious (subtle turnip?) and given a kick by watercress pesto. My fettuccine with hare and fennel ragout didn't exactly assault the senses with gamey flavours, but slid down as top-quality comfort food. The presence of raw fennel slices gave the dish some crunch – and ushered in a brief anthropological discussion of The Raw and the Cooked, in homage to the late Claude Lévi-Strauss, that you probably don't often get in Italian restaurants.
Our attentive waitress shimmered back and forth to top up an excellent 2007 Nero D'Avola, brought fresh ice cubes for the water glasses (a thoughtful touch) and dished up the mains with a flourish. Amy pronounced her chargrilled calves' liver "perfectly soft and perfectly sliced – the secret is in the slicing". With its accompanying grape sauce (with sliced grapes) and cooked chestnuts (above a chestnut mash) this was a serious assault on the tastebuds. It was, she said, "imaginatively earthy". I would have loved to be able to corroborate her view, but I've had a childish and ungovernable hatred of liver since I was four, and still refuse to eat it under any circumstances.
My rack of lamb was a thing of gothic beauty, the nine-inch ribs sticking out like Wolverine's knuckle-daggers in X-Men. The lamb was pink but properly cooked and looked cute under a pecorino crust, as if it was wearing a new bonnet. Sadly, its bed of aubergine and tomato compote had collapsed some time before into a featureless and inedibly tepid mush and a fair percentage of the roasted rosemary potatoes were burnt, but a side-order of spinach saved the day.
Puddings were also a bit curate's egg. Amy had a sfogliata of ricotta and citrus cream with pistachio ice cream, in which the latter was wonderfully mint-and-chocolatey, and the former was a trial: cream cheese with marmalade-y bits, it was cloying and unpleasant, like eating citric putty. It didn't help that it came on thick, curly home-made biscuits. My intriguingly described "mango ravioli filled with saffron and orange, served with chocolate gelato" was visually gorgeous but a slight con: the ravioli were simply soft mango slices wrapped round orange jelly with a garnish of strawberry. The gelato was lovely, though, and the burst of nursery colours very pleasing (especially with a cold slug of Moscato pudding wine, apricot-coloured and honey-scented). It was a perfectly fine lunch with some moments of carelessness and I admired the chef's willingness to take bold risks with flavour combinations and visual display. It's time Camden Town woke up to this temple of sunlight and adventurous cooking in its midst.
Caponata, 3-7 Delancey Street, London NW1 (020-7387 5959)
About £100 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Camden classics
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