Cecconi's, Central London

Lunching ladies may have replaced the old guard at Cecconi's, but some things never change - the menu, for instance
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You can tell I haven't been getting out enough. Stumbling into the penumbral Cecconi's, London's hot spot of the week, the scene that greeted me reminded me more of Sex and the City than of real life. But then Cecconi's has little to do with real life as most of us know it.

You can tell I haven't been getting out enough. Stumbling into the penumbral Cecconi's, London's hot spot of the week, the scene that greeted me reminded me more of Sex and the City than of real life. But then Cecconi's has little to do with real life as most of us know it.

In the 1970s and 1980s it was drab, discreet and expensive enough to attract celebs of the day: well, Roger Moore, Nigel Lawson and the Queen Mother, anyway. Signor Cecconi has sold it to the man who owns Che in St James's, a restaurant more famous for cigars and cocktails than for food. He has brought over an award-winning bartender, who fiddles about setting light to orange peel, and, to give the food gravitas, brought in Giorgio Locatelli - the chef who makes fabulously simple, inventive, seasonal, Italian food look so easy at Zafferano.

In its early days, at least, the revived Cecconi's has replaced the dodderers of Old Bond Street with the totterers who teeter on their Manolo's from one new restaurant to the next. So many long-heralded glittering openings have been delayed this winter that there hasn't been much to totter to recently. I expected and found them out in force, and had come prepared: I'd rehearsed pronouncing "chequonies" so it tripped as easily off the tongue as the names of its neighbours Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren, and chosen my companions with care.

One of my guests had a cigar-smoking uncle Harold who had a regular table and standing order for calf's liver and spinach, back in the days when Cecconi's had been somewhere you could be sure the food would not be too foreign or too rustic. Outrageous prices for cooking that demanded little of the kitchen or the diner kept out gourmet tourists or anyone who'd look twice at the bill. Then it had ruched nets at the windows; now it has an ironic long white fringe to serve the same purpose. Ruched nets will probably be back in another five years.

Either of these will ensure that passing anthropologists can't see in to observe the bare-backed babes at the bar, silver-haired banker adorned by a date in a little black dress, the male style magazine editor with three men friends, and the Mr Big publisher (actually he was with me) among the throng on a wet night. Design is inevitably, and as beguilingly as always, by David Collins. Though Cecconi's could probably get away with rocket salad science for lunching ladies, it's several classes above that. Not in the rustic, faux-domestic direction Italian restaurants have taken of late, but back to traditional, northern, unashamed restaurant cooking.

Even so, the range of dishes has been chosen and cooked with such delicacy no one need fear for their health and well-being. Stay off the focaccia and olive oil and the thong-thin twists of grissini and a meal shouldn't undermine the efforts of a fitness instructor. John chose mackerel salad with pickled vegetables and though the under-rated oily fish could have done with a squirt of lemon, considered it just what the Harley Street cardiologist ordered. A salad of tender, translucent, grilled cuttlefish salad - unsightly suckery tentacles nowhere in evidence - was lovely if a little minimal.

Heartiest of the three starters was an aromatic, oil-rich tomato soup scattered with clams, with a sea-water fresh salty tang, and with petit pois-sized pasta bobbing underneath. "I wouldn't bend over and inhale it like that," John advised, as I did so appreciatively, "some people here might get the wrong idea."

A while after these had been cleared away, it looked as if no one had actually come here to eat. Neither we nor any of our neighbours had any food in front of us. According to a relaxed maitre d' there'd been a glitch in the computer ordering system, so the kitchen hadn't been getting its instructions.

Service didn't give the impression of being effortless. If a spoon is to be carried over on a tray by a second waiter after one has put a bowl of soup in front of you, every second counts between the moment you look irritably for cutlery and it arriving.

Our main courses revealed that we'd inadvertantly each ordered veal. To think I could have had John Dory with potatoes and green olives; tagliatelle with sweet-and-sour sardines Venetian style, or roast duckbreast with spelt (the grain that those who want to keep their gluten intake down prefer to wheat) and balsamic sauce.

Instead, I'd gone for the souvenir-seeker's label: Cecconi's cannelloni, in a green sauce of exceptional smoothness, over pasta wrapped around veal spiced with nutmeg was as great as a not-very-inspired choice can be. Ravioli, the pasta golden and fragrant with saffron, was filled with ossobuco. The meat filling (of veal shank) was just a little too paste-like. But a cotoletta alla Milanese was unimpeachable. An evenly coated slab of pink, proper veal, it was attached to a bone, like an edible axe. At £16.50 for the cutlet, plus another £3.50 for a plate of spinach, it brought a couldn't-be-simpler-or-better main course to £20. With a shared rhubarb millefeuille (alternately crisp, tart, creamy - heavenly) for £6.50 - it came to £44 each.

Claudia, who understands these things, countered Mr Big's "what's so special about Cecconi's?" with an explanation: "It's not especially imaginative but very good, reliable Italian food. It's smart, it's comfortable, it's off Bond Street." Meanwhile, in another scene reminiscent of the telly I've watched so much of recently, he seemed to be staring intently at me or his reflection in the window. "That's a nice car," he eventually admitted, longingly looking at the Ferrari parked outside.

Cecconi's may not set the pulse racing, but the food (at a price) is appealing enough to put it in danger of attracting some of those it once hoped to exclude. It could almost make me want to get out into the West End more often.

Cecconi's, 52 Burlington Gardens, London W1 (020 7434 1500) Mon-Sat lunch 12-3pm, dinner 7-11.30pm. All major cards accepted. Disabled access.

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