Cipriani, London W1

From one of the world's great trading cities, comes the export we've longed for: a British outpost of Harry's Bar. And, boy, has it been worth the wait
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The first time I ate at Harry's Bar in Venice, I made the booking three months in advance to be sure of getting a table at lunchtime. After a four-hour lunch, I walked outside, stepped back in and booked for dinner that night. That's how long it takes to turn yourself into a "regular" at a great restaurant.

The first time I ate at Harry's Bar in Venice, I made the booking three months in advance to be sure of getting a table at lunchtime. After a four-hour lunch, I walked outside, stepped back in and booked for dinner that night. That's how long it takes to turn yourself into a "regular" at a great restaurant.

Now, 23 years later, walking into Harry's Bar's newest global offshoot, Cipriani London, I am taken aback by how quickly I am taken back. Arrigo Cipriani himself is on the floor, as white-jacketed waiters cruise the 1930s Cunard ocean liner of a room. There are the same low, compact tables, the snug wooden bar chairs, the slightly more luxe padded chairs, the scaled-down cutlery, the gleaming wooden bar, the Murano chandelier - all life-size replicas of the originals. The menu, too, is as I remember it, running from a simple club sandwich to classics such as the baked tagliolini with ham and the iconic carpaccio, sliced raw beef with a mayonnaise dressing, first created by Arrigo's father Giuseppe in 1950. Even the barman looks the same. Omigod, it is Claudio. He is the same.

Signore Cipriani is 72 now, and probably gets rolled out with every new opening in Hong Kong, New York and Costa Smerelda, along with Claudio. Nevertheless, for a restaurant groupie such as myself, it is a thrill and privilege to watch one of the great restaurant legends of my lifetime at work. Immaculately groomed and quietly spoken, he does not stop moving the entire night, unless in conversation with a diner. He clears plates from tables himself, recommends wines, brings small glasses of frothy Bellini aperitifs, removes unwanted chairs.

Nothing happens by accident here, only by design. The warm breads and grissini arrive with just a hint of smoke (such a familiar domestic smell) from the scorched edges - an aroma duplicated throughout the evening with every bread basket.

Freshly baked, flaky brioche-like "snails" are brought separately. You could just eat the bread, have a small Murano glass of Bellini, and go home happy. But no, the food comes fast - because the kitchen is working at speed and because Italians like to see you fed.

At £8, a fava-bean soup is the cheapest thing on the menu, but also one of the richest, a bountiful bowl of single-minded lusciousness that tastes like fresh, sweet new season's broad beans eaten straight from the pod.

A seafood salad (£19) is too chilled to be great, but the crab, prawn and squid are bright and bouncy, with a subtle sweet flavour ready to be scooped up by the forkful.

The famous carpaccio, widely touted to be London's new must-have dish, is nice enough but a little bland, with a £22 price tag that is hard to justify.

By rights, pasta should be an interim course, but two of the three of us order it as a main course, not wishing to tangle with turbot, monkfish, veal chop or grilled rib eye. A lightly baked tagliolini pasta with shredded ham (£19) is the sort of creamy, cheesy gratinée I usually avoid, but this tastes more like spaghetti alla carbonara raised as high as it could possibly go.

Likewise, the silky flaps of tagliardi coated with a minced veal ragu (£19) is reminiscent of spag bol, but is so much more; fragrant, sweet and light, and calf's liver alla Veneziana (£25) is a million miles away from gastropub status. Served as a modest hillock of velvety soft liver shavings made sweet with tendrils of onion, it makes a fine friend for the Allegrini La Grola 2000 (£40) a full-bodied, intense red from the Veneto.

You can see the secret. Cipriani deals with childhood memory, emotion and comfort. The brain recognises familiar smells and flavours, the body relaxes, everybody is happy. The actual food is the antithesis of look-at-me-glamour, as if it would be rude to compete with the clientele. It is merely a collection of dishes most of us would most want to eat, cooked well enough for there to be no complaints, at prices few of us can afford.

At the end of the meal, according to Harry's Bar tradition, the waiters surround the table bearing whole cakes, again, identical to those in Harry's Bar. The rich layered chocolate cake (£11) proves impossible to resist. Suddenly, Signore Cipriani appears with a single scoop of equally chocolatey chocolate ice-cream on a saucer. "You must," he whispers. He is right.

London, it appears, has been gagging for Cipriani. The combined drawing power of old glamour (Arrigo) and new (partner Flavio Briatore) has seen stately older billionaires jostled by the brash, bare-breasted new. Witnessing the peak table turnover time of 9pm is like flipping from the annual report to Hello! magazine.

Above all, Cipriani makes me realise that dining in a celebrity chef-driven restaurant will never be as much fun as dining in a restaurateur's restaurant. This is a throwback to a more graceful and civilised time when the comfort of the customer came first.

By the time I return, Cipriani himself will be in New York, Venice or Uruguay, clearing plates, shaking hands, bringing chocolate ice-cream, like his father before him. I just hope I will still be able to feel his presence rather than his absence.

17 Cipriani London 25 Davies Street, London W1, tel: 020 7399 0500. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Around £155 for dinner for two including wine and service

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More restaurants with international connections

Spoon at Sanderson 50 Berners Street, London W1, tel: 020 7300 1444 Brainchild of forward-thinking chef Alain Ducasse, this smart, white Philippe Starck-designed sexpot of a restaurant is one of seven Spoons dotted around the world from Saint Tropez to Mauritius. The idea is to mix and match various ingredients to create your own meal, but don't do it, your head will hurt. Instead, go for the extraordinary egg and chorizo, or seared black cod with spicy couscous.

Wagamama Glasgow 97 West George Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 229 1468 What started as a gleam in Alan Yau's eye has grown into a network of 30 restaurants, including franchises in Sydney, Amsterdam, Dublin and Dubai. Wagamama Glasgow opened last December with more of the same; clean lines, communal tables, gyoza dumplings and Wagamama ramen (soup noodles with the lot).

Hard Rock Café Belfast Odyssey Pavilion 2, Queens Quay, Belfast, tel: 028 9076 6990 London may have given birth to the concept way back in 1971, but these days Hard Rock belongs to the world, with more than 100 locations in 36 countries. The three-year-old Belfast branch gives you a chance to see John Lennon's denim cap, the Edge's boots and John Mellencamp's Fender Telecaster. Stick to burgers and fries - you're not in a three-star.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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