Glass ceiling: Murano, London
Saturday 06 September 2008
There's something pleasingly head-girlish about Angela Hartnett: she radiates good sense, enterprise and unsinkability. She didn't become a kitchen slave in her teens, but took a history degree instead. She learnt home cooking from her Essex-Italian granny. It says much about her strength of character that she has worked for Gordon Ramsay since 1994, without ever being driven to plunge a Sabatier carver between his shoulder blades. When she opened her own restaurant, Angela Hartnett at the Connaught, six years ago, she picked up a Michelin star inside a year.
Murano, the newest outpost of Ramsay's empire, is a predominantly Italian testing-ground for her ambitions. She's told newspapers that she wants to win it a first Michelin star in January and more later. What's she doing to deserve them? I took my friend Rose Prince, the food writer, along to find out.
It's a discreet, muted-looking place in the heart of Mayfair. There's not much Murano glassware, but the room is lit by complicated spiky chandeliers, recessed spots and wall sconces, and slightly antiseptic-looking white tablecloths and the palest-green leather chairs. The waiters are a little pale too, as if they're sitting an exam on Being Perfect. They hovered and fretted and worried so much I was afraid I'd done something terrible.
From the start, we were bombarded with treats: a bonne-bouche of arancini, spheres of rolled-up risotto, both crunchy and creamy; a basket of bread with sundried tomatoes, oregano and cheese; a helping of Iberian ham. Ms Prince's beady eye settled disapprovingly on the risotto balls, which she thought pretentious, and the lack of black pepper on the ham; but she approved of the olive oil ("This is Manni oil, and costs £40 for 100ml") and the two-year-aged Parmesan. I realised I was in the presence of a real aficionado: a foodiva.
I passed on the scallops salad with roasted watermelon (which must be weirdly like eating roasted water) and ordered Cromer crab ravioli with celeriac purée and baby leeks. The single raviolo, crinkly as a section of brain, was generously stuffed with white crabmeat ("The brown stuff is too full-on for Mayfair," observed Rose) and nicely creamed with celeriac, although the leeks were too young, thin and silly to play much part. Rose's Swiss chard and ricotta tortelli in sage butter were, "Delicious, and nicely salty – the chard's seasonal right now, and this is a good, classic late-summer dish." From a wine list crammed with regional Italians, we chose an intense and leathery Nero d'Avola Zizola, served in a decanter that alarmingly resembled the bottles into which gentlemen pee in hospital beds.
The mains arrived with great ceremony. Rose had Cornish red mullet, which came with an almond sauce and white grape vinaigrette on a bed of crushed mint peas. "This is a very strong gamey fish, and the mint lifts it very well," said my guest. She wasn't impressed by my ordering Gressingham duck breast ("Gressingham ducks never swim!") but I'm a fool for duck. It came thinly sliced with mustard fruits (a mustard-oil chutney from north Italy, without much kick) and a layered potato cake, roasted in stock and meltingly tasty.
It was good, well-flavoured food – but we felt faintly disappointed. Was this what Ms Hartnett came up with, when given carte blanche to imagine and create? However classy the ingredients and subtle the vinaigrettes, we expected something more zingy, more original, more gasp-making. "It's not a courageous menu," said Rose severely. "It's strangely unadventurous for such a ballsy lady."
If the food wasn't quite four-star, the service tried a little too hard. Should a diner at Murano leave his or her place for a fag or loo-break, a waiter instantly squares up their chair and refolds their napkin – rather like those extras at the Oscar ceremony who leap into any vacated chair so that the auditorium never looks less than full. Meanwhile, a palate-cleanser came in the shape of eight mini-sorbets on a two-tier stand and were coldly delicious, especially the sage and pear combination. My frozen panna cotta with black cherry compote didn't make sense (why solidify a panna cotta into a coarse ice cream when its whole appeal is its innocent milkiness?), but Rose's zabaglione with figs infused in red wine was a warm, creamy dream of eggs, alcohol and fruit.
As the final bonnes-bouches appeared, and we were tempted to try the expensive Gaillac pudding wine, it seemed churlish to be anything but delighted by this very good meal. But when your expectations about the talented Ms Hartnett are stratospheric, you're not satisfied by the merely very good. Still, her granny would be impressed – especially by the ravioli and the zabaglione with figs.
Murano, 20-21 Queen Street, London W1
Around £180 for two, with wine
"A 12.5 per cent discretionary service charge is added to all bills. Gordon Ramsay restaurants operate a tronc [or kitty] system and the service charge is shared among the staff at the discretion of the tronc master, who is independent of the restaurant management"
By Madeleine Lim
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Claudio Pulze's new French brasserie features terrines, steak tartare, crème caramels and îles flottants; the Languedoc wines are excellent.
33 St James' St, London SW1 (020-7839 1007)
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5 Pall Mall East, London SW1 (020-7925 2402)
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