Mennula, 10 Charlotte Street, London W1

It seems only the other day that the Caponata opened in Camden in celebration of gutsy Sicilian flavours. Now Mennula – Sicilian dialect for "almond" – comes to Charlotte Street on the site of the old Passione restaurant, and brings even more dense flavours of the Italian island to London's West End.

The chef/patron is Santino Busciglio, who grew up in Bolton, Lancashire, but returned to his native Agrigento, Sicily, at 16 and learnt to cook at the knee of his granny, the local baker. After that he worked in France and Belgium, before becoming head chef at Zafferano. A large and heartily welcoming man, he seems too large for the titchy Mennula, a cramped shoe-box of a restaurant, minimally designed in clinical white. A sparse, single branch on the wall is the only décor, except for a mirror which reflects the top of the light fittings. It's a bit like being in a private dentist's rooms in Wigmore Street.

The initial flurry of nibbles – arancini balls of rice and cream, smoked almonds and olives – was a treat, and the menu couldn't be more lip-smackingly appealing. From the antipasti of carpaccio, calamari and capesante, via the rich pasta dishes down to the lamb and venison main courses, the emphasis is on a profusion of flavours – saltcrust tuna with sweet and sour red onions, squid with potato sauce, roasted peppers and olive pâté, macaroni with brained lamb, mint and pecorino ... You imagine Busciglio surrounded by foodie consiglieri, spending hours of high-flown discourse to cram every dish with tastes.

My starter of seared scallops with lentils, baby spinach, chilli and almonds was a lesson in how to blend the crunchy and the al dente. The shellfish was properly seared rather than just shown a hot pan, and rode on a choppy sea of toothsome nuts, pulses and greenery. My date Angie's Sicilian aubergine salad featured "the most creamy mozzarella I've ever had". The aubergine itself was slightly undercooked and couldn't compete with the sweet touches of sultanas and sun-dried tomatoes.

Only a fool or a glutton takes seriously that Italian thing of having two courses before the main, but it was a freezing cold night, and I had a cold coming on, and it was miserable early January – so I had a wholly gratuitous bowl of broad bean soup with fennel, rosemary oil and crostino. It wasn't the zuppa di fagioli I'd hoped for, but a thick purée of beans with a hint of liquorice, nice but ... inoffensive. A hunk of crostino spread with an olive tapenade was dunked in it, and suited it well – without, it was perilously close to baby food.

I had no complaints about the rabbit wrapped in pancetta with aubergine sauce. I'm always trying to find a rabbit dish which will make the hapless bunny taste like game rather than chicken, but I'm mostly disappointed. This, however, was lovely. There was a gelatinous feel about the meat, a slithery quality, to evoke which I must reach for a word mysteriously loved by restaurant critics, "unctuous". The slow-cooked rabbit (first braised, then roasted) benefited no end from the thin-sliced and salty pancetta. An accompanying "spaghetti of carrots, pine-nuts, sultanas and cavolo nero" was an artful cat's cradle of sliced carrot and cabbage, nuts'n'raisins, but it tasted good. It was, however, served tepid – an affectation in Italian restaurants in London 20 years ago, which I thought had been dropped.

Angie had a main-course plateful of linguine with lobster, basil and tomato, in which the pasta was al dente, and the lobster as mysteriously light as a Communion host. I assumed it must have been cooked from frozen. No, no, they said, bridling at the suggestion – it was flown over from Canada and had turned up in the kitchen that very day, waving its claws and antennae with feeble menace.

The head chef almost wept as he revealed that the ewe's ricotta that was to have made the traditional Sicilian pudding of cannoli hadn't turned up. Stronzo! Such passion. Instead he urged on us the Sfinci doughnuts filled with cinnamon cream and honey and served with almond cream. They were fine but, essentially, sugar-covered doughnuts with ice cream. My tiramisu had been re-invented as a coffee cream poured across a tricorn-shaped lingue di gatto over an espresso custard. It was lovely, but I searched in vain for the all-important amaretto-soaked sponge.

By then we were stuffed to bursting and knocked out by an excellent Nero D'Avola for only £19. Mennula is the kind of the place where you feel the chef is personally devoted to surprising and pleasing each of his customers. Much care and intelligence has gone into planning a menu that combines granny's-recipe Italian dishes with clever new flavours. Not everything comes off as planned – but it won't just be the London-Sicilian foodie chapter that beats a path to Signor Busciglio's small but succulent eating-house in 2010.

Mennula, 10 Charlotte Street, London W1 (020-7636 2833)

Food 3 stars
Ambience 2 stars
Service 3 stars

About £110 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: Talking Italian

Il Forno

This is a little slice of Italy in Liverpool; try the amazing fish soup with prawns, scallops, monkfish, swordfish, clams and mussels.

Duke Street, Liverpool (0151 709 4002)

La Parmigiana

Medallions of venison with porcini and Italian sausage served on polenta is a typical dish at this 30-year-old Glasgow favourite.

447 Great Western Road, Glasgow (0141 334 0686)

Casamia

The inventive cuisine here includes dishes like wild wood pigeon with coffee and almonds – the tasting menu costs a reasonable £30.

38 High Street, Westbury-on-Trym (0117 959 2884)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy